Like slavery, convict leasing had multiple dimensions that were particularly hard on black women. Particularly hard does not satisfactorily capture the misery suffered by black women prisoners, but I don’t have the words to better describe her narrative. Women prisoners worked in the traditional jobs such as washer women and seamstresses but were often worked beside men in the heaviest tasks assigned-mining iron ore and coal, harvesting cotton and laying track for railroads.
Talitha L. LeFlouria’s book “Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South” reviews convict leasing as a condition but focus’ on the lesser known story of the experience of black women prisoners. The dangerous work and filthy living conditions. The lack of medical treatment and high death rates and savage beatings were experienced by men and women in equal measure, but women (and children prisoners) were sexually exploited, sometimes by men prisoners but much more often by the white supervising guards.
The beatings (and other forms of punishment) and rapes were purposefully designed to humiliate as they were used to reestablished the old social order of white supremacy. The beatings involved the use of a thick strap that could be employed as many as 60 or 70 times on bare skin. The attitude of one owner of a Dade, County Georgia coal mine is illustrative of the prevailing opinion as regards to discipline of prisoners, “you have no other alternative but the strap. As there is no other way to enforce discipline with more humanity, you are obliged, when the necessity arises, to do so by whipping.”
“Chained in Silence…” details the horror that black women suffered from the constant sexual violence and the offspring that sometimes resulted from these attacks. LeFlouria skillfully presents the personal stories of black women prisoners as they found ways to resist and compromise their condition as well as the enduring psychological trauma that resulted from the exploitation. In my next edition, I will present the authors attempt to place the incidence of sexual exploitation within the context of todays scientific perspective of history, memory and survival.