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Locked Up: The prison labor that built business empires

Photograph shows two white men overseeing African American men hammering boulders as others walk with wheelbarrows in a shallow pit phosphate mine, Dunnellon, Florida, 1890. (Library of Congress via AP)
© Provided by Photograph shows two white men overseeing African American men hammering boulders as others walk with wheelbarrows in a shallow pit phosphate mine, Dunnellon, Florida, 1890. (Library of Congress via AP)

More than 150 years ago, a prison complex known as the Lone Rock stockade operated at one of the biggest coal mines in Tennessee.

It was powered largely by African American men who had been arrested for minor offenses — like stealing a hog — if they committed any crime at all. Women and children, some as young as 12, were sent there as well.

The work, dangerous and sometimes deadly, was their punishment.

Men convicted of a crime and leased to harvest timber in Florida, 1915. (Library of Congress via AP)
© Provided by Associated Press Men convicted of a crime and leased to harvest timber in Florida, 1915. (Library of Congress via AP)

The state was leasing these prisoners out to private companies for a fee, in a practice known all across the South as convict leasing. In states like Texas, Florida, Georgia and Alabama , prisoners were also used to help build railroads, cut timber, make bricks, pick cotton and grow sugar on plantations.

An undated old photograph of the Lone Rock Stockade is shown, May, 28, 2022, in Tracy City, Tenn. The Lone Rock stockage operated for more than 25 years and used prison labor known as convict leasing. The prisoners lived in cramped, unsanitary conditions and risked their lives every day in the iron-making process. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
© Provided by Associated Press An undated old photograph of the Lone Rock Stockade is shown, May, 28, 2022, in Tracy City, Tenn. The Lone Rock stockage operated for more than 25 years and used prison labor known as convict leasing. The prisoners lived in cramped, unsanitary conditions and risked their lives every day in the iron-making process. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

In a joint investigation, reporters from the Associated Press and Reveal at the Center for Investigative Reporting spent months unearthing this history. They focused on Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad, which ran the stockade and coal mine, and the company that later bought it, U.S. Steel.

FILE - Steel workers storm the Carnegie Steel Company during the Homestead Strike of 1892 in Homestead, PA. The dispute between the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Works and the steel company was one of the deadliest labor disputes in U.S. history resulting in the death of 10 men. (AP Photo, File)
© Provided by Associated Press FILE – Steel workers storm the Carnegie Steel Company during the Homestead Strike of 1892 in Homestead, PA. The dispute between the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Works and the steel company was one of the deadliest labor disputes in U.S. history resulting in the death of 10 men. (AP Photo, File)

The team found someone living today whose ancestor was imprisoned in the Lone Rock stockade nearly 140 years ago. They also interviewed the descendent of a man who got rich from his role in pioneering Tennessee’s convict leasing system.

Photograph shows two white men overseeing African American men hammering boulders as others walk with wheelbarrows in a shallow pit phosphate mine, Dunnellon, Florida, 1890. (Library of Congress via AP)
© Provided by Associated Press Photograph shows two white men overseeing African American men hammering boulders as others walk with wheelbarrows in a shallow pit phosphate mine, Dunnellon, Florida, 1890. (Library of Congress via AP)

The reporters also heard from U.S. Steel. For the first time, it said it was willing to discuss its past with members of the affected community.

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WHAT IS CONVICT LEASING?

Convict leasing was essentially a new form of slavery that started after the Civil War and went on for decades across the South. States — and companies — got rich by arresting mostly Black men and then forcing them to work for major companies.

FILE - J.P. Morgan, noted financier, who is rarely photographed, is pictured arriving at his office in London, Oct. 1932. (AP Photo, File)
© Provided by Associated Press FILE – J.P. Morgan, noted financier, who is rarely photographed, is pictured arriving at his office in London, Oct. 1932. (AP Photo, File)

The 13th Amendment, passed after the Civil War, banned slavery and involuntary servitude. But it made an exception for people convicted of a crime, offering legal cover for convict leasing.

Tennessee and many other states adopted similar language in their constitutions that still exists today.

WHAT WAS THE THE LONE ROCK STOCKADE?

The Lone Rock stockage operated in Tracy City, Tennessee for more than 25 years. The prisoners lived in cramped, unsanitary conditions. Built to hold 200 people at a time, the prison sometimes held 600.

The men risked their lives every day above ground too, manning fiery, dome-shaped coke ovens used in the iron-making process.

They were helping Tennessee, Coal, Iron and Railroad get rich. The company was an economic powerhouse, later bought by the world’s biggest company at the time: U.S. Steel Corporation.

HOW DID THE PRISON POPULATION CHANGE AFTER EMANCIPATION?

The racial makeup of prison populations changed almost overnight after the Civil War. In Tennessee, during slavery less than 5 percent of the prisoners were Black. In 1866, after emancipation, that number jumped to 52 percent. And by 1891 it had skyrocketed to 75 percent.

FILE - Andrew Carnegie, founder of the Carnegie Steel Company, in his study in New York. (AP Photo, File)
© Provided by Associated Press FILE – Andrew Carnegie, founder of the Carnegie Steel Company, in his study in New York. (AP Photo, File)

WHAT ARE BLACK CODES?

Black codes are laws passed by states that targeted African Americans for minor crimes such as vagrancy, jumping a ride on a train car or not having proof of employment.

In Tennessee, people were sentenced up to five years of hard labor in the coal mine for having interracial relationships.

WHAT DOES U.S. STEEL SAY NOW ABOUT THEIR USE OF CONVICT LEASING?

FILE - Andrew Carnegie, shown in the center, in front of Rays Hill Tunnel in 1885 which was being dug in Pennsylvania for a railroad he and others were building along the route the Pennsylvania Turnpike now follows. (AP Photo, File)
© Provided by Associated Press FILE – Andrew Carnegie, shown in the center, in front of Rays Hill Tunnel in 1885 which was being dug in Pennsylvania for a railroad he and others were building along the route the Pennsylvania Turnpike now follows. (AP Photo, File)

The United States Steel Corporation, also known as U.S. Steel, was founded by American business giants, which included J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie. It has operations in the U.S. and Central Europe, and remains a leading steel producer.

The company used convict labor for at least five years in Alabama in the early 1900s, but has never spoken openly about this dark chapter of its history. It has misrepresented its use of prison labor and has not acknowledged the men who died in its mines.

After being contacted by the AP and Reveal reporters, the company agreed for the first time to sit down and talk with members of the affected community. U.S. Steel also confirmed it owns a cemetery located at the site of its former coal mine: “U. S. Steel does not condone the practices of a century ago,” it said in a statement. “Given the amount of time that has lapsed, we, unfortunately, do not have comprehensive records relative to this situation.”

“We would be pleased to consider a memorial plaque should members of the affected community express an interest. We would also be happy to meet with them and discuss these topics.”

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This story was supported by Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights in conjunction with the Arnold Foundation.

 

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EYES ON TRAFFICKING

This “Eyes on Trafficking” story is reprinted from its original online location.

ABOUT PBJ LEARNING

PBJ Learning is a leading provider of online human trafficking training, focusing on awareness and prevention education. Their interactive Human Trafficking Essentials online course is used worldwide to educate professionals and individuals how to recognize human trafficking and how to respond to potential victims. Learn on any web browser (even your mobile phone) at any time.

More stories like this can be found in your PBJ Learning Knowledge Vault.