All Freedom Ain’t Free | Slavery by Another Name

This week, I’ve been catching up on all the programs that I recorded this past Black History Month.  One of the programs was a documentary called Slavery by Another Name which aired on PBS.  This documentary was based off of a PulitzerPrize winning book by Douglas Blackmon in which he details how slavery continued in the southern United States following the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment all the way up until World War II through prison labor.  Click here to watch the documentary online.

The 13th Amendment was the amendment that freed the enslaved in the United States, but if one reads closely, it didn’t abolish utilizing prisoners as slave labor.

"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

The 13th Amendment
The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress.  Series 3. General Correspondence. 1837-1897. Congress, Wednesday, February 01, 1865 (Joint Resolution Submitting 13th Amendment to the States; signed by Abraham Lincoln and Congress).  Accessed via

African Americans across the south were arrested for petty or nonexistent crimes just so they could be hired out through the county or the state to business owners who made ridiculous profits.  This was often done during times of harvest so business owners could be ensured they’d have enough labor to tend to their crops.

"Convict Leasing - Initially, to save money on prison construction and later to actually generate revenue, Southern states and counties began leasing “convicts” to commercial enterprises. Within a few years states realized they could lease out their convicts to local planters or industrialists who would pay minimal rates for the workers and be responsible for their housing and feeding, thereby eliminating costs and increasing revenue. Soon, markets for convict laborers developed, with entrepreneurs buying and selling convict labor leases. From county courthouses and jails, men were leased to local plantations, lumber camps, factories and railroads. The convict lease system became highly profitable for the states."

Information obtained from, page 2

 I started thinking about the last time we went through criminal records while at the East Carroll Parish Courthouse in 2010.  I remembered seeing arrests for some of our ancestors which made me think “Maybe they were just a troublemaker?”  After watching the documentary, I figured I should revisit some of the information we found to see if it was possible for our ancestors to have experienced Slavery by Another Name.

Henry Atlas, son of William Steven Atlas, Sr., is noted more than once in The Banner Democrat newspaper and at least once on a US Census for being in jail or being arrested.

The Banner Democrat, October 28, 1893, Page 3
“The following cases have been disposed of by his honor Judge Montgomery at the present term of court: State of Louisiana vs. Henry Moore and Henry Atlas. Larceny; plead guilty and sentenced to the penitentiary for twelve months.”

Information from

The Banner Democrat, November 2, 1895, Page 3
“The following cases have been disposed of by his honor Judge Montgomery at the present term of court: State vs Henry Atlass, carrying concealed weapons. Twenty days in jail."

Information from

It’s very likely that Henry served his entire 12 month term, meaning that he got out of jail in October 1894.  This means that he was out of jail about a year before going back on another charge. 

One of the crimes listed for others in the November 2, 1895 paper include shooting craps which carried a fine $5.00 and court costs or a jail term of 15 days.  In 1895, $5 is equivalent to $129.27 in the year 2010.

The Banner Democrat, June 25, 1898, Page 3
“The following cases have been disposed of by his honor Judge Montgomery at the present term of court: State vs Henry Atlass, carrying concealed weapons. Plead guilty and fined $10 and costs or 30 days in jail."

Information from

Following his 20 day stint in late 1895, Henry appears to have averted jail for a period of a 18 months until he’s again convicted  of carrying concealed weapons.  This sentence carried a higher fine, which is approximately $258.54 in 2010.  It would have been extremely difficult to pay the equivalent of $200 in fines back then.  It would have just made more sense to serve the time instead or be forced to work the payment for the fine off if it was paid by a businessman, which was also risky.

"In many cases, defendants were found guilty of real or fabricated crimes and were fined for both the crime and additional court fees. When the men were unable to pay, a local businessman would step forward to pay the fines. The convict would then sign a contract agreeing to work for him without pay until the debt was paid off.  

A second method involved a defendant who, when faced with the likelihood of a conviction and the threat of being sent to a far-off work camp, would “confess judgment,” essentially claiming responsibility before any trial occurred. A local businessman would step forward to act as “surety,” vouching for the future good behavior of the defendant, and forfeiting a bond that would pay for the crime. The judge would accept the bond, without ever rendering a verdict on the crime. The defendant would then sign a contract agreeing to work without pay until the surety bond was paid off."

Information obtained from, page 3

1900 US Census, District 40, Ward 3, East Carroll Parish, LA, Line 13
Henry Atlas, prisoner, born May 1877, age 23, single, born in Louisiana, both parents born in Louisiana, retained for larceny, able to read and write. 

Source Citation:  Year: 1900; Census Place:  Ward 3 East Carroll Louisiana; Roll:  564; Page:  5A; Enumeration District:  40; FHL microfilm:  1240564.

By the time Henry was 23 years old, he had been in jail at least 4 times.  It’s possible that he did commit the crimes to be put there, but it’s also highly possible that he did not.  Jim Crow was alive and well in Northeastern Louisiana  and Henry’s imprisonment could have been one of those that fueled the cheap labor economy in the area.  In fact, if you visit places in the southern US today you will still see prisoners as contracted labor.

Documenting stories like Henry’s are important.  Why?  Because even I, as a researcher, made an assumption about why an ancestor like Henry was in trouble and truth be told, I was probably wrong considering what was going on at the time.  Every person in a family is valuable enough to be documented, even those that are considered bad seeds.  If we don’t document them, we’re cutting off a branch of our tree and not being truthful about the family histories that we have been called to document. We might pass judgment now, but how do we know a future family historian won’t come along and stumble upon information that could clear the name of our bad seeds?  Something to think about.


Anonymous said…
I'm surprised no one commented on this. Thank you for posting about this, a little known fact that slavery is alive, well, and considered "legal" in the US today; that a group that (supposedly) makes up less than a quarter of the population soon became the majority imprisoned - a fact that is mathematically impossible - and forced to perform slave labor that includes mostly manufacturing jobs, factory lines, and manual labor such as building roads, etc.

In fact, most of the roads and interstate railroads were built using this slave labor from prisons.

It is a fact that gains little attention from Americans, as we're told to be so grateful for being born in a country in which our people are enslaved behind prison walls, where it is considered perfectly legitimate.

My spouse is African and my spouse's country does not see this sort of enslavement (at all) or mass imprisonment. He is grateful not to be from the US.

The movie Life was about this same topic, btw. Too bad it was meant to be comical. In the end, as usual, the two characters saw no justice for their unlawful imprisonment and enslavement...nor did they seem justice themselves.

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