Discover more from From Streets to Scholarship by Terence Lester
From Juneteenth to Convict Leasing
Why we need to abolish all slavery
When I think about Juneteenth, I have mixed emotions. Firstly, I contemplate the number of years it took me to discover this significant part of history, which unfortunately was absent from my K-12 education and remained unknown to many in the black community.
But that’s what misinformation does—it keeps minds captive so that further exploitation can happen unchecked.
Secondly, I think of the irony and paradox we find ourselves in, where there have been book bans happening around the country, like in Florida, Texas, South Carolina, Utah, and Missouri,where information like this is not allowed to be taught in school.
It is a stark irony that those in Galveston, Texas, didn't know they were free for over two years, waiting for this liberatory information.
In modern times, many students and educators find themselves in the same waiting, wanting to share this information with students who are also unaware of this history.
It is also critical to note that all forms of slavery have not been fully abolished.
When we examine Mass Incarceration in-depth, covered by Michelle Alexander and Michelle Alexanderand Ava DuVernay, we can see forms of oppression still happening because of Convict Leasing, which uses the labor of prisoners in the same ways it was used before the emancipation of those who were liberated.
Following Juneteenth in 1865, it took two and a half years to ratify the 13th Amendment in 1868, which prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude but left a dangerous loophole allowing for the enslavement of prisoners.
The 13th Amendment's loophole resulted in the establishment of "black codes" and "convict leasing" during the Reconstruction era in the United States (1865-1877) following the Civil War. These practices allowed for the utilization of slavery as a form of punishment for crimes, leading to the exploitation of prisoners, including children, who were subjected to forced labor without fair compensation.
These codes aimed to prosecute black individuals for minor offenses like curfew violations and loitering, with the intention of restricting the rights and freedoms of newly freed African Americans.
This led Ida B. Wells, in "The Reason why the colored American is not in the World's Columbian Exposition," published in 1893, to state: "The Convict Lease System and Lynch Law are twin infamies which flourish hand in hand in many of the United States. They are the two great outgrowths and results of the class legislation under which our people suffer today."
Wells (1893) goes on to note,
"The People's Advocate, a Negro journal, of Atlanta, Georgia, has the following observation on the prison showing of that state for 1892: 'It is an astounding fact that 90 percent of the state's convicts are colored; 194 white males and 2 white females; 1,710 colored males and 44 colored females. Is it possible that Georgia is so color prejudiced that she won't convict her white law-breakers? Yes, it is so, but we hope for a better day.'"
This loophole satisfied Southern farmers who were upset after the abolition of slavery.
The 13th Amendment reads this way:
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 dangerous loophole in the 13th Amendment still allows prisoners to be enslaved even to this day and to work without pay in various public and private prisons.
As I reflect on Juneteenth, it serves as a reminder of the ongoing fight for equality and equity and the urgent need to address the systemic issues surrounding the 13th Amendment's exception and how it is still impacting Black people today who find themselves a part of the prison system and prison-industrial complex.
In my opinion, this loophole must be closed to abolish slavery because until then, we celebrate Juneteenth only as a Federal Holiday and not as a fully liberated experience.
“2023 Banned Books Update: Banned in the USA.” PEN America, May 15, 2023. https://pen.org/report/banned-in-the-usa-state-laws-supercharge-book-suppression-in-schools/.
Michelle Alexander’’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
Ava DuVernay’s racial inequality documentary The 13th
“The Economic Oppression of Blacks in Florida.” Dunn History. Accessed June 19, 2023. https://dunnhistory.com/he-economic-oppression-of-blacks-in-florida/.
Taken from the third chapter of "The Reason why the colored American is not in the World's Columbian Exposition," published in 1893
“13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Abolition of Slavery (1865).” National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed June 19, 2023. https://www.archives.gov/milestone-documents/13th-amendment#:~:text=The%2013th%20Amendment%20to%20the%20United%20States%20Constitution%20provides%20that,place%20subject%20to%20their%20jurisdiction.%22.