Mary Turner: Pregnant Casualty of “Convict Leasing”

Throughout time the enslavement of Africans in the United States went under various different names from “slavery” to “convict leasing” to “debt peonage” to “chain gangs” to “sharecropping” and now, “privatized prison labor” as a part of the Prison Industrial Complex.  

Many erroneously link the end of enslavement to December 6, 1865 with the passage of the 13th amendment to the constitution, “by 1875 Democratic legislatures were back in control and immediately set out to resolve what they considered to be two key problems: a shortage of labor, and the need to restore white supremacy.” “Leasing Act.”, a free forced neo-slave labor intended to re-enslave so-called “emancipated” Africans.

Selective Enforcement: “Since whites were usually only charged and convicted for the most serious of crimes, their sentences entitled them to the relative safety of the state penitentiary[…]” entirely removing them from the convict leasing system as this renamed and rebranded phase of chattel enslavement was referred to. Africans “convicted” of the most serious of crimes on the other hand “were being whipped and murdered for offenses more imagined than real. A suspected horse thief was beheaded, skinned, and nailed to the barn.

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Other Laws that were enforced:

1. That a “farm worker” could not walk along railroad tracks.

2. Black people could not speak loudly in the presence of white women.

3. A “farm worker” could not sell produce after dark.

4. Black people were not allowed to spit in public.

5. Black people were not allowed to be drunk in public.

6. Black people were not allowed to be in public unless they could produce proof of gainful employment (the insidious vagrancy/loitering laws).

7. Black people were charged with a felony for stealing a fence board of a value of 0.08.

8. Black people were not allow to play dice (sold to them by the whites).

9. Black people were not allowed to argue in public.

10. Black people were not allowed to be uppity or insolent towards their erstwhile white enslavers.

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Convict Leasing was an elaborate social system of racial subordination which had previously been assured by the practice of slavery. That is, the lease system was a component of that larger web of law and custom which effectively insured the South’s racial hierarchy.

It took the care and expense of thousands of prisoners out of the direct purview of the state, it provided a large pool of extremely cheap labor, it permitted the easy exploitation of natural resources, and it helped attract northern capital with which business leaders in the postbellum South were so obsessed.

So convict leasing was not just an expedient by which Southern states with depleted treasuries could avoid costly expenditures; it was also one of the greatest single sources of personal wealth to some  of the South’s leading businessmen and politicians.

On February 25, 1876, a new law was adopted which provided that convicts be leased to one or more corporations for a period of not less than twenty years. As if to underscore their intent, the lawmakers included a provision repealing the ten-hour maximum workday.

Leasing is one significant mode by which the South sought to perpetuate racial subordination. Even its customs harked back to earlier days: for example, the classification of convicts in Alabama and Texas on the basis of their anticipated labor value as “full,” “medium,” or “dead” hands, just as slaves had been categorized.

It represents one desperate attempt of a caste society to maintain its social structure after it had been defeated in a war fought, at least in part, over just that issue; and yet the men who leased convicts were the businessmen  and New South advocates who were most interested in putting that old society behind them, who wanted to replace the plantation with the factory. Like the good businessmen they were, they placed an overruling emphasis on productivity.

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The Story of Mary Turner’s Lynching

On 16 May 1918 in the evening, a white plantation owner by the name of Hampton Smith, a 31-year old who was known for his harsh and abusive nature with regard to his Black workers, was shot dead by a 19-year old Black man by the name of Sidney Johnson. Smith was notorious as an especially cruel boss, which made it difficult for him to recruit workers on his plantation named Old Joyce Place. Therefore, in order to procure labor, Smith used convict labor under the well-established convict leasing system.

As such, Smith paid the $30 fine levied against Sidney Johnson, who had been convicted of rolling dice, and conscripted him into forced labor on the Old Joyce Place plantation. After suffering several severe beatings from Smith including an especially tortuous beating after he refused to work while ill, Johnson resolved his issues with Smith by taking justice into his own hands and shooting him. Cruel Hampton Smith also had an association with Hayes and Mary Turner. Indeed, Hayes too had been charged and convicted of threatening Smith after Smith mercilessly beat his wife, Mary. Smith’s death resulted in a solid week of criminal-minded and bloodthirsty murderous whites hunting down and killing any Black person they could find despite the fact that the actual killer of Smith was known. At the end of the ruthless and senseless carnage, 13 people were killed.

Hayes Turner was among those murdered by lynching having been illegally yanked from custody by the savage white lynch mob following his arrest on 18 May 1918. In distress and anger, Hayes Turner’s eight-month pregnant wife, Mary Turner publicly swore that her husband had nothing to do with Hampton Smith’s killing at the hands of Sidney Johnson. Further, she spoke publicly against the vile and gruesome murder of her husband. She threatened to have all those who she could identify from the barbaric mob arrested and brought to justice.

The despicable white men and women of the heartless mob then set out to capture her and “teach her a lesson.” Despite her attempts to flee once she became aware of the heartless mob’s plans, she was captured around noon on 19 May 1918. Several hundred white men, women and children forced Mary Turner to Folsom Bridge crossing at Little River which marked the county boundary. The heinous mob then set about its fiendish work of tying her ankles, hanging her upside down from a nearby tree, dousing her in gasoline and motor oil and then setting her on fire while still alive. Still in the throes of pain in the blazing flames, a prototypically sinister white man stepped out of the mob and slashed her abdomen open with a knife causing her still-alive baby to fall to the ground. The baby was able to manage but a single cry before her little head was crushed under a white man’s filthy boot.

Finally, reminiscent of recent cases of Sean Bell and Amadou Diallo, Mary Turner’s body was pierced relentlessly with hundreds upon hundreds of bullets until the form of a human body was barely recognizable. Mary Turner’s lifeless corpse was then buried beneath the tree, with nothing but a whiskey bottle from the drunken revelry to mark her grave and that of the baby who never got an opportunity to live due to the abhorrent, dreadful and despicable actions of the savage and barbaric white mob.

 

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Sources:

Kambom, Ọbádélé , Legacies and the Impact of TransAtlantic Enslavement on the Diaspora, obkambon@ug.edu.gh, Research Fellow, Language, Literature and Drama Section, Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, The Journal of Pan African Studies, Nol. 8, No. 7, October 2015, Legon, http://www.jpanafrican.org/docs/vol8no7/8.7-5-Obadele.pdf

 

Mancini, Matthew J., Race, Economics, and the Abandonment of Convict Leasing, The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 63, No. 4, October 1978, pp. 339-352, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2716851

 

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