By Stacy M. Brown
NNPA Senior National
The racial makeup of prison populations in America changed almost overnight after the Civil War, a new report has revealed.
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.
“More than 150 years ago, a prison complex known as the Lone Rock stockade operated at one of the biggest coal mines in Tennessee,” researchers for a joint study issued by Reveal at the Center for Investigative Reporting and Associated Press.
“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,” reporters Margie Mason and Robin McDowell concluded.
The organizations spent months unearthing this history, focusing on Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad, which ran the stockage and coal mine, and the company that later bought it, U.S. Steel.
They reported finding an ancestor to an individual imprisoned in the Lone Rock stockade nearly 140 years ago.
The researchers said they also interviewed the descendent of a man who struck it rich from his role in pioneering Tennessee’s convict leasing system.
“After the war, a new form of slavery took hold in the U.S. and lasted more than 60 years,” the authors noted in a podcast.
The research team reported that at the state park that sits on the former site of the Lone Rock stockade, relics from the hellish prison are buried beneath the soil.
Archeologist Camille Westmont discovered “thousands of artifacts, such as utensils and the plates prisoners ate off.”
She has also created a database listing the names of those sent to Lone Rock.
A team of volunteers assisted, including a woman reckoning with her own ancestor’s involvement in this corrupt system and the wealth her family benefited from, the researchers noted.
They said the United States Steel Corporation helped build bridges, railroads and towering skyscrapers across America.
But the company also relied on forced prison labor, the researchers asserted.
After U.S. Steel took over Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad in 1907, the industrial giant used prison labor for at least five years.
During that time, more than 100 men died while working in their massive coal mining operation in Alabama.
U.S. Steel has misrepresented this dark chapter of its history.
“And it has never apologized for its use of forced labor, or the lives lost,” they stated.
The reporters concluded that they pushed the company to “answer questions about its past and engage with communities near the former mines.”