THE COLORED CONVENTIONS AND THE CARCERAL STATES

IMPRISONED CHILDREN

 

“Juvenile convicts at work in the fields.” ca. 1903. Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection, Library of Congress.

In every state in the US, children can be tried as adults, and, according to the Equal Justice Initiative, “the United States is the only country in the world that sentences children to die in prison.” [1] Children of color disproportionately make up a large number of incarcerated minors. Without a doubt, biases against children of color play a role in increasing this number. In their groundbreaking studyGirlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood by Rebecca Epstein, Jamilia J. Blake, and Thalía Gonzalez, found that African American children are much more likely to be perceived as older and more culpable than their white peers. [2] The punitive measures used today against children of color tend to be harsher and are less likely to be provided with support and protection.  Epstein, Blake, and Gonzalez particularly focus on the disenfranchisement of Black girls, who are “adultified” more than any other demographic. Although this may seem surprising, this misconception is well established in American society and institutions.

Epstein, Blake, and Gonzalez’s findings show the lasting legacy of the long practice of “adultifying” and incarcerating children of color. This section explores the nineteenth-century incarceration of African American boys and girls, whose childhood and entitlement to protection were consistently denied. Specifically, this section focuses on Georgia’s prison system, which was notorious for brutalizing vulnerable African American groups. Looking at the number of Black children in prison farms and chain gangs allows us to understand why the modern-day problem of child incarceration persists. It also reveals the forefront role of the justice system in the erasure and expulsion of children of color. Author of City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965, Kelly Lytle Hernández, expertly argued that “Incarceration operates as a means of purging…and eliminating targeted populations from land, life, and society in the United States.” [3] This section adds to Hernández’s assertion by showing that children were within the callous and brutal purview of this process of elimination.

“Juvenile convicts at work in the fields.” ca. 1903. Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection, Library of Congress.

 

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Family group sitting in front of a wooden shack.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 187-.

Vagrancy laws targeted Black men, women, and children; assailing the Black family unit on all sides. Unemployment among African Americans was criminalized, and many Southern states economically handicapped African Americans by explicitly restricting them to menial and domestic labor. White employers’ refusal to let African Americans have gainful employment led to many arrests on the charge of idleness—being jobless. Once convicted of idleness or vagrancy, a person could spend years in prison farms or chain gangs. For many, their childhood and entry into adulthood were spent in bondage. As Laura Briggs noted, “just as slavery had formed a sort of child welfare system, so too did the chain gang. Under such system, black children need not be adopted—they could work.” [4] Indeed, the “adultification” of African American children can be traced more than a century before Epstein, Blake, and Gonzalez’s study.

“[Two African American children feeding chickens in a yard in Georgia].” Photo collected by W.E.B. Du Bois and Thomas J. Calloway for the “American Negro Exhibit,” ca. 1899. Library of Congress.

In Georgia, prisons were notorious for the subhuman treatment that African Americans endured. As former confederate officials regained control of state governments, they initiated a system of governance characterized by racial terror and forced subjugation. The convict lease system in Georgia began in 1868. Facing unrelenting opposition, it was abolished, only to be replaced by the chain gang system in 1908. Both relied on torture, terror, and sexual violence to exploit laboring Black bodies. Especially vulnerable were African American girls who were thrown into prison farms. As Sarah Haley noted in No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow, the systemic rape in these prisons are extremely difficult to uncover, but the few records that do exist speak of the horrors both women and girls endured while imprisoned. [5]

The crime of crimes, or, The convict system unmasked by Clarissa Olds Keeler. Courtesy of Hathi Trust.

In prison, African American children were brutally punished and, at times, tortured for no reason. In her 1907 book The Crime of Crimes, Clarissa Old Keelers sought to expose the horrors of the convict system by documenting newspaper reports. Keelers scathingly criticized “crime hunters” for their “trumped up charges” that preyed on African American children [6]. Keelers revealed the sexualized violence inflicted upon Black girls, as they were routinely undressed, forced into humiliating positions, and flogged. Such needless punishments were gendered in many ways, as they were seen not as children but full-grown Black women undeserving of protection. African American girls suffered the consequences of the thorough vilification Black womanhood, which endures today as educational and correction institutions show clear bias when it comes to punishing African American girls. Epstein, Blake, and Gonzalez wrote, “the differential treatment of Black girls extends beyond the classroom and into the juvenile justice system… And from arrests to prosecutions, Black girls face more punitive treatment compared to their peers.” [7]

In nineteenth-century Georgia, it was extremely rare for a judge to pardon or grant clemency to imprisoned African Americans. In many cases, imprisoned girls and boys were sent home to die after being tortured. White prisoners seeking pardon, on the other hand, not only enjoyed favorable coverage in newspapers, they were also much more likely to be pardoned. The vestiges of such practice persist, as African American girls today are 20 percent less likely than white girls to be formally pardoned in juvenile courts. [8]

 

While it may never be possible to completely account for the number of African American children imprisoned in Georgia, we can begin to grasp the callous violence of Georgia’s defective prison system—whose practices certainly inform that of today’s—by looking at their records. It is important to note that children were born in prisons as products of rape by white guards; in seeking to hide their crimes and negligence, guards, wardens, and other officials detracted illegitimate births in their records.

Below is a page of Chatham County’s census record from 1900. Highlighted in red are the names of imprisoned African American children under 18 years of age. Children under 13 years old are highlighted in a darker shade.

 

Courtesy of the US Federal Census via Ancestry.com

Number 60 from the same record book is a 14-year-old girl named Minnie Slater. While it is unknown when Minnie Slater was released, records show that she was newly married, living in a boarding house in New York City, and working as a cook in 1910. [10] Perhaps, after having endured violence while imprisoned, Minnie no longer saw hope for progress in Georgia and immediately took her chances in New York.  Whatever new start she was able to carve out, she would have had to carry the trauma and memories of brutalities.

References

1. “Children in Prisons.” Retrieved from https://eji.org/children-prison.

2. Rebecca Epstein, Jamilia J. Blake, and Thalía Gonzalez. Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood. Retrieved from http://www.law.georgetown.edu/academics/centers-institutes/poverty-inequality/upload/girlhood-interrupted.pdf

3. Kelly Lytle Hernández. City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 1.

4. Laura Briggs, Somebody’s Children: The Politics of Transnational and Transracial Adoption. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 52.

5. Sarah Haley. No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow. (Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 104.

6. Clarissa Olds Keelers. The Crime of Crimes, Or, The Convict System Unmasked. (Pentecostal Era Company, 1907), 16.

7. Epstein et al., 12.

8. Ibid.

9. Year: 1910; Census Place: Manhattan Ward 16, New York, New York; Roll: T624_1034; Page: 6A; Enumeration District: 0838; FHL microfilm: 1375047.