Convict Lease Wars

From 1866 to 1896 Tennessee state government adopted the widely used convict lease system to make prisons self-supporting and provide revenue to fund the state debt. Under this system, the state leased prisoners to private companies and made them responsible for feeding and housing the convicts. In July 1866 Tennessee leased its first convicts to furniture manufacturers. In 1884 the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company (TCI) leased the state penitentiary for an annual fee of $101,000. After 1889 TCI obtained the authority to sublease prisoners to other companies; TCI employed 60 percent of the prison population as miners and subleased the others. Flying in the face of laissez-faire capitalism, the system cheapened the wages of honest free laborers, but netted the state a profit of $771,391 between 1870 and 1890 and gave TCI, in the words of company vice-president A. S. Colyar, “an effective club to hold over the heads of free laborers.” (1)

The system fostered a number of abuses. African Americans made up most of the prison population. Tennessee's “Zebra Law” put men in prison stripes for crimes as petty as theft of a fence rail. Moreover, prison conditions were abominable–guards enforced discipline through beatings; food and sanitation were vile; and inmates were brutalized and subjected to unspeakable degradation.

The first revolt against the lease system occurred in January 1871, when free white miners in Tracy City struck TCI for higher wages and an end to the system. There was panic in Nashville as winter temperatures dropped. The miners mounted an assault on the guards to prevent the convicts from working, but this early example of industrial labor violence ended as a victory for the company. Minor eruptions of labor insurrection followed over the next two decades until the outbreak of the Coal Creek War in 1891.

On July 14, 1891, miners launched a series of guerrilla attacks at Briceville in Anderson County. In the initial confrontation, three hundred miners surrounded the stockade, took charge of the forty prisoners, marched them and their guards five miles to Coal Creek (now Lake City), sealed them in boxcars, and shipped them to Knoxville. The miners requested the intervention of Governor John P. Buchanan to protect the rights of labor. Buchanan agreed to meet with the miners, but ordered three companies of state militia to restore order and return the convicts to Briceville. In his meeting with the miners, Buchanan advised them to seek justice through the courts. When the miners repeated their action on July 20, Buchanan agreed to call a special session of the legislature to consider the issue of convict leasing.

In cities across the state, many spoke against the practice of hiring prisoners to compete with convict labor. Nevertheless, that August the general assembly took no action except to enhance the power of the governor to act against insurrectionists and resolve to abolish convict leasing once the current contract expired.

Miners renewed and stepped up their anti-leasing activities on October 31, when they once again surrounded the stockade at Briceville. This time they released the prisoners into the surrounding hills and valleys and burned the buildings and stockade. On November 2 the miners conducted a second raid at the Cumberland Mine in Oliver Springs. By the end of December, however, convicts had returned to the mines under militia guard.

In August 1892 the miners in Grundy County revolted at two sites operated by the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company. The attacks at Inman and Tracy City sparked renewed revolts in Anderson County. An attack on the stockade at Oliver Springs was met by gunfire, and several miners were wounded. In the end, the outnumbered militia surrendered, the convicts were shipped to Knoxville, and the stockade was burned.

This final revolt produced several important results. Public support for the miners disappeared. The violence associated with the last revolt and the public perception of Buchanan's inability to handle the problem contributed to his failure to win reelection in November. The 1893 general assembly proved more willing to address the issue of convict leasing and passed legislation to construct a new state penitentiary and abolish convict leasing at the expiration of the lease contract in 1896. Prisoners continued to mine coal at the Brushy Mountain Prison, which the state marketed until 1937, when the legislature limited the sales to public institutions in compliance with similar federal action.

Suggested Reading

Perry C. Cotham, Toil, Turmoil and Triumph: A Portrait of the Tennessee Labor Movement (1996); Pete Daniel, “The Tennessee Convict War,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 34 (1975): 273-92; Karin A. Shapiro, A New South Rebellion: The Battle against Convict Labor in the Tennessee Coalfields, 1871-1896 (1998)

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Convict Lease Wars
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  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date May 27, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018