Chain Gangs and the Domestic Labor of Black Women Convicts

In a 2013 article for Signs, Sarah Haley, an associate professor of African American Studies and Gender Studies at UCLA, examines Black women on Georgia’s chain gangs to articulate how race and gender shaped the post-slavery carceral system.

In a 2013 article for Signs, Sarah Haley, an associate professor of African American Studies and Gender Studies at UCLA, examines Black women on Georgia’s chain gangs to articulate how race and gender shaped the post-slavery carceral system. Haley’s article examines the carceral regime of post-slavery Georgia to argue that it operates as a key infrastructure that creates and fortifies 1) the gendered and racialized division of labor and 2) the social construction of race and gender through Black womanhood.

Haley argues that the economic logics that created the relationship between bondage and property under slavery grounded the complex relationship among free labor and capitalism in the Jim Crow era:

The domestic carceral sphere reveals that the persistence of gendered forms of subjection, compulsion, and proprietorial entitlement marked twentieth-century notions of freedom; white middle-class women and men wrote to prison authorities asserting their right to “have” black women’s domestic labor and bodies but framed their requests as liberal efforts to liberate them from prison and to care for them.
- Haley (2013:69)

Therefore, the infrastructure of Georgia’s carceral regime perpetuated the power relations and oppressive conditions Black women had experienced under slavery as domestic laborers.

Chain Gangs and the Forced Labor of Convicted Black Women

According to Haley, the 1908 Act to Create of System of Parole codified the gendered logic of slavery into an incarceration framework designed to replace the convict leasing system. Haley’s research reveals the state of Georgia forced paroled Black women to do domestic labor for white families under threat of reimprisonment. Additionally, Black women had to do the same work as convicted men in chain gangs that performed hard labor on Georgia’s public infrastructure.

On page 55 of the article, Haley writes that “the chain gang replicated the particular dialectics of black women’s oppression under slavery.” While incarcerated and paroled Black women had to perform dual labor, white women rarely received such sentencing. This discrepancy arises from how Georgia’s parole act determined sentencing for women:

If the convict be a female the judge may, in his discretion, sentence her to labor and confinement in the woman's prison on the State farm, in lieu of a chaingang sentence, not to exceed twelve months; provided that the trial judge shall have the discretion also of sending any person convicted of a misdemeanor to the State farm.
- Georgia State Assembly (1908)

Haley points out the social construction of Black women through racialized and gendered differences in the law in how the law didn’t explicitly prohibit only white women from chain gangs. Yet, in practice, Georgia judges sent nearly 2000 Black women to chain gangs compared to 4 white women during 1908 and 1938. Therefore, the positioning of Black women on both sides of the gender divide in the Jim Crow carceral regime parallels the gendered economy of slavery.

Black women sewing at the women’s camp at Parchman in Mississippi.
Source: Mississippi Department of Archives & History

Labor in the Early Twentieth Century and the Intersectionality of Race and Gender

During the post-slavery era, Haley notes that society attributed different traits and characteristics to women based on their race. These racialized and gendered social constructions affected them as workers in the twentieth century paid labor market. While the perception of unmarried white women as pure, submissive, and fragile made them suitable for roles as housewives or telephone operators, the controlling image of the mammy restricted Black women’s labor to the domestic sphere. According to Haley, the ability of white housewives to draw on Black women’s labor as domestics bolstered the status of white middle-class men.

Within the context of parole, the state of Georgia forced Black women to work for white families, but did not subject white women to the same fate. Due to the belief in the fragility and purity of white women, reformers advocated for their exclusion from chain gangs, citing the myth of the Black male brute as a potential threat to white womanhood.

Haley asserts that the very same characterization of the Black male brute that justified segregation and racial terror during the Jim Crow era also shaped the prison system in Georgia. The 1906 Atlanta Race Riot had precipitated the amendment to the parole act. As in other race riots, accusations that a Black man had sexually assaulted a white woman, stoked by a media frenzy, precipitated the attack that left over 20 Black people dead and injured nearly 60 others.

Haley writes that this event motivated then prison commissioner Joseph Turner to call reform chain gangs to exclude white women in a report titled “Women in Chain Gangs.”

The Experiences of Incarcerated Black Women Parolees on Chain Gangs

According to Haley, chain gangs also reinforced separation of Black women from white women, which Halley illustrates with the story of Maude Davis, a 16 year old white girl sent to work at the convict camp and pauper farm in Fulton County. Davis’s incarceration inspired residents to not only call for her release, but also the construction of a home for girls, as to avoid having white women in proximity to Black women or men.

Haley argues that while the Black brute controlling image characterized black men as a sexual threat, society perceived Black women as grotesque/foul and capable of “infecting” white womanhood. This perception of Black women meant that ,regardless of age, judges sent them to chain gangs for misdemeanors and subjected them to much the same violence they experienced during slavery (e.g. whippings).

Even after release, Black women had to do domestic labor on parole. Black women had to perform this domestic labor or risk reincarceration. Some worked on farms, but most worked in white households. White people could request specific prisoners and sometimes they chose women who had already worked for them. Most warders completely ignored the feelings and desires of Black women, who tried to negotiate the terms of their servitude.

How Black Women Parolees Resisted the Chain Gang System

Haley writes that Black women struggled to resist this system because their stewards had the power to leverage negative reports and threat of reimprisonment to maintain their subordination. While some Black women adopted a politics of assimilation, keeping their head done in the hopes of securing freedom, others resisted the assumption the would conform to the expectation of the mammy and thus incurred the wrath of white warders.

Haley once again illuminates the intersectionality of race and gender in the carceral system as she argues that Black women parolees who wrote petitions for release did so as outsiders within that operated inside the domestic carceral system, but outside the traditional prison camp system. Overall, Black women used several strategies, including escape, to appeal for their freedom from incarceration.

Understanding this history provides important context for understanding how intersecting oppressions function in the prison and policing industrial complex.