Convict Labor in Georgia Was Slavery in All but Name

James Monroe Smith built one of the state's largest plantations near Athens off of convict labor.

“America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.” – Frederick Douglass

One day recently I drove to the Oconee Hill Cemetery to visit the mass grave and memorial for 105 enslaved and formerly enslaved Athenians. In 2015 the bones of these African Americans had been “discovered” while workers were bulldozing around Baldwin Hall on the University of Georgia campus. They were buried under a parking lot.  

The university initially denied that the bones were those of Black people. Then, to make matters worse, after DNA analysis showed that the remains were of African descent, UGA officials decided to rebury them in a mass grave at Oconee Hill, the city’s formerly all-white cemetery.  That happened in March 2017, with most of the African-American community kept unaware of the ceremony. “They’re being placed close to their white masters again,” my friend Fred Smith Sr., a descendent of Athens’ enslaved people, told me at the time.

When I arrived at the sprawling 150-year-old cemetery (where Confederates, slaveholders and Klansmen are buried), I walked down a slight hill to the site of the mass grave. It’s set off considerably from the other white folks’ graves that inhabit the area. I stood there and silently read the inscription on the granite memorial marker, placed a stone on top of it, and said a prayer.  

Looking back up the hill into the morning sunlight, I noticed several prisoners were working about a hundred yards away. One was on a riding lawn mower, while another was cleaning off gravestones and walkways with leaf blowers. One prisoner was weed-eating around gravestones that surrounded a weathered mausoleum. A prison guard stood nearby, leaning on a pickup truck and keeping an eye on his captive crew.   

I realized that these prisoners at the top of the hill, almost all of whom were Black, were at that moment busy tending to “plot F2,” the century-old burial site of James Monroe Smith. 

After Reconstruction, Smith literally made his personal and political fortunes off the backs of Georgia prisoners. Between 1880 and his death in 1915, Smith was perhaps the most notorious ringleader of Georgia’s brutal convict lease system.

John Cole Vodicka Smith’s mausoleum at Oconee Hill Cemetery.

After the Civil War, until it was mostly “abolished” in 1908, Georgia’s convict lease system became, next to lynching, the most brutal manifestation of Black oppression in the South. The infamous “Black Codes” had been implemented by the state legislature, laws that targeted the recently enslaved and put Blacks in jail for “crimes” that included petty offenses such as vagrancy, cursing, fighting, mischief, insulting gestures or just being an annoyance to white folks. To escape imprisonment, Blacks took what work they could, no matter what the terms. 

Once Black men (and occasionally women) were jailed, white landowners routinely paid the prisoners’ fines, and the captives were released into peonage. The convicts’ debts were seldom forgiven. Prisoners languished under their white master’s keep for months, sometimes years.  The convicts were chained, brutally and frequently whipped, and lived in unsanitary, disease-ridden environments. Many were tortured. Some died. 

One of James Monroe Smith’s wards described himself as a “chain-gang slave.” Later, historian Fletcher Green called Georgia’s convict leasing a “system that left a trail of dishonor and death that could find a parallel only in the persecutions of the Middle Ages or the prison camps of Nazi Germany.”  

Capitalizing on the convict lease system, James Monroe Smith grew his small Oglethorpe County farm into one of Georgia’s largest postbellum plantation enterprises. At one point Smith had holdings in a state hospital, a small college, a railroad and businesses in Atlanta. He not only had several thousand prisoners working on his plantation, but he leased thousands more to other farmers, corporations and prominent politicians throughout the state. At his death his estate’s estimated worth was more than $4 million. He was the second richest man in Georgia.  He vainly named his plantation—much of it constructed and maintained by convict labor—Smithonia.  

By the turn of the 19th century, Smithonia boasted the largest cotton gin in the state, a grist mill, corn mill, woodworking shop, blacksmith shop, sawmills, brick making operation, numerous storehouses, a hotel, a post office, hundreds of houses and six schools. Today, the plantation just 15 miles east of Athens is a historic district. 

Smith parlayed his wealth into politics, too, and served in the Georgia legislature during the 1870s and ‘80s. In 1906 he ran unsuccessfully for governor. John Hill, one of the prisoners forced to work at Smithonia, said this: “If the Lord rules heaven, Jim Smith ruled the earth.”

In the years just before Smith died, the legislature began investigating gruesome reports and first-hand accounts of the “fiendish cruelty” occurring on plantations and businesses that leased prisoners for their labor. Court cases were filed that described the horrific treatment of convict laborers. Smithonia was included. Investigators turned up evidence that a number of Smith’s convicts died of consumption, heart failure and sun stroke. A half-dozen others had been killed by guards. One legislative report perceptively noted that this brutal treatment of prisoners “could only flourish in an ex-slave state where ex-slaves made up the majority of convicts.”  

Starting in 1908, Georgia law prohibited prisoners charged with misdemeanor offenses from being leased out to private entities. This resulted in city and county workcamps popping up throughout the state, and with them, the use of chain gangs. Clarke County stopped leasing out its prisoners in the late 1920s and began to use them for road work, on its county farm and at the landfill. The overworked, chained prisoners often lived little better than those in a convict lease camp. 

Eventually, in 1955, Georgia’s chain gangs were outlawed. But the county work camps with their free prisoner labor continued on.  

Today, the Athens-Clarke County Correctional Institution (ACCCI) is one of 21 “county work camps” in Georgia. A total of 4,646 men are currently caged in these facilities. ACCCI houses 115 prisoners, and almost all of them are put to work by and for the local government.  Ordinances state the ACCCI exists to “provide a labor pool to various departments of the Athens-Clarke County government, Georgia State Patrol and Northeast Georgia Police Academy.” Prisoners work in and around the courthouse and the public library, at UGA football games, help move voting machines, and mow grass along city streets. The daily labor value to Athens-Clarke County is $35.97 per prisoner. According to ACC records, the county camp’s unpaid work force saved taxpayers $1.1 million in 2020.

I concluded my visit to the African-American mass gravesite. The county’s prisoners had finished sprucing up plot F-2 and were moving on to another section of the Oconee Hill Cemetery. I made the trek up the incline to my car, stopping in front of the James Monroe Smith mausoleum. The edifice dominates the hilltop. I confess I could not bring myself to say a prayer, nor did I place a stone near Smith’s tomb.  

Instead, I walked away from the eroding mausoleum and looked back down to the granite marker where the bones of 105 unnamed Black people were interred. At the same time, I heard again the sound of a leaf blower and spotted the ACCCI prisoners now at work around other graves—perhaps, I wondered, those of their current keepers’ kin? 

Here in Athens, the bones of the enslaved are surrounded by the bones of enslavers. And these enslavers’ graves—at least one of whom made his fortune off quasi-slavery in the early 20th Century—are being tended to by the forced convict laborers of our day.