September 5th, 1890

Mississippi Abolishes Convict Lease System and Authorizes Creation of Parchman Farm Penitentiary

In the summer of 1890, 134 delegates gathered in Jackson to create a new constitution for the state of Mississippi. Their primary goal was the political disenfranchisement of the state’s black citizens; one newspaper headline declared “White Supremacy” as “The One Idea of the Convention.”

Another key issue confronting the delegates was convict leasing, a system whereby the state leased its prisoners–overwhelmingly black–to private plantations and railroad camps where they faced brutal conditions and were often literally worked to death. The system was so outrageous that a legislative committee formed six years earlier to investigate conditions had documented widespread abuse. However, the legislature had not acted on those findings.

Rather than humanitarian concerns, the opposition to convict leasing that emerged in 1890 was spurred by economic competition. White laborers and owners of small farms felt the convict leasing system allowed the privileged plantation owners and railroad tycoons to maintain their economic dominance and displace white workers by leasing cheap black labor from the state. The conflict threatened to split the white Democratic consensus that had controlled the state since 1876.

Accordingly, on September 5, 1890, an overwhelming majority of delegates to the Mississippi constitutional convention voted to abolish convict leasing. Because there was no penitentiary large enough to hold the state’s prisoner population at that time, the convention set the order to take effect four years in the future: December 31, 1894. In the meantime, the convention ordered that the state establish a “prison farm” to house and work the state’s prisoners.

Despite the he convention’s order, convict leasing lingered for years in Mississippi, and Parchman Farm would not begin accepting its first prisoners until 1901. By 1917, 90 percent of Parchman’s prisoners would be black men.