Industrialization of the New South

Forced convict labor, which cost businesses very little, helped to transform the South’s broken post-war economy. Private businesses, including coal, railroad, mining, brick, and rock quarry companies, contracted with the state to lease prisoners for labor. Contracts ranged from one- to twenty-year terms, and these businesses became, in effect, designated penitentiaries. Joseph E. Brown’s Dade Coal Company, for example, was known as “Penitentiary Company No. 1.” These companies exercised complete control over prisoners’ lives and labor.

The state granted the first convict lease to the Georgia and Alabama Railroad on May 11, 1868. The following year, all 393 prisoners in the Milledgeville penitentiary were leased to Grant, Alexander, and Company to build the Brunswick and Macon Railroad. In just three years, Georgia’s convicts laid the foundation of more than 450 miles of railway track.

When Georgia celebrated the South’s industrial, social, and racial progress at Atlanta's 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition, signs of the Old South’s presence still loomed as African American chain gangs cleared much of the grounds for the Exposition’s construction.