Black Pearl Sings! / Shows

Prison Farms in the 1930s


Young prison farm workers seen in uniforms and chains.

The first act of Black Pearl Sings! takes place at a Texas prison farm, where Pearl is a member of a chain gang. The similar equal treatment of women and men was not uncommon at that time in the Texas prison system. When the Texas State Penitentiary system began on March 13, 1848, women and men were both housed in the same prisons. However, prisons began being separated by gender by the 1870s.  Pearl and the other female inmates would have been at a different correctional facility as men inmates during her imprisonment.

Historically, the institution of chain gangs and prison farms in the U.S. Penal system had existed since the Civil War, when the 13th amendment was passed. While outlawing slavery and involuntary servitude, this amendment still permitted the use of forced physical labor as criminal punishment and deemed it constitutional. The practice of forcing prisoners to work outdoor on difficult tasks was officially deemed legal through the passing of several Penal Servitude Acts by Congress in the 1850s.  The prison farm system became a common practice, especially in the warmer climates of the southern states.

In the state of Texas, where Pearl is housed, outdoor prison labor started with the convict lease process in the late 1800s. With the lease process, Texas prisons contracted with outside companies to hire out prisoners for manual labor.  Prisoners performed a variety of difficult tasks on railroads, mines, and plantations. This practice lasted from the late 1800’s to 1912, but the use of prisoners for free labor continued in Texas for many years afterwards.

With the prison farm system also came the renewed tendency towards incorporating work songs into daily life. A work song is a piece of music, often either sung collectively or as a call-and-response, closely connected to a specific form of work, either sung while conducting a task (often to coordinate timing) or a song linked to a task that might be connected to a narrative, description, or protest. African-American work songs originally developed in the era of captivity, between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Because they were part of an almost entirely oral culture, they had no fixed form and only began to be recorded as the era of slavery came to an end after 1865. These songs were used to bolster moral, as well as help prisoners survive the grueling work demanded of them, or even to convey warnings, messages or stories. In prison farms, as well as during the prior slavery era, they were also used as a way to protect each other; if an individual were singled out as working too slowly, they would often be brutally punished. The songs kept everyone working in unison so that no one could be singled out as working more slowly than everyone else. With mechanization and integration arising during the later half of the 20th century, many work songs effectively died out as prison farms and forced labor became less popular.

Click here to listen to prison farm work songs recorded at Mississippi’s Parchman Farm in 1947.

With the end of the convict lease system, the Texas prison system sought new ways to make profits off of the large number of prisoners by putting them to work on state-owned prison farms—known to many people as the “chain gang” system. Prisoners were used as free labor to harvest crops such as sugarcane, corn, cotton, and other vegetable crops.  In the southern states, much of the chain gangs were comprised of African Americans, who were often the descendants of slave laborers from local plantations.

In the 1930s, incarceration rates increased nationwide during the Great Depression. Before the economic troubles, chain gangs helped boost economies in southern states that benefited from the free labor provided by the inmates.  After the Depression hit, communities viewed the chain gangs in a more negative light—believing that inmates were taking jobs away from the unemployed. The enthusiasm for this mode of imprisonment eventually dwindled, and the chain gang system began disappearing in the United States around the 1940s. The powerful connection between slavery and the chain gang played a significant role in the abolition of this form of punishment, though there has been recent interest in the reinstitution of this punishment, most recently in the states of Arizona and Alabama.

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