Parchman Farm: The Continuity of Black Oppression

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While the Emancipation Proclamation legally declared blacks free within American society, that did not mean cultural and socially constructed attitudes changed instantaneously. In fact, it was not until the 1950’s that blacks even received the right to legally vote without resistance. During this interim period, southern areas like the Mississippi Delta valley continued to exhibit racial attitudes and practices. As David Oshinsky recalled in Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice, this penitentiary in Parchman, Mississippi merely adapted their legal practices in order to continue the southern legacy of racism that had existed for so long. Indeed, Parchman could easily be considered the most southern place on earth because of the racial, judicial and social attitudes that carried on long after the eradication of slavery. 

In order to evaluate this notion, we must clearly define the context of an oppressive southern state. The paradigm of white supremacy rested on the notion that blacks were inferior to whites; that is, they were regarded as being sub-human and property under the ownership of their master. By default, the legal system was used primarily as a means of gaining further control of blacks. In the social sphere, they were segregated and treated differently from whites even when they committed the same offenses. Even when legal protection did exist, the mass public used whatever means necessary to exert hegemony over the black population. This meant that the use of violence and intimidation was widely used. However, the defining characteristic of a truly southern environment was the overall effectiveness of these legislative and social practices in implementing racial injustice. Finally, as Oshinsky clearly detailed, this was the case with Parchman farm as it allowed slavery to continue to exist, albeit under different legal ramifications. 

Within the Parchman farm community, blacks were still regarded as sub-humans who were not even capable of social inclusion with whites. These were socially constructed attitudes shared by not only the mass public, but legislative officials. For instance, governor James Vardaman, who authorized the construction of several prison farms, argued that these farms would emulate “an efficient slave plantation…to socialize young blacks within the limits of their God-given abilities.”  The language clearly indicates that blacks were regarded as slaves by nature. According to Vardaman, these plantations would serve the purpose of teaching blacks "proper discipline, strong work habits, and respect for white authority."  Indeed, the leasing of convicts on parole to do work was merely an outlet for more slave labor in the south. It was merely a workaround of the system. The social conditions of oppression carried through to how the faculty at Parchman mistreated the workers.

Parchman farm, by practice, still functioned like a concentration camp without the regard for human life. All of the guards were white males who were armed and trained to kill any workers who got out of line. As such, blacks still “labored under the gun of armed fellow prisoners called ‘trusty shooters.’”  The shooters were trained to use deadly force and punish blacks who did not comply. Even though slavery was outlawed, this characterization is vividly reminiscent of how slaves in large plantations were monitored years earlier. Their working conditions in the hot sun still consisted of long days and no compensation from their work. The Mississippi State Penitentiary was merely using the Leasing Act as an excuse to work the slaves. Indeed, because quarters were so tight and hygiene was not considered, thousands every year were ravaged by diseased like smallpox or swamp fever.  But, because blacks were free in other areas of the country, this made the backlash against blacks even stronger on a social level. Despite the fact that whites and blacks worked on the same farm, they were not treated equally.

Day to day routines differed sharply for whites and blacks. First and foremost, segregation was widely used to keep the races separate from one another.  Different living quarters presented different food, water and even living conditions. For blacks, they survived under the most primitive levels of food and water. Within the division of labor, whites were given jobs like looking or domestic servitude. On the other end, blacks were still subject to manual labor in the form of “picking cotton all day in the Mississippi sun.”  Punishment was widely used to resolve internal disputes and when it came to potential injustice; it was the word of whites versus blacks. Even the women’s camp was segregated by race as well.  On every level possible, the Parchman farm retained its core mantra of white dominance and implemented an infrastructure to keep blacks on the farms working as much as possible. The newly found justice system only served as a temporary restriction for slavery.

Whoever the person was and their relative past, most black men were guided through the legal system so that they could keep working on the farm. This meant that whites even played devil’s advocate in terms of a black man’s character in order to keep him leased out to work. For example, when one black worker committed a crime and was forced back into prison, the plantation owner retorted in his defense: “[John Cook] was an exceptionally good negro who is under contract to me… [and] I need him to help me out on the farm...and want you to parole him for ninety days, so he can complete his crop.”  Clearly, the black man was being defended based on the motivation that the plantation owner wanted him to keep working, not because he truly deserved to be paroled. The whole legal process was tailored to meet the needs of these owners who used the judicial system to their advantage. Often times, a pardon for the black man to work required affidavits from local respectable whites so that they could provide a “one-sided, portrait of the convict and his world.”  This epitomizes the notion that while the means by which blacks were oppressed and forced to work did change, the end result of them being forced into labor did not. In fact, since these blacks were criminals anyway, their punishment of slavery was justified by society. 

The social status of blacks still remained extremely low in comparison to the rest of the country and persisted through the early 20th century. Society as a whole in this area did not change their viewpoints with regards to blacks and discrimination existed heavily. Mancicni remarked that the Parchman Farm showcased the “rise and flourishing of Mississippi's system of racial subordination, which rested on the twin pillars of fantastic ideology and unrelenting violence.”  That is, society still used violence and intimidation to force blacks into the same lifestyles that they had while they were legally allowed to be slaves. While some blacks who were not criminals were free, these “hunters, woodcutters, fishermen and laborers, formed the basal layers of the social pyramid.”  This heavily influenced the interaction of blacks and whites. For instance, any relations between black men and white women were not acceptable under any circumstance. Even when white women with bad reputations engaged in this behavior, “it could not be described as voluntary in a Southern courtroom; it had to be rape”  This shows that social attitudes were persistent in this southern area. 

Ultimately, the way of life in the Mississippi Delta area still continued, despite the eradication of slavery. It was truly one of the most southern places in the country because of the level of effectiveness that the system had. From the beginning, blacks were not even on the same playing field as whites. While other southern areas were offering blacks some limited jobs and inclusion in social life within their own communities, the Parchman farm area still regarded blacks with the attitude that “you cannot create something when there is nothing to build on.”  Since the police force and authority figures on the plantations were all whites, blacks had almost no chance to actually be treated fairly. Thus, while many blacks were subject to trials, juries and the due process of the legal system, whites found creative ways to maintain them in slave labor. The process by which this happened had clearly changed but ultimately blacks still faced the same hardships of laboring in the fields when whites convicted of similar crimes were let off easier. Not to mention that an electric chair tied to the back of a truck was responsible for killing almost eighty percent blacks. 

As we have seen, the racial, social and judicial practices that carried on after slavery had ended epitomized the continuity of Southern oppression towards blacks. The Parchman farm still had living conditions similar to the same ones that slaves before had. Many died because of these brutal conditions. Whites trained to use deadly force were the only authority figures on the farms and used their power to make examples out of those that disobeyed. Segregation was implemented for both men and women by race as well. Moreover, in terms of legal proceedings, whites creatively used the process to make sure that blacks were in the field, even if it meant defending them in a public sphere. Finally, the social stigma of being black was widely influential and even blacks that were eventually freed still lived in the lower tier of society.

Bibliography

Linden, Fabian. "Economic Democracy in the Slave South: An Appraisal of Some Recent Views." The Journal of Negro History 31, no. 2 (1946): 140-189.

Mancini, Matthew. "Review." The American Journal of Legal History 42, no. 4 (1998): 444-446.

Oshinsky, David. “Worse Than Slavery” Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.