David M. Oshinsky.
"Worse Than Slavery": Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice.
New York: The Free Press, 1996. xiv + 306 pp. Bibliography and index.
$25.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-684-83095-7 ISBN 0-684-82298-9; $12.00 (paper),
Robert M. Goldman , Virginia Union University.
During the Cold War years an article of faith that
distinguished the West from the "Evil Empire" of Soviet Communism was the
latter's Siberian gulag, a vast network of prison camps where inmates
faced unspeakable brutality and horrors from both nature and man. Of
course, nothing of that kind could flourish here. According to David
Oshinsky, the U.S. did indeed have its own gulag, and it went by the name
of Mississippi. Parchman Farm was its "first circle."
The Parchman Farm story begins with the Reconstruction era.
Determined to overthrow Republican regimes, Mississipians devised what
would become the model for Democratic redemption elsewhere, the so-called
"Mississippi Plan." It elements were straightforward enough: use whatever
means necessary, from fraud to murderous violence, to regain political
control. It worked, and by 1875 Democratic legislatures were back in
control and immediately set out to resolve what they considered to be two
key problems: a shortage of labor, and the need to restore white
supremacy. Criminal statutes were enacted such as the "Pig Law" in which
theft of a farm animal worth more than ten dollars was punishable by up to
five years in prison. Along with laws such as these, which were almost
always aimed at the thousands of poor freedmen, was the "Leasing Act."
This statute allowed convicts to be leased out if their sentences were
less than ten years. Since whites were usually only charged and convicted
for the most serious of crimes, their sentences entitled them to the
relative safety of the state penitentiary at Jackson.
As it developed in Mississippi, convict leasing
successfully replaced racial bondage with a system of racial castes while
at the same time fueling the economic development of the late 19th century
"New South." The use of convicts for everything from raising cotton, to
building railroads, to extracting turpentine gum spread rapidly. It solved
the problem of high fixed labor costs, since minimal expenses for food,
clothing, and shelter were necessary. Moreover, there was always a ready
supply of replacement labor, so incentives against the mistreatment of
convict workers were nonexistent. Oshinsky catalogs the horrors that
awaited a leasee -- from ubiquitous lash to the use of metal spurs riveted
to the feet to prevent escape. The mortality rate was high, and the system
encompassed all ages. The state penal code made no distinction between
juvenile and adult offenders, so that by 1880 "at least one convict in
four was an adolescent" (pp. 46-47).
The movement to end convict leasing in Mississippi resulted
in the creation of Parchman Farm, and the man behind it was the "White
Chief," Governor James K. Vardaman. Using race-baiting and fears of black
lawlessness and criminality to gain power, Vardaman was convinced that a
prison farm, "like an efficient slave plantation," was necessary to
provide young African-Americans with the "proper discipline, strong work
habits, and respect for white authority" (p. 110) that the end of slavery
had eliminated. Set on 20,000 acres in the Mississippi Delta region, the
Farm consisted of fifteen work camps, each organized much like an
ante-bellum slave plantation complete with "sergeants" (overseers),
"trustees" (slave drivers), and "gunmen" (the convicts who toiled under
the gun of a trustee). Using a variety of sources, including the many
blues songs that came from the farm or those who spent time there,
Oshinsky chillingly and graphically documents the story of the "farm with
slaves" that regularly turned a profit for the state. The famous song
"Midnight Special" was based on the train that left Jackson every Saturday
night to carry the wives and lovers to the prison for their Sunday visits.
Oshinsky also chronicles the "other Parchman," the white men and women of
both races who served their time there.
But Parchman Farm, as bad as it was, was a reflection of
larger problems. For one thing, as Oshinsky notes, Mississippi had a long
tradition of violence, and a criminal justice system that tolerated it.
Prohibition and the great migration of blacks to the north following World
War I increased the percentage of white male Parchman inmates. Segregation
was simply extended to the criminal justice system as well. Even reform
had its grisly aspects. In the 1930s a number of "bungled" hangings led to
calls for change to a more humane form of capital punishment. The solution
in Mississippi was Jimmy Thompson and his "killing machine," an electric
chair mounted on the back of a pickup truck. Rather than face possible
riots with a permanent execution chamber at Parchman, Mississippi's
contribution to American criminal justice was the first portable electric
chair. Used until 1955 Jimmy Thompson oversaw the execution of
seventy-three people, of whom fifty-seven were black.
Like the end of segregation, real change at Parchman did
not come without a struggle. Indeed, during the civil rights years
Parchman Farm was the detention place for movement workers and leaders,
including the Freedom Riders James Farmer and Stokley Carmichael. And,
like other bastions of Jim Crow, Parchman Farm fell only when four
courageous inmates brought suit in federal court to put an end to the
abuse and conditions at the Farm. The case, Gates v. Collier, was
decided in 1972 by an independent-minded Southern federal judge, William
C. Keady. Keady found that Parchman Farm was "an affront 'to modern
standards of decency'," and ordered an immediate end to all of the
unconstitutional conditions and practices.
Ironically, as Parchman Farm changed so did society.
Segregation of inmates was abolished, but was replaced with gang activity
organized along racial lines. Following Gates, it was abolished to use
inmate farming as a means of paying for prision food and clothing. The
farmland was leased out. Today, prison labor has become popular again as a
tool of correctional "rehabilitation," and the farming of food products by
Parchman inmates has been "revitalized." Although a majority of the guards
and administrators of Parchman Farm are now African-American, the
percentage of black inmates remains at the same 70% level it has been
since the 1930s.
This is a solid and well-written monograph that represents
the kind of detailed study called for by historians of criminal justice
like Lawrence Freidman and Samuel Walker. Unlike several recent Hollywood
films dealing with "justice" in Mississippi, Oshinsky has no need of drama
and high-priced stars. The men and women who experienced the ordeal of
Parchman Farm are sufficient testimony to this important chapter in the
history of the South and the American gulag.
Library of Congress
Call Number: HV9475.M72 M576 1996
* Mississippi State Penitentiary -- History
* Criminal justice, Administration of -- Mississippi -- History
* Prisoners -- Mississippi -- History
Citation: Robert M. Goldman . "Review of David M. Oshinsky,
"Worse Than Slavery": Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice,"
H-Law, H-Net Reviews, April, 1997. URL:
“Anyone tempted to
burnish the Southern record on race should read this book. In searing
detail, Worse Than Slavery describes the culture of white supremacy
in Mississippi and opens wide the gates of its most notorious institution,
Parchman Farm…In truth, however, Worse Than Slavery is as much
about the history of the Southern criminal justice system – Mississippi
style – as it is about Parchman itself.”
Review of “Worse Than
Slavery”: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice, by David
M. Oshinsky, The Journal of Southern History 63 (May 1997):