A White Lady Speaks Boldly

July 23, 1898


A White woman writes a letter to the Planet in which she agrees that the treatment of African Americans in America is atrocious.


The utterances of three Afro-American leaders.

Barbarous treatment.

The administration and the race question—The convict lease system and lynching.

The Cuban horrors and practices in this Country—Nauseating facts cited.

The exposure of the cruelties—Mrs. Keeler makes a strong plea for the sufferers.

Mr. Mitchell,

Dear Sir: —In looking over the last number of the Planet I was much interested in what I read on one of its pages. The extracts from the Cleveland Gazette express my opinion exactly.

“The closer the north and south get as a result of the war the harder it will be for the Afro-American.” I have watched the progress of the war very carefully and have not failed to see that “union of the two sections will be at the expense of the colored brother.” I have shuddered when I thought of what the end would be. But then, God reigns.

Mr. Fortune’s remarkable assertion.

I wish I could feel that Mr. Fortune was wrong when he said that President McKinley had established “a dead line beyond which an Afro-American cannot go into the volunteer army, but it is just as I expected. How could it be otherwise when the President’s right hand man and confidential advisor was so long accustomed to looking upon colored men in shackles confined in his chain-gang?

Mr. Platt and the convicts.

Perhaps it is not generally understood that this man and Thomas C. Platt of New York, both leading Republicans, were for years lessees of men. Papers stated that they made $100,000 a year from the labor of the convicts in Tennessee. They paid the state $101,000 for their labor. The death rate among these convicts was simply appalling; and their sufferings have been described by abler pens than mine.

I leave these things all with Him before whom not a sparrow falls without His notice. “The Negro must be kept down,” is heard in the camp, and especially is it heard and the principle carried out in our courts of justice.

Bishop Turner’s utterance.

In another column, you quote what Bishop Turner says. (God bless Bishop Turner for his boldness.) “Enough men have been lynched to death to reach a mile high if laid one upon the other, and enough women and children to form the head and foot slab, if they could be arranged to stand upon the head of each other.”

Alas! Alas! Would to God that this could tell the whole story. But it is only in comparison as a drop of water to the bucketful, when compared to the great multitude that have dragged out a wretched existence in jails and convict camps, and whose bodies fill unknown graves or, as is done in Georgia, taken to the dissecting table.

An outrageous system.

Nothing but the “middle passage” has ever proved such destruction to the colored race this side of the African coast, as the convict-lease system in the Southern States. A pen picture of its horrors would rival that given of the Spaniards in Cuba, or the Turks in Turkey, or the Russians in Siberia. Let us look at Mississippi where Negro convicts have been flogged to death. In three years three hundred and sixty-seven convicts died out of an average number of a little over seven hundred—over one-half. Nearly everyone was colored.

A fearful death-rate.

The death rate among the colored convicts was more than double that of the whites, which showed worse treatment. I will give a few instances to show how some of them died. “They whipped one man who was in a dying condition with a barrel stave. He was carried back to the cage and there died in fifteen minutes.” Another sick man was flogged who sat down and fell forward dead. Some went barefooted in winter and frosted their feet. “One died of a sore leg with maggots in it.”

Thirty-one “disappeared.”

The number of deaths given in official reports do not include the large number who went out to die—either were pardoned out because they were sick and unable to work, escaped or were discharged. During two years, thirty-one convicts mysteriously disappeared, or were not accounted for. They were not reported as having died, escaped, or among the living. One might hope they were translated as Enoch was. This class of convicts is termed state convicts. Then there is another class terms misdemeanor or county convicts. The condition of the latter is pitiable in the extreme.

That other system.

A few years ago the state adopted another system for her state convicts; but I cannot help thinking the man was right who wrote to me concerning it. “Don’t be fooled, it is the same old system practically, only under another name.” Before, the profits of convict labor were divided between the lessees and the state; now the state receives the largest share of the profits.

It is said that there is “considerably more criminality among the Negroes than among the whites,” and that “freedom has not done the Negro much good.” When we look at the large number serving long sentences in the southern chain-gangs, it would seem as if such assertions might have some shadow of truth.

Mostly colored folks punished.

In Georgia where the white population exceeds that of the colored, the latter furnish nine-tenths of the criminals. Official reports show that Georgia alone has nearly four thousand, two hundred criminals, nearly all of whom are young, able-bodied, colored men, including one hundred and forty boys sixteen years old and younger. The labor of all these convicts is hired out to the highest bidders, who care nothing more for them than the money that can be coined out of their flesh and blood.

Those human leeches.

It is not my purpose in this short article to show what the treatment of Georgia’s convicts is now, and has been ever since they fell into the hands of these human leeches, the lessees, who have not only worked and starved many to death, but they or their guards have flogged men until death relieved them of their sufferings.

Scarcely a year had passed since one Frank McRay, an old Negro, guilty only of a misdemeanor, was flogged to death by an inhuman white guard named Bob Cannon. The same guard who compelled female convicts confined in that same camp to strip naked in the presence of male convicts and flogged.

The innocent with the guilty.

After many years of careful investigation, I have found that many of these convicts both in the penitentiary chain gangs and the misdemeanor, or what is termed country chain-gangs, are innocent. I will give an instance to show something of how a confession has been sometimes extorted, and which was related by a responsible party. A poor penniless Negro was arrested on suspicion of having committed a murder. After being kept in jail a long time a confession was extorted from him ‘by blood-hounds, and in the presence of a grave and a coffin, prepared by those who were peculiarly interested in his conviction.’

Cruel punishment for trivial of fences.

Although innocent, as was known by some, that man was “sentenced to this horrible chain-gang for life.” This same committee was composed of some of Georgia’s best citizens, declared that “poor colored convicts were serving life sentences for stealing one mackerel and similar offenses.” During the official investigation in 1896 it was found that many colored men were “sent to the penitentiary for practically their live for having a fight or difficulty.” A white minister of Georgia told me there were hundreds of innocent men in the chain-gangs there.

Words inadequate.

I might say much, very much more, but words are inadequate to express indignation. Neither tongue nor pen can give a true picture of a southern chain-gang as it exists in some of the states.

In the still hours of the night I life up my heart to God and ask Him to enable me to present these horrid truths in such a way that they will burn into the hearts of the people, people who are saying “the Negro criminal cannot be reformed.” Who made him a criminal? Who place him in one of these “schools of crime” where he by his training becomes ten times more the child of hell than he possibly could be out of it?

The women’s condition.

We talk about the old-time slavery that existed before the war, when a woman with one drop of Negro blood in her veins could not possess he own child to whom she had given birth—no, nor even her own body. Neither he beauty and refinement not her ignorance and helplessness saved her from the auction block. But bad as slavery then, there is a worse slavery to-day.

Spaniards not so cruel.

Our hearts are melted with pity for the poor reconcentrados but I have never read of anything quite so cruel of Spaniards as the barbarities practiced on the Negro convicts in Arkansas. I have never read of three score reconcentrados having been murdered and then buried in a mud-hole.

I believe the present war to be just but could not the Spaniards say to this nation with consistency, “Physician heal thyself!”

Clarissa Olds Keeler,

July 15, 1898,

Washington, D.C.
About this article

Location on Page

Upper Left Quadrant

Contributed By

Cali Hughes


“A White Lady Speaks Boldly,” Black Virginia: The Richmond Planet, 1894-1909, accessed January 16, 2019, http://blackvirginia.richmond.edu/items/show/1454.