ALEX Lesson Plan

Convict Leasing in Alabama: A System That Re-Enslaved Blacks After the Civil War

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  This lesson provided by:  
Author:Alabama Department of Archives and Hist
System: Informal Education Partner
School: Informal Education Partner
The event this resource created for:Alabama History Education Initiative
  General Lesson Information  
Lesson Plan ID: 33767


Convict Leasing in Alabama: A System That Re-Enslaved Blacks After the Civil War


This lesson aims to inform students about the tragic nature of the convict leasing system in Alabama, a topic that many American history textbooks don’t mention. It uses a combination of materials: dramatic information about one particular prisoner, a scholarly summary (from the Encyclopedia of Alabama) about how the lease system worked in this state, and three primary documents. In groups, students are asked to pull important facts from the scholarly summary, discuss the significance of those facts, analyze the primary documents, and then draw some conclusions. At the end of the lesson, instead of writing a lengthy essay, students are asked to compose one single, well organized and concentrated paragraph (referencing 2 or 3 historical facts and one primary document) that addresses an essential question about the nature of the lease system.

This lesson was created as a part of the Alabama History Education Initiative, funded by a generous grant from the Malone Family Foundation in 2009.

Author Information: Mary Hubbard, Retired Advanced Placement History Teacher; Alabama History Education Initiative Consultant

 Associated Standards and Objectives 
Content Standard(s):
Social Studies
SS2010 (2010)
Grade: 11
United States History II: The Industrial Revolution to the Present
2 ) Evaluate social and political origins, accomplishments, and limitations of Progressivism. [A.1.a., A.1.b., A.1.c., A.1.d., A.1.e., A.1.f., A.1.i., A.1.k.]

•  Explaining the impact of the Populist Movement on the role of the federal government in American society
•  Assessing the impact of muckrakers on public opinion during the Progressive movement, including Upton Sinclair, Jacob A. Riis, and Ida M. Tarbell
Examples: women's suffrage, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, temperance movement

•  Explaining national legislation affecting the Progressive movement, including the Sherman Antitrust Act and the Clayton Antitrust Act
•  Determining the influence of the Niagara Movement, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, and Carter G. Woodson on the Progressive Era
•  Assessing the significance of the public education movement initiated by Horace Mann
•  Comparing the presidential leadership of Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson in obtaining passage of measures regarding trust-busting, the Hepburn Act, the Pure Food and Drug Act, the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Reserve Act, and conservation

Alabama Alternate Achievement Standards
AAS Standard:
SS.AAS.11.2- Identify the goals of the Progressive movement; identify people and/or describe major events and developments in the United States during the Progressive movement.

Local/National Standards:

National Standards for History, 1996 Standards in Historical Thinking Standard 2: The student comprehends a variety of historical sources. Therefore, the student is able to: A. Identify the author or source of the historical document or narrative B.Reconstruct the literal meaning of a historical passage by identifying who was involved, what happened, where it happened, what events led to these developments, and what consequences or outcomes followed. Standard 3: The student engages in historical analysis and interpretation. Standards in History for Grades 5-12 Era 6, Standard 3A: Account for employment in different regions of the country as affected by gender, race, ethnicity, and skill.

National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies, (2010) Standard 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions Standard 6: Power, Authority, and Governance Standard 7: Production, Distribution, and Consumption

Primary Learning Objective(s):

Students will:

• Learn basic facts about the convict lease system

• Practice historical empathy

• Analyze primary documents (both written and visual)

• Draw inferences from documents

• Express personal conclusions

• Support conclusions with facts

• Practice writing skills

Additional Learning Objective(s):

 Preparation Information 

Total Duration:

91 to 120 Minutes

Materials and Resources:

• Magic markers and large pieces of paper (to distribute to each group)

• Computer with Internet connection

• Overhead or digital projector to display primary sources

• Packet of primary documents to give to each group

1. Pages from a convict registry in Montgomery. (From the Alabama Department of Archives and History) There are six different entries. If you can’t print all the pages, print the one on Harrison Grant. He was killed by falling rock while working at the Pratt Mines, where Green Cottenham also worked.

2. “Flier for a Mass Meeting.” (From the Alabama Department of Archives and History) Date on this is 1923. It shows that a reform effort was underway to get rid of the convict-leasing system.

3. Photograph of shackled convicts in sleeping bunks. (From the Birmingham Library Archives)

4. Instructions for paragraph assignment (Attached) 5. Rubric for grading paragraph (Attached)

Technology Resources Needed:

• Encyclopedia of Alabama article, “The Convict-Lease System.” (Student handout was based on this article.)

• Wall Street Journal article, “From Alabama’s Past, Capitalism Teamed with Racism to Create Cruel Partnership.” After writing this article in 2001, the author, Douglas Blackmon, the Wall Street Bureau chief in Atlanta, decided to expand his research on convict leasing and write a book (listed immediately below).

• Web site for Blackmon’s book, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. Blackmon’s book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009. This site includes information about Blackmon, the book, and the PBS movie based on the book (scheduled for release in 2012). A “photo gallery” can be found under the opening page tag that says “The Book.”

• Digital History article, “Along the Color Line, The Convict Lease System, 1880-1920”. Digital History provides an online American history textbook. The chapter entitled “Along the Color Line” contains a one-page overview of the convict-lease system in the South.

• Alabama Department of Archives and History summary of Governor William Jelks’s two terms as governor of Alabama (1901-1907). The fourth from the last paragraph talks about how more efficient administration of the convict system during his two terms netted the state “nearly $400,000 per year between 1901 and 1906.” The Encyclopedia of Alabama also has an article on Governor Jelks.

• There are a number of YouTube videos about Blackmon and his book. One entitled “Buried in Alabama - Slavery” (a little over 4 minutes long) was shot on site in Birmingham (Pratt City).


Convict leasing was a forced labor practice that developed in the South after the end of the Civil War. Huge numbers of convicts, primarily black males, many of whom had been legally but unjustly imprisoned (often on trumped-up charges), were leased by county and state governments across the South to various businesses in search of a source of cheap labor. These businesses (railroads, lumber, and mining companies, for example) paid governments a fee for each leased convict and assumed the cost of housing and feeding prisoners in camps they built. As a result, prisoners no longer cost the government money; they became a substantial source of revenue, a fact that increased the incentive to generate ever larger numbers of them. Tragically for prisoners, once on a job site they received no protection. They worked long hours for little pay, often in extremely unhealthy and dangerous conditions. Prisoners were routinely shackled at night and whipped or tortured if they disobeyed orders. Hundreds of thousands of them died on the job. But because companies had so little invested in any one prisoner, if he died, he was readily and easily replaced. The companies made huge profits off the system, and state and county governments took in substantial amounts of money as well. The brutal economics of the system helped ensure its longevity. An additional reason Southern states embraced convict leasing was it enabled whites to maintain racial as well as economic dominance because it provided a legal way to limit blacks’ mobility and opportunities. Despite outcries in both the North and South, Southern legislatures were slow to end the practice. The convict leasing system began in Alabama in 1875. It wasn’t halted until 1928, fifty-three years later.

Students should already be able to distinguish between fact and opinion.

• Students should already know the difference between primary and secondary sources.

• Students should have already studied the early years of Reconstruction (prior to 1877).


Engagement/Motivation Activity:

• Give each student a copy of “A Tragic but True Story,” the brief account of Green Cottenham’s arrest, conviction, and eventual death. (This information comes from, Slavery by Another Name: The ReEnslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, a book by Douglas Blackmon. (The PBS web site for Slavery by Another Name will provide additional information.)

• Working with a partner, have students read the material and answer the three questions at the bottom.

• Conduct a whole class discussion, using the questions as a guide. If students don’t mention it themselves, point out that Alabama’s 1903 vagrancy law basically criminalized unemployment. (Many other southern states had the same kind of law.) If someone was stopped by an officer of the law and couldn’t instantly provide proof of employment, he was subject to arrest. Although vagrancy laws never mentioned race, they were reserved almost exclusively for blacks. There were many others kinds of laws that targeted blacks and made them easy to arrest.

Step 1 Distribute copies of the Encyclopedia of Alabama article on the convict-leasing system (small portions of the original article were eliminated to make the length more manageable – two pages.) Give students these instructions: “Imagine that you are writing an American History textbook and you want to include some bulleted information about the convict-leasing system. If you could use only ten facts from this article for your ten bullets, which 10 do you think are the most significant? (These have to be specific facts, not abstract generalities or opinion statements.) List those facts on a separate sheet of paper and, next to each, also write a statement that explains what this fact shows about the system and why that’s significant.” (Allow a reasonable amount of time and then check to see that every student has a list of 10.)

Step 2 Create (or allow students to organize themselves into) groups of 3-4. Give each group a magic marker and a large piece of paper. Tell them that each person is to read his or her list (and explanations about significance) to the others. After everyone has done so, then as a group they are to come up with an agreed upon list of the 10 most significant facts. They must write those 10 on their piece of paper. They don’t have to write down any statements of significance next to the facts, but each group member must be prepared to explain the significance of at least 2 of the 10 facts.

Step 3 Have each group recite and explain their 10 facts. Immediately afterward, encourage students to respond to each other’s lists. Did some facts appear on multiple lists? If so, what might that reflect? Can students connect any of the facts? How do 2 or more facts possibly relate? If the list could be expanded to 11 facts, what is one more fact they’d want to include in their textbook? What understanding or important knowledge would be gained by including that fact?

Step 4 Set up this scenario: “Now that you have your 10 bulleted facts to put in your textbook, what kinds of primary sources might you want to include as well?” (You could point out some examples of primary sources that are used in students’ own textbooks.) If students seem confused, offer them an example: “Would you want to include a photograph and, if so, what would it be a photograph of?” Allow students time to brainstorm and then list some possibilities on the board.

Step 5 Tell students you’re going to distribute a packet of primary documents (a total of 3) to each group. They are to examine their documents slowly and carefully with these questions in mind: “What can be learned about the convict-leasing system from each primary source? How does it help tell the story? Does it raise any questions you’d want answered?”

Step 6 After allowing time for groups to process the documents, bring the class back together. Show each document, one at time, on an overhead or digital projector and ask students to explain what it reveals, how it contributes to a fuller understanding of the topic and what questions it might raise that, if we had time, we’d want answered.

Step 7 Give out instructions for paragraph assignment and copies of the grading rubric.

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Assessment Strategies

Students write one well organized and tightly focused paragraph in response to the question: “What do you believe was the most tragic aspect of the convict-lease system?”


Students could do additional research on efforts to ban convict leasing in Alabama, including the role women played (Julia Tutwiler was active in the cause). They could also research the topic of forced labor in a more global and modern context. What groups of people today are forced to work against their will in slave-like conditions?



View the Special Education resources for instructional guidance in providing modifications and adaptations for students with significant cognitive disabilities who qualify for the Alabama Alternate Assessment.