Saturday, 25 November 2023 07:07

Locked Up: The Prison Labor That Built Business Empires

Credit: Molly Mendoza for Reveal

Companies across the South profited off the forced labor of people in prison after the Civil War – a racist system known as convict leasing.

After the Civil War, a new form of slavery took hold in the U.S. and lasted more than 60 years. Associated Press reporters Margie Mason and Robin McDowell investigate the chilling history of how Southern states imprisoned mainly Black men, often for minor crimes, and then leased them out to private companies – for years, even decades, at a time. The team talks with the descendant of a man imprisoned in the Lone Rock stockade in Tennessee nearly 140 years ago, where people as young as 12 worked under inhumane conditions in coal mines and inferno-like ovens used to produce iron. This system of forced prison labor enriched the Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co. – at the cost of prisoners’ lives.

At the state park that sits on the former site of the Lone Rock stockade, relics from the hellish prison are buried beneath the soil. Archeologist Camille Westmont has found thousands of artifacts, such as utensils and the plates prisoners ate off. She has also created a database listing the names of those sent to Lone Rock. A team of volunteers are helping her, including a woman reckoning with her own ancestor’s involvement in this corrupt system and the wealth her family benefited from.

The United States Steel Corp. helped build bridges, railroads and towering skyscrapers across America. But the company also relied on forced prison labor. After U.S. Steel took over Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad in 1907, the industrial giant used prison labor for at least five more years. During that time, more than 100 men died while working in its massive coal mining operation in Alabama. U.S. Steel has misrepresented this dark chapter of its history. And it has never apologized for its use of forced labor or the lives lost. The reporters push the company to answer questions about its past and engage with communities near the former mines.

This is an update of an episode that originally aired in September 2022.

Lone Rock Stockade in Tracy City, Tennessee, in an undated photo. Credit: Courtesy of Travis Turner

Dig Deeper

Read: Locked Up – The Prison Labor That Built Business Empires (Associated Press)

Read: “Slavery By Another Name” by Douglas Blackmon

Explore: The Lone Rock Stockade archaeology project

Watch: The documentary-in-progress “Ghosts of Lone Rock”


Reporters: Margie Mason and Robin McDowell | Lead producer: Michael Montgomery | Producer: Najib Aminy | Editors: Cynthia Rodriguez and Jenny Casas | Production and research support: Alexander Richey and Carmen White | Fact checkers: Nikki Frick and Kim Freda | Production managers: Steven Rascón and Zulema Cobb | Digital producer: Nikki Frick | Score and sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda | Post-production team: Kathryn Styer Martínez and Steven Rascón | Interim executive producers: Taki Telonidis and Brett Myers | Host: Al Letson

The show was produced in collaboration with the Associated Press. Special thanks to Robin McDowell, Margie Mason and editor Ron Nixon. The AP team had support from Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights in conjunction with the Arnold Foundation.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Park Foundation.


Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
Jerry Weeden: Hello.
Al Letson: In the summer of 2022, reporter Margie Mason got on the phone with a man in Tennessee.
Margie Mason: Let me just tell you who I am. I’m a reporter at the Associated Press and I have been working on a project in Tennessee.
Jerry Weeden: Mm-hmm.
Al Letson: She’s talking to Jerry Weeden. He’s a pastor in the town of Murfreesboro, southeast of Nashville. Margie and her reporting partner, Robin McDowell, found him after months of research. They’re convinced Jerry is the descendant of a Black man born around the time of the Civil War who was arrested for minor crime and forced to work in a private coal mine. It was a new form of slavery. These are difficult facts to share.
Margie Mason: They were rounding up men, mostly Black men, for what should have been misdemeanor crimes, and I have come across the name that I’m wondering if you have ever heard this name, Shelah Doss or Sheley Doss?
Jerry Weeden: No ma’am. Not at all.
Al Letson: Shelah Doss. Margie and Robin found his name in state prison records from the 1880s and then traced him to Jerry. At first, Jerry’s puzzled.
Margie Mason: Okay, well, you have Dosses in your family, right?
Jerry Weeden: Most of my family on my grandmother’s side, I really don’t know them.
Margie Mason: Let’s see. Lizzie. Lizzie. Lizzie married Tom Weeden Sr.
Jerry Weeden: That’s my grandmother. Lizzie Weeden. Yeah.
Margie Mason: Okay. So Lizzie’s mom, her name was Gertrude and she was-
Jerry Weeden: Yes, yes, yes.
Margie Mason: Yes. That would be your great-grandmother, right?
Jerry Weeden: Right. Yes.
Margie Mason: Okay. So then Gertrude’s father was a man named Shelah, S-H-E-L-A-H, Doss. And I guess Sheley is often kind of how he went, by the name of Sheley.
Jerry Weeden: Shut up.
Al Letson: Shelah’s story was nearly forgotten to history. Jerry’s eager to know more.
Margie Mason: He was arrested in 1885 for allegedly stealing a hog worth $5.
Jerry Weeden: I’m like … This is wild.
Al Letson: Shelah Doss was one of tens of thousands of Black men across the South who were arrested and leased to private companies for backbreaking work. It was a system known as convict leasing. Robin McDowell and Margie Mason have spent a large chunk of their careers investigating forced labor across the globe for the Associated Press. This week we’re revisiting a story from Robin and Margie that we first brought you last fall. It looks back 150 years at how private companies built empires of the forced labor of Black men through a corrupt legal system. Margie picks up the story at South Cumberland State Park in Tracy City, Tennessee.
Margie Mason: I’m in the mountain standing near a lake surrounded by trees. It’s peaceful now, but if you go back in time, a massive coal mining complex once covered these hills. I’m here with Camille Westmont. She’s an archeologist working with a team of volunteers to unearth a part of this history that’s been buried.
Camille Westmon…: If you were standing here 150 years ago, you truly would’ve been in the middle of something akin to an industrial wasteland. These trees would not have been here. Everything would’ve been covered in kind of a layer of coal particulates and really at the head of this valley as you looked up, you would’ve seen this massive prison.
Margie Mason: The prison was known as the Lone Rock Stockade and it was owned by Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad, one of the first companies listed on the Dow Jones Index. This coal mining operation was vital in the production of iron for the new South. Camille says the prison was designed to hold 200 people at a time.
Camille Westmon…: But we see from the records that by the 1890s, there’s well over 500 and at some points even over 600 individuals imprisoned here.
Margie Mason: Around 5,000 people passed through the gates of Lone Rock. Some of the prisoners were white and Native American. There were women too, but most were Black men like Shelah Doss.
Were there children too?
Camille Westmon…: So the youngest that I’ve seen in the records is 12. 12 to 16 is fairly common.
Margie Mason: We walked to the location where the prisoners were kept in cramped cells enclosed by two story high white walls that ran the length of a football field. Today there’s almost no trace of the stockade left, just woods, but Camille believes there’s more to be found underground.
Camille Westmon…: We know that there was a morgue, and we’re also hoping that we might be able to identify the location of the cemetery associated with the stockade.
Margie Mason: Some historians have written about the convict leasing system, but there’s been a lot less focus on Lone Rock. So what Camille is doing is new.
Camille Westmon…: The connections that I often make between convict leasing and what’s happening today is that convict leasing took incarceration and made it less about reform and more about generating profit.
Margie Mason: She started her work in 2019 as a researcher at the University of the South. Since then, she’s dug up thousands of small artifacts. She’s also found records in the state archives from inspectors and lawmakers who were appalled by the conditions at Lone Rock. One report describes the whip that guards used on naked prisoners.
Camille Westmon…: It weighs two and a half pounds and it’s made out of shoe leather. So it’s layers of shoe sole leather that have been bolted together. And the direct quote is, it would be inhumane to whip an ox with this whip, and they’re using it on humans.
Margie Mason: Tuberculosis, typhoid fever and other deadly diseases were rampant. Some men were killed by cave-ins and falling slate. Others were shot to death while trying to escape.
Camille Westmon…: This was an incredibly deadly industry, an incredibly deadly system.
Margie Mason: And how many years was this here?
Camille Westmon…: There were convict laborers in Tracy City for 25 years. These stockades had an annual mortality rate of 10%. Every year, 10% of the people who were imprisoned here died. So in 1894 when there’s 611 people imprisoned at the Lone Rock Stockade, approximately 60 people died, again, every year.
Margie Mason: So what did this place look like? So much time has passed, it’s hard to even imagine. Camille tells me about a photograph that’s been preserved. So I go see the man who has it. He lives off a country road about a mile from Lone Rock.
Travis Turner: The last time I came out of here, this key didn’t want to fit. It didn’t want to work, but we’ll get it.
Margie Mason: Travis Turner is a builder and a musician who comes from a long line of coal miners. He’s leading me into a two room building that he made for his late father, William Turner. William was an amateur historian and a prolific collector.
Travis Turner: Well, we’re in my dad’s little history museum where he stored about 70 some odd years of his collection.
Margie Mason: There are stacks of old newspapers, antique mining gear and scrip used in place of money at the old company store. Travis says some of the businessmen behind convict leasing were former slave holders and confederate officers.
Travis Turner: It was almost like in some cases, well, if we can’t have it the way we had it before, we’ll find another way to have it. It’s the new slavery and it was a way for people with money to get more money, and a lot of money was made on these poor people at the stockade.
Margie Mason: The prisoners did fight back on occasion. There were escapes, and there was also resistance from mostly white coal miners who were upset about the prisoners taking their jobs.
Travis Turner: There you go.
Margie Mason: Wow.
One of the most important artifacts in his collection is the image I’ve come to see.
Travis Turner: I think this photograph is probably from the 1890s. We’re looking at a large collection of men, armed men around looks like one unfortunate convict wearing his stripes.
Margie Mason: Two lines of white men stand in front of the stockade’s tall wooden walls. They’re holding rifles and some are dressed up in ties, black derby hats, and suit vests. The prisoner is sitting on the ground in front of them. He’s the only Black person in the photo.
Travis Turner: He looks hopeless and his fate must’ve been bad.
Margie Mason: This image captures in a flash the brutal power dynamics of the convict leasing system.
Taneya Koonce: So one of the first things that resonates with me about that photograph is you can pick up on the emotional undertones of what’s going on.
Margie Mason: Taneya Koonce heads the Nashville Chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society. She’s thought a lot about the man in the photo. None of us know who he is or what happened to him.
Taneya Koonce: Does he make it out of the stockade? Is he one of the many that died at the stockade? And if it is the end of his story, the fact that we have this picture means that we can make sure that we honor him in a way to use it as an expression of, okay, this is what happened at the stockade. We are telling the story. Your life ahead did not end there. It makes me want to cry because you’re looking at the scene and it’s atrocious.
Margie Mason: Telling the stories of the people imprisoned at Lone Rock is one way to make sure their history isn’t totally erased. And because Tennessee kept detailed records, we know the prisoners’ names, their alleged crimes, where they were convicted. It’s all written in elegant cursive in thick bound ledgers. Taneya and the other volunteers are working with Camille Westmont on the painstaking job of transferring the original entries into an online database.
Taneya Koonce: Our ability to transcribe the names is meaningful for us because it’s going to help us ensure that we get more information publicly available about the men and women who were there.
Margie Mason: This new database gives insight into the corrupt and racist legal system the prisoners faced. Miscegenation, a law intended to prevent interracial relationships could get you five years. And while some people were sent to Lone Rock for violent crimes, more than half of the prisoners were sent to the coal mines for stealing.
Taneya Koonce: They’re very, what would be minimal crimes, misdemeanors or even lower rank than that. But they were constructed against the African-American population specifically to provide an environment that would allow them to be taken to prison.
Margie Mason: Black communities were continuing to be ripped apart. It’s in the state records. During slavery, the number of Black people in Tennessee prisons rarely exceeded 5%. About 25 years after emancipation with convict leasing flourishing, the percentage of Black prisoners skyrocketed to 75%. Taneya says these were people with families.
Taneya Koonce: Anytime we have an opportunity to research who they were and who their families were, it’s a way of reconnecting the family back together. For as you know, African-Americans in this country had been purposefully disenfranchised from family.
Margie Mason: Reconnecting families, I set out to do just that. Find someone alive today whose ancestor was imprisoned at Lone Rock. But it was really hard. Census records were full of holes and inaccuracies, and family names sometimes changed. The prison ledgers were a start, but I needed more. So I scrolled through reams of microfilm that contained the full prison records. This is where I first came across Shelah Doss. His name caught my attention. It’s so unusual. Another thing, Shelah lived in the tiny town of Woodbury. What are the odds that more than one Shelah Doss lived there? I hit the phone, calling everywhere, the county courthouse, the library. I even tracked down the local genealogy expert.
Peggy: Hello.
Margie Mason: Hi, is this Peggy?
Peggy: Yes it is.
Margie Mason: No one had heard of Shelah Doss, but the name Shelah was familiar to Tim Gentry. He’s a funeral home director in Woodbury.
Tim Gentry: Around here, a lot of people would call that type of name, Sheley.
Margie Mason: Sheley.
Tim Gentry: This is kind of a slang way to say Shelah.
Margie Mason: Tim offered to get back to me, but in the meantime, I found the answer in a treasure trove of old newspaper obituaries. One for Shelah Doss’s daughter, Gertrude. That led me to her daughter Lizzie, then to Lizzie’s son, William Weeden. And in his 2007 obituary, I spotted a surviving son, Reverend Jerry Weeden. A simple Google search, and bingo, that’s how I found Jerry. Turns out he posts his sermons on Facebook.
Jerry Weeden: Understand you’re blessed.
Audience: Amen.
Margie Mason: A genealogy expert reviewed my research and confirmed that Jerry is Shelah Doss’s great-great-grandson. All of this is a backstory to my first phone call with Jerry.
Jerry Weeden: I am just floored right now. I am.
Margie Mason: Well, I’m so glad that you’re interested because I feel like I’ve been searching for you for months now.
Jerry Weeden: I have to meet you. I have to meet you.
Margie Mason: All right. Well, I’m coming down. I’m coming down to meet you…
A week and a half later, I’m at Ebenezer Primitive Baptist Church in Murfreesboro. Jerry’s the pastor. He’s also an educator.
Raumesh Akbari: Hey there.
Jerry Weeden: How you doing?
Raumesh Akbari: I’m good.
Jerry Weeden: Nice to meet you.
Margie Mason: Hi Jerry.
The church is one big room, warm, intimate. We sit down in the back and I open my laptop. I click a 50-page file with all my research, census data, death records, and old newspaper clippings. I scroll through the database listing the 5,000 prisoners sent to Lone Rock.
At 1,392, that is Shelah, and it’s written as Dopp, but it’s really D-O-S-S. And-
Jerry Weeden: Colored, DeKalb County.
Margie Mason: He was 19.
Jerry Weeden: 19. Height, 5’11 … I mean, 5’7.
Margie Mason: And a half. 159 pounds.
Jerry Weeden: Wow. That detailed.
Margie Mason: We sift through a copy of the original handwritten court case. Parts are hard to decipher. It says Shelah was convicted of larceny in 1885 and that he pleaded guilty.
Jerry Weeden: So he said he’s guilty. That’s what they say he said.
Margie Mason: That’s what they say he said.
Jerry Weeden: The court proceeded to selecting it. Jury of goods and lawful men. Right, yeah, I know what that means. The good old boys stacked the deck. They actually gave him one year for a whole.
Margie Mason: One year of hard labor at the Tracy City coal mines for allegedly stealing a pig.
He was tough because 10% of these guys died.
Jerry Weeden: Wow.
Margie Mason: 10%.
Jerry Weeden: Wow.
Margie Mason: And look at the detail here that they put.
Jerry Weeden: Scars on forehead, on left elbow, shoulder, scar on a little … They even looked at the man’s toes. So you pretty much had to strip naked, just let me look at your whole body and we’re going to document every scar you have.
Margie Mason: Because back then, they weren’t taking pictures or anything.
Jerry Weeden: No.
Margie Mason: So this is like if he escaped-
Jerry Weeden: That’s his photograph. This is how we’re going to identify him. Pull his shirt up, take his shoes off.
Margie Mason: I haven’t found any photos of Shelah, but I do have a copy of the picture that Travis Turner showed me. The one with the single Black prisoner surrounded by armed white men looking proud of themselves. I know this is something Jerry will want to see.
This was the stockade and this is the only picture that we know, and this stockade is where Sheley Doss would’ve spent his year.
Jerry stares at the photo.
Jerry Weeden: Wow. And they all are posing.
Margie Mason: It’s a lot to take in.
Jerry Weeden: It is. I’m not angry, but yeah, you can’t fathom what took place inside of there or how they was treated. Can’t go anywhere. I can’t fight you. I can’t do anything. And to put it in perspective now, some boys are still fighting for our lives, even though we are free.
Margie Mason: Jerry and I follow Shelah’s life after he was released. We can see that as a convicted felon, he lost his right to vote forever.
Jerry Weeden: So I’m just existing just to exist. I’m nobody. This is one way to silence the voice of a lot of folks.
Margie Mason: Shelah didn’t let his time at the prison coal mine define him. He settled down. He and Fannie, his wife of 50 years, had 10 daughters. He worked hard, farming and doing manual labor. He owned a home and lived into his eighties.
And there’s his death certificate. And then it says…
He left a legacy that Jerry never even realized existed until now.
Al Letson: Margie and Jerry spend an entire morning at his church going through Shelah Doss’s life on paper. But Jerry wants to see something real. He wants to go to Lone Rock. That’s coming up next on Reveal.
From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. This week we’re revisiting a story about a 19th century prison stockade in Tennessee. Thousands of Black men were incarcerated there and forced to work in dangerous coal mines for one of America’s biggest corporations. Many didn’t make it out alive.
Jerry Weeden: I’ve never heard this in my years of going to school. This needs to be told, needs to be known, not just by African American, but everyone.
Al Letson: Jerry Weeden just learned that his great-great-grandfather’s name was found in the records of the prison, and he wants to get a sense of what his ancestor, Shelah Doss, experienced when he was arrested and sent to the mines, and that’s what brought him to Tracy City to meet Associated Press reporter, Margie Mason.
Margie Mason: Jerry and I have driven just over an hour into the mountains to see what’s left of the harsh environment Shelah Doss encountered. And now we’re standing in the same Tennessee State Park I visited at the beginning of my research where the Lone Rock prison stockade once stood.
Jerry Weeden: Words cannot do justice to what I see and what we see now.
Margie Mason: There are rows of what look like brick pizza ovens dug into an embankment. Some are tall enough to walk inside. They’re coke ovens and they were used to burn the impurities out of coal for the production of iron.
These coke ovens are everywhere. There’s a whole bunch.
Jerry Weeden: I see it there.
Margie Mason: There’s a ton of them there. This was a major operation.
Jerry Weeden: It’s amazing just being this close to us and never knowing what took place here. And just looking at it and just going over what we have talked about so far is just mind-blowing.
Margie Mason: To get a closer look, Jerry moves up a steep grassy bank and stops at a coke oven. He reaches up and touches the bricks on top of the dome, then he closes his eyes. Men like Shelah were forced to rake the coke from the floors of the smoldering ovens. The roaring heat and smoke were so intense it was like working in an inferno.
Jerry Weeden: There’s no way I would survive this. I promise you I couldn’t. I can’t put into words. That’s why I had to touch the oven to just know that, okay, he was here and just try to embody what they felt and what they went through. Even just standing here on this ground, I’m like, wow, it’s amazing. How was life? Yes, it was hard, but yet it’s still what pulled these guys through this.
Margie Mason: It’s a little surreal. I’m here with Jerry going through this brutal history while behind us, families are picnicking and kids are swimming in the lake. Across from the coke ovens, Jerry checks out two new historical markers. They spell out how Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad grew rich from men like Shelah Doss.
Jerry Weeden: The property value was valued at a million dollars and included 21 miles of railroad track, five locomotives, 500 coal cars, and 120 coke ovens. Good gracious.
Margie Mason: Just then, Camille Westmont joins us.
Camille Westmon…: It is so wonderful to meet you.
Jerry Weeden: How you doing? Yes, ma’am.
Camille Westmon…: Thank you for coming out.
Jerry Weeden: You’re welcome.
Margie Mason: She’s the archeologist who’s been researching Lone Rock, so I wanted her to meet Jerry.
Camille Westmon…: This place has been here for 150 years, but there was never any kind of interpretation as to what it was. And so after I started the Archeology project, they came in and put these in.
Jerry Weeden: And we have to face the truth, all people.
Camille Westmon…: This explains so much. Slavery didn’t end with a civil war. Slavery just kept going.
Jerry Weeden: You are talking my language. I just literally said what you’re saying. This is part of my family. So this is big to me that we know this and you just can’t look at the horrific events that took place and just shut down because you got to deal with this hurt. And a lot of folks don’t want to deal with this hurt to heal.
Margie Mason: We moved from the coke ovens up a hill and into the woods where the prison complex once stood. Camille points out where the dining hall used to be. It doubled as the prison church.
So we’re standing kind of in the church area.
Camille Westmon…: Yeah. Just about. Just about.
Jerry Weeden: Hallelujah. Bless us, Jesus.
Margie Mason: Jerry needs a moment.
Jerry Weeden: I’m just listening to things that are dropping or whatever it is going on in here, and I can just imagine these men being here and just … I wonder, did they hear the same thing we’re hear? I’m sorry. Just pay me no mind.
Margie Mason: We spend the whole day exploring Shelah Doss life. As we’re about to leave, Jerry tells me he rode his motorcycle through this area just a few days earlier, but he had no idea what happened here or how it touched his own family.
Jerry Weeden: So now every time if we do come this way, I will never forget this place.
Margie Mason: I researched the names of more than a hundred people who were sent to Lone Rock like Shelah Doss, but finding their descendants was difficult. I kept hitting dead ends. So for now, Jerry is the only person I’ve met whose ancestor was imprisoned at the stockade. But I find someone else whose family history leads back to Lone Rock in a very different way.
Francis Mulder: My name is Francis Mulder. I’m a bit of a writer. I’ve written a few books and I’m also a bit of an activist.
Margie Mason: Francis is a retired sociology professor who lives in Connecticut, but her roots are in Tennessee. She grew up in Knoxville in the 1950s when racial violence was erupting across the South. She says her parents were involved in supporting the civil rights movement.
Francis Mulder: My understanding of racism at that time was kind of they’re these bad individuals and they hate Black people and there’s no reason for it, and we’re the good people attempting to make things better.
Margie Mason: But it was much more complicated than that. There was another side to her family’s history that she only came to understand later. It’s centered around her great granduncle, a man named Thomas O’Connor.
Francis Mulder: When I was a kid growing up, what I really heard was the story of Thomas O’Connor is kind of a colorful figure in town.
Margie Mason: O’Connor was one of the richest men in Tennessee. He died in a shootout in downtown Knoxville in 1882. It was a big deal. The Associated Press wrote about it and Mark Twain did too in his book, Life on the Mississippi.
Francis Mulder: So I knew about that, but I did not know that the money that he made was from leasing the convicts and working them for nothing in these coal mines.
Margie Mason: This is how it worked. Thomas O’Connor and his partners paid the state to take all of Tennessee’s prisoners, then O’Connor turned around and leased the prisoners out to work at private companies. As a middleman, O’Connor raked in so much money, he became one of the owners of Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad. That’s the company that owned the Lone Rock Stockade and coal mines. Francis says O’Connor’s wealth was squandered well before she was born, but she still benefited from the family’s social capital.
Francis Mulder: I was able to go to college. I went to graduate school. I’ve lived most of my life in the middle class, and part of it is racing right back to that family history.
Margie Mason: Now in her seventies, Francis says she feels an obligation to speak out, so she’s writing articles and posting them online about her family’s complicity in convict leasing. She’s described how her great-grandparents lived near Lone Rock in Tracy City and that prisoners from the stockade were forced to work as servants in their home.
Francis Mulder: It was a family enterprise. This is something that I was benefiting from and connected to.
Margie Mason: Francis is also volunteering to help Camille Westmont build the online database with the names of the people sent to the stockade.
Francis Mulder: Their names have just been lost to history. They suffered there. They died there. And I think, Thomas O’Connor put these people in the ground, and who are they?
Margie Mason: I told Jerry Weeden about Francis and her family. He was interested and said one day he’d like to meet her.
Jerry Weeden: What would come from this if we really just sat down and just talked about this? It would do great for both parties as healing.
Margie Mason: Jerry says talking with Francis is one thing, but he’d really like to see action from the state of Tennessee. It’s about accountability. While there are growing calls nationwide for reparations to address racial injustices, Jerry says it all starts with a formal acknowledgement.
Jerry Weeden: For me, money is not the big issue. It’s having the dialogue and to bring to light what the state has done. And I think this is something that needs to be done publicly to let everyone know that this took place. It actually did. We can’t go back in time, but we can tell those families we’re sorry.
Margie Mason: Tennessee has never officially apologized for convict leasing, but there’s a push to challenge language in the state constitution that gave the system legal cover. It says slavery and involuntary servitude are banned except as punishment for a crime.
Raumesh Akbari: People are surprised that, hey, there still is an exception for slavery in our constitution.
Margie Mason: State Senator Raumesh Akbari introduced an amendment to the Tennessee constitution that would remove this exception.
Raumesh Akbari: It will close a loophole that will forever eliminate any exception for slavery in the state of Tennessee, and I think that’s what we want.
Margie Mason: But she faced opposition from fellow lawmakers. Even a denial that this exception was real.
Speaker 12: I just think it’s ultimately fake history to be telling our voters that the 1870 Constitution allowed slavery. It clearly did not.
Speaker 13: And I can’t explain this amendment and I don’t understand it, so I guess I’ll be voting no on this.
Margie Mason: Tennessee isn’t alone in this effort. Other states are challenging similar language. So are lawmakers in Washington DC. They want to remove the same exception that’s in the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution. Ultimately in Tennessee, both sides of the legislature approved Akbari’s proposal to ban slavery for everyone, including people sent to prison. And voters passed the amendment in November, 2022.
Raumesh Akbari: I’m happy that there’s been a lot of chatter around the constitutional amendment. We have to preserve and learn about this history. This is our history. Good, bad, ugly, it’s our history.
Margie Mason: The day after Jerry and I visit the place where his ancestor was imprisoned, I’m back at his church in Murfreesboro.
It’s Sunday morning and they’re testing the PA system for Jerry’s 8:00 AM sermon. Jerry is in a suit and tie. He’s laughing, shaking hands with people, and giving hugs. His family’s here too.
Jerry Weeden: Let the church say amen.
Audience: Amen.
Jerry Weeden: Let the church say amen.
Audience: Amen.
Jerry Weeden: No, come on. We can do better. Let the church say amen.
Audience: Amen.
Margie Mason: Jerry’s up at the pulpit, microphone in hand. A couple dozen people are seated in the wooden pews. He’s getting the congregation going.
Jerry Weeden: You glad to be here this morning? Anybody got something to say thank you for over here? I got to find out where I’m going to stand at today. Anybody over here glad to be here today? Come on. Anybody over here glad? Yeah. You just didn’t wake up just to wake up. You woke up-
Margie Mason: This church has quite a history. About a hundred years ago, the federal government threatened to demolish it to make way for a park commemorating a major civil war battle at Stones River. So the congregation got together, they moved the church by hand to the place where it now stands. As Jerry winds down his message, he touches on this story.
Jerry Weeden: Your forefathers that planted this place were told by the government, if you don’t move it, we’re going to burn it down. And I thank God that someone stood right there and looked him in the face and said, not this place. And how many of us will do the same thing, have enough strength to look hell in the face and say, not today? You got to stand flatfooted, look trouble right in the face, not today.
Margie Mason: Jerry sees a powerful connection between the tenacity of his church and the story he’s just learned about his ancestor, Shelah Doss.
Jerry Weeden: Yesterday we took a trip that was life-changing. I got to see where they, in prison, my great-great-grandfather and the things that they did in Tracy City. And from that, I got to embody what they went through. It is amazing that these things happen this close to home, but we never hear about it. I don’t want to let this die.
I want to know, where did I come from? Who am I? And this is really putting puzzle pieces together for me to understand the man I’ve become is from them. Without Shelah, there’ll be no me.
Al Letson: Shelah Doss left Lone Rock in 1886 and the prison shut down a decade later. But the Tennessee coal mining company didn’t stop using forced labor. It moved south to Alabama where it would merge with one of America’s biggest corporations, one that’s still a powerful force today, U.S. Steel.
Ellen Spencer: They profited from this system and to this day they have not acknowledged that they were wrong.
Al Letson: That’s coming up next on Reveal. From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
In 1960, the United States Steel Corporation put out a promotional film celebrating its early beginnings in the South. It opens with three soldiers gathered around a campfire, lamenting losing the civil war.
Speaker 15: The war all finished, and the South is finished.
Speaker 16: The South finished?
Al Letson: But they’re hopeful.
Speaker 15: You know what’s underneath here? Coal. The coal, and iron, and ore is going to build a new South. I don’t say it’ll be easy, but I do say that these sorry looking little [inaudible 00:35:39] coal mines of ours someday bring a whole new way of life to the South.
Al Letson: The film is triumphant, redemptive, and incomplete. The coal and iron that help rebuild the South, it would come from work done in part by thousands of prisoners like Shelah Doss. The film doesn’t mention convict leasing or those who died in the mines. Margie’s reporting partner at the Associated Press, Robin McDowell, has been focusing on this ugly chapter of the company’s history. She takes the story from here.
Robin McDowell: Convict leasing was being used across the South, but in the late 1800s it started to get a bad name in Tennessee. Coal miners were tired of competing for their jobs against unpaid prisoners. And when they tried to strike for higher wages, prisoners were brought in and used as scabs, and eventually those mostly white miners pushed back.
Pete Seeger: So one dark night, several hundred miners walked down to the prison stockade and at gunpoint they demanded the warden free all the prisoners.
Robin McDowell: That’s the late folk singer, Pete Seeger, telling the story of this coal miner rebellion.
Pete Seeger: And there was a song down there that told more of the story. (singing).
Robin McDowell: These uprising by free miners were violent and sometimes deadly, and they cost the state and companies a lot of money. They also soured public opinion, helping pave the way for an end to convict leasing in Tennessee. That was a big problem for Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad. The company relied heavily on this cheap labor. The solution was just a state away, Alabama. In 1895, TCI, as the company was known, moved its headquarters to Birmingham. The state was perfect. It had rich deposits of coal and all the other minerals needed to make iron and steel. And here convict leasing was still booming. At the time, it made up more than 70% of Alabama’s total revenue. But things didn’t go as planned. The economy faltered. TCI found itself deep in debt and eventually it was bought out by its biggest competitor.
Speaker 19: We’re helping build America’s bridges. At United States Steel, we’re involved.
Robin McDowell: U.S. Steel was founded by the giants of the Gilded Age, Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan. It helped build the nation, think bridges, railroads, skyscrapers, and it was the first American company to be worth more than $1 billion.
Speaker 20: Making good steel isn’t easy. It takes the best materials, the best machinery, the best men, men who are proud to be called steel men.
Robin McDowell: U.S. Steel took over TCI in 1907. For the next five years, it continued to send prisoners into its mines. I found the names of more than a hundred men who died on their watch. State prison reports say some were crushed by falling rock, some were electrocuted, many more died of diseases. Other prisoners were killed while trying to escape. I wanted to know more, so I went looking for answers in a neighborhood in Birmingham called Pratt City. It’s where U.S. Steel’s sprawling mining complex used to be. Hundreds of men once worked side by side here digging coal with picks or shoveling coke from scorching ovens. On a county map of this area, there’s a small parcel of land marked cemetery with a little cross, but in person it just looks like a forest next to a park. The cemetery is so overgrown it’s hard to fight through the brush. But Jack Bergstresser knows his way around here.
Jack Bergstress…: The biggest issue right now is avoiding fallen trees, and you guys might spot some sunken graves or something before I do.
Robin McDowell: Jack first entered these woods back in 1994. He’s an industrial archeologist who was hired to map the remains of coke ovens, mine shafts, and railroad lines for the US government. That’s when he stumbled on what he soon realized was a cemetery.
Tony Bingham: We’ll be making enough noise to avoid any-
Robin McDowell: Snakes.
Tony Bingham: Yeah.
Robin McDowell: Jack brought along a friend and fellow explorer. Tony Bingham is a local college professor and an artist. His work has explored African-American grave sites around Birmingham.
Tony Bingham: I think we as a people are really in a search for the past. Not to be pulled down by it in certain ways, but how can sites like this, if anything, inform us of how not to be as a country, as Americans?
Robin McDowell: We spend about an hour making our way through the brush.
Jack Bergstress…: Nobody has x-ray vision, but these long depressions with oval ends are characteristic of sunken graves.
Robin McDowell: We start to find rows of them, sunken depressions, the kind that are left when people are buried in cheap pine boxes that decompose and collapse underground. Jack and Tony have seen dozens of these graves here and at other sites.
Tony Bingham: I went through the anger phase earlier, and now I’m more in sort of a preservationist phase to be sure that this site is studied by archeologists and protected.
Robin McDowell: But the graves are getting harder and harder to find.
Jack Bergstress…: The likelihood that this was a convict cemetery is very high, but you don’t know until you set up a systematic archeological survey of this area.
Robin McDowell: More than 20 years ago, Jack brought journalist Doug Blackmon to the same cemetery. Doug wrote a story for the Wall Street Journal and later a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on convict leasing and U.S. Steel’s role in it.
Doug Blackmon: The company very much so understood they needed to keep those laborers as long as they could, and they fought to do that.
Robin McDowell: But U.S. Steel misrepresented this part of the company’s past, and created its own narrative.
Doug Blackmon: What U.S. Steel decided to do when they talked to me was to blindly latch onto a claim that the company had made a hundred years earlier. The claim being that U.S. Steel had in fact been an agent for ending these terrible practices in Alabama.
Robin McDowell: The company did end its contracts for convict labor in 1912, 16 years before Alabama became the last state to outlaw the practice. But U.S. Steel didn’t stop leasing prisoners by choice.
Doug Blackmon: It only stopped because they were outmaneuvered and other companies successfully won those contracts and boxed out U.S. Steel. As far as I’m aware, U.S. Steel has done absolutely nothing to acknowledge their role in convict leasing. Beyond the most meaningless expression of regret, I’m not aware of the company having done anything whatsoever.
Robin McDowell: I wanted to see what U.S. Steel had to say about all this today in response to our own reporting. At first, I was told no one was available to talk to me, so I sent my questions about the cemetery, the people buried there, and company records from its convict leasing years. After many follow-ups, a spokeswoman confirmed that the company still owns the cemetery but doesn’t know who’s buried there, and has no plans to disturb the site. Ellen Spencer says she’s had many opportunities to leave Pratt City, but she’s been a resident for the last 30 years.
Ellen Spencer: I love the area, I love my neighbors. We all have challenges. No matter where you live, you have challenges, but we’ve had our share and somebody else’s share too.
Robin McDowell: When U.S. Steel was operating here, it was praised for building up the surrounding community. But the company left decades ago, and there’s little sign of those investments now.
Ellen Spencer: If you notice, one of the things that we do not have here in Pratt is just some of the basic amenities, grocery store, health facility. We don’t have those things here and that’s something that we’ve been pushing for the longest.
Robin McDowell: Ellen is Pratt’s community president, and she’s part of a local group that’s working to honor victims of racial violence. She says the history of convict leasing in Pratt is still new to a lot of people.
Ellen Spencer: I think it hasn’t or wasn’t told because it was just so traumatic and they just chose not to relive it.
Robin McDowell: The group is making a quilt and working to erect a historic marker near the main library. She thinks a lot would change if companies like U.S. Steel started talking honestly about the past.
Ellen Spencer: I think it would be better if those companies would come out and say we were here and we didn’t do everything that we could have done, but we are acknowledging now that we need to assist you all with building up the area.
Robin McDowell: A couple weeks before this story was going to air, U.S. Steel sent me a statement that I wanted to share with Ellen.
So I just wanted to tell you a little bit about what’s happening.
So I went back to see her and read the most relevant parts.
U.S. Steel does not condone the practices of a century ago. Given the amount of time that has lapsed, we unfortunately do not have comprehensive records relative to the situation. We would be pleased to consider a memorial plaque should members of the affected community express an interest. We also would be happy to meet with them and discuss these topics.
Ellen Spencer: Okay. As large as U.S. Steel is and was, I can’t believe that they don’t have records or they didn’t have records of the people that they had as slave labor. That is something I just can’t believe for a company like them.
Robin McDowell: When it comes to honoring victims of convict leasing, other places are putting up memorials. And I had asked U.S. Steel if that was something they would consider for Pratt City, but Ellen says the community needs more than a symbolic gesture.
Ellen Spencer: A plaque, no way. No. No. Lives were lost. No. I’m sorry. If they want to be fair or show some compassion or show that we’re sorry for what happened, there are many areas here in Pratt that can be upgraded, and U.S. Steel has the funds to do it, and this is the opportunity to do something for the community.
Robin McDowell: Ellen says any kind of community project that doesn’t address the actual history here would miss the point.
Ellen Spencer: History is, whether it’s good or bad, it’s your history. They want to push it under the rug with a plaque, probably a ceremony, and we’ll be out of their hair. That won’t work.
Al Letson: Ellen’s home is just a couple miles from the coal mines that U.S. Steel operated more than a century ago. The abandoned cemetery is the only reminder of this past, but thousands of men were forced to work at these mines and their stories should not be lost. It’s U.S. Steel’s story too, and Alabama, and Tennessee’s. The question now is how will it be told?
Our lead producer for today’s show was Michael Montgomery. Cynthia Rodriguez edited this episode along with Jenny Casas. We had production and research support from Alexander Richie and Carmen White. Vicki McGill was our genealogical researcher. The show was produced in collaboration with the Associated Press. Special thanks to Robin, Margie, and their editor, Ron Nixon. They had support from Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights in conjunction with Arnold Ventures.
Nikki Frick is our fact-checker. She had help from Kim Freda. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our production managers are Steven Rascón and Zulema Cobb. Score and sound designed by the dynamic duo, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando, my man, yo, Arruda. Our post-production team for this show included Kathryn Styer Martinez. Our CEO is Robert Rosenthal. Our COO is Maria Feldman. Our interim executive producers are Taki Telonidis and Brett Myers. Our theme music is by Camerado-Lightning.
Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Park Foundation, and the Hellman Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.