Historic US 62W built by convict labor
Excerpt from Lovely County Citizen — by Donice Woodside — 2/1/2007
EUREKA SPRINGS – “Mom said they worked day in and day out with a ball and chain. The chain was about 20 feet long and the ball was enormous – the size of a bowling ball,” said Eureka Springs native Joanne Johnson, recalling her mother’s descriptions of the convict labor crew consigned to construct US62W.
As a child, Johnson’s mother, Pearl Crews, accompanied her mother, Martha Bell Herndon, on frequent trips into Eureka Springs. Herndon was a midwife. She was widowed with six children when her husband, a sawmiller, was inexplicably shot and killed at Hillspeak while felling a tree.
Rather than leave Pearl at home in the care of older brothers, Herndon brought her daughter along wherever she went. Mother and daughter regularly passed the convict work crew and their Leatherwood Creek encampment on treks into Eureka Springs.
“My mother said they felt a little nervous at first,” said Johnson, “but they got used to it. The workers never bothered them.
“When my mother and grandmother would pass in the evening, the workers would be sitting, visiting and eating – still with their balls and chains.
“The tents at the encampment were huge,” she said. “They put on singing programs every now and then through the summer, and people would come and listen.”
Carroll County native Ted Scates remembers stories told to him by Bill Crews – his lifelong friend and Johnson’s father. Crews died in 1979 just before his 76th birthday.
“Bill said when he was about 12 years old his daddy bought their first car – a Model T Ford. They’d drive over to the camp on Sunday evenings and listen to the prisoners sing. He said it was real good singing. Everybody would donate them a little money.
“They worked them hard,” said Scates. “Bill said they’d beat them – even kill them. There’s a cave above Leatherwood Creek. One hot day, two of the prisoners hid in that cave. When the guards finally found them, Bill said they got them out and killed them. At least, that’s what he was told.
“All of the prisoners were black. They worked with picks and shovels. The guards were black, too,” said Scates. “They rode up and down on horseback with whips.”
The convict lease system
In the post-Civil War South, the convict lease system served to fill the vacuum left by the abolition of slave labor. States leased prisoners to private enterprises which put them to work building railroads, mining coal or laboring on plantations.
In the decades after the war, Jim Crow laws permitted arrests of African-Americans for violations as minor as vagrancy, gambling or drunkenness, and African-American prison populations ballooned. When the state prison in Little Rock became overcrowded, Arkansas began leasing its surplus prisoners to contractors at a rate of one dollar per prisoner per day.
According to historian Matthew J. Mancini, Arkansas differed from other southern states in that it often paid companies to work its surplus prisoners. With no state oversight, companies held absolute dominion over the fate of convicts, and secret graveyards near mines and plantations were common.
Death rates among leased convicts were ten times that of other prisoners. In 1873, 25 percent of African-American leased convicts died.
Jefferson Davis, Arkansas’ 20th governor, was the first to oppose convict leasing. In 1907, his successor, Governor John Sebastian Little, asked the Arkansas Legislature to end the practice, but two days later, Little collapsed and never recovered.
In 1912, Arkansas’ 22nd governor, George Washington Donaghey, finally ended convict leasing by pardoning 360 prisoners – 37 percent of the prison population. Most had been convicted of minor crimes and had served a third of their sentences. With no surplus prisoners to lease, the program was effectively ended. Two months later, Arkansas made convict leasing illegal.
The chain gang
Donaghey’s actions did not end forced labor entirely. In his 1914 essay on the use of convict labor, Sydney Wilmot argued “Convicts are the property of the state to be used as the state in its own wisdom and sovereign authority sees fit.” This sentiment prevailed, and, throughout the rural South, states began using chain gangs to build roads.
Mortality rates for African-American prisoners remained high. According to the Encyclopedia of American History, “Convicts labored from sunup to sundown and slow workers were punished with the whip. Prisoners died of exhaustion, sunstroke, frostbite, pneumonia, gunshot wounds, and shackle-poisoning caused by the constant rubbing of chains on flesh.”
In spite of its stigma as an outgrowth of the convict-lease system, the practice of working chain gangs on state and county projects in the South persisted throughout the first half of the twentieth century.