The University of Georgia’s Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library takes a closer look at Georgia’s incarceration history in the new exhibit The New South and New Slavery: Convict Labor in Georgia, now on display at the Richard B. Russell Building Special Collections Libraries. The display examines the forced labor of prisoners in the state from the beginnings of the convict lease system in the 19thcentury until the abolition of the chain gang in 1945.
After the American Civil War, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1865, freed thousands of enslaved people and outlawed forced labor except for use as punishment for a crime. Utilizing this loophole, the Georgia General Assembly legalized the leasing of prisoners for profit to private individuals and companies in 1866. Under pressure for reform, the state abolished the convict lease system in 1908, but soon after implemented the chain gang system.
The exhibit uses penitentiary reports, lease contracts, correspondence and newspaper articles to explore the motivations of the businessmen and politicians who created these systems and to illuminate the lives of prisoners who toiled within them. Cultural productions, including autobiography, literature, film and songs reveal the many ways prison labor has come to be represented in American memory.
Sidonia Serafini, a doctoral student in UGA’s department of English in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, curated the exhibit during an internship in the summer of 2018. Serafini says that she gained some valuable skills during her summer project. “I learned how to tell a story through objects, first and foremost, and words, second. And I enhanced my research skills, something I can use in planning future classes that I teach.”
The exhibit script and selected artifacts have inspired faculty from UGA and Spelman College to co-create the Georgia Incarceration Performance Project, a devised archives-to-performance collaboration with students and community partners. Collaborators will debut a finished production as part of the University Theatre season during the 2019 Spotlight on the Arts Festival on the UGA campus this November, as well as in the production seasons of Spelman Drama and Spelman Dance in February 2020.
In addition, Mary Ellen Curtin, associate professor of critical race, gender, and culture studies at American University, will present a lecture entitled “Was It Justice? Convict Labor and the Practice of Punishment in America,” at 5:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 16, in the auditorium of the Special Collections Building.
The New South and New Slavery will remain on display through Dec. 13, 2019. The Hargrett Library Gallery is free and open to the public Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Saturdays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. For more information about the exhibit contact Jan Hebbard at firstname.lastname@example.org or 706-583-0213.
About the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library
The Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library collects, preserves and provides access to an extensive collection of the published and unpublished works that document the history and culture of the state of Georgia. Housed in the Richard B. Russell Building Special Collections Libraries at the University of Georgia, the Hargrett Library is built upon the largest, most distinguished collection documenting Georgia and includes assemblages that encompass natural history, ecology and environmentalism, book arts, performing arts, journalism and women's history. In addition, it houses the archives of the University of Georgia, the nation’s first state-chartered university, and is home to the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame and the Lillian Smith Book Awards.