Tennessee professors and historians uncover state’s history of inmate rentals in Grundy County


The nearly forgotten story of the Tennessee convict hire, which used prison labor to mine coal in the mountains during the 1800s, is brought to light by a team of professors and genealogists across the state.

Camille Westmont, a postdoctoral fellow in historical archeology at the University of the South at Sewanee, seeks answers to the dark past of Lone Rock Stockade in Grundy County.

Westmont started the project a few years ago after a local museum volunteer told him that Tracy City coal had been mined by prisoners.

Today, the ovens where the coal was processed, called coke ovens, can still be seen from the side of the road as you drive through the mountains. It was in these mines and coke ovens that African American men were often forced to work after being jailed on racial grounds, such as interracial marriage.

(READ MORE: Mining history)

After the Civil War, prisons began to hire out prison labor from private companies, Westmont said. These targeted laws called “black codes” were designed to keep black men in jail so that they could provide free work for businesses. Conditions in the prisons were often horrendous and included violence, starvation, cramped quarters and disease.

At the western end of the Cumberland Plateau, a mining company replaced an old Union Army palisade called the Lone Rock Stockade, which was built when the Union Army took over the local coal mine . The insufficiencies of the military palisade as a prison are probably what led to the construction of the Lone Rock Palisade around 1872 – to have a purpose-built prison right next to the new Lone Rock mine.

(READ MORE: Tennessee to resume coal mining regulations with industry at low)

Excavation of the fence

“Through selective law enforcement and increased sentences, they were able to trap African American men in these cycles of incarceration,” Westmont said. ‘They could sell [them] within the framework of the system of tenancy of the condemned.

Not all Tennessians were fans of this practice, even in the 1800s. According to a November 16, 1891 article in The Sun, the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railway Co. owned the mines where the prisoners worked, and other mines nearby employed freemen who worked for wages. The miners were angry at the treatment of the prisoners and took up arms against the company, which hired up to 1,500 convicts a year. The article stated that the Lone Rock mine had been operated by convicts since 1871, and Westmont said it was burned down by residents on August 13, 1892.

“A great white mountain-side sepulcher where shame and brutality suffocate all manhood,” the Sun’s headline said.

The story includes descriptions of bloody blows and death.

(READ MORE: Robbins: Tennessee Coal, member of the First Dow Jones Industrial Average)

Westmont is looking for signs of a cemetery outside the stockade, where an estimated 800 prisoners died and were buried. Westmont has original prison records with the names of the deceased men and said she spoke with locals who saw bones and grave markings in the ground.

It is not known exactly where the cemetery is and who is still there, or if any tombstones remain. Westmont used a combination of technologies to try to find the location, including lidar, which stands for light sensing and ranging. Westmont will wait for leaves to fall from the trees to use lidar to locate potential graves or a cemetery, she said.

In the meantime, without a physical location, she is partnering with Taneya Koonce, president of the Tennessee section of the African-American Historical and Genealogical Society in Nashville. Koonce works to research family trees to connect potential surviving family members and descendants of deceased men in the stockade.

Koonce first heard about Westmont a year ago when they were introduced through a joint colleague and said raising awareness was a priority for the project as so many people are unaware of the history of the detainee lease or its effects. She said that during a meeting with Westmont and volunteers from the Genealogical Society, there came a point when it became clear that men needed to be properly recalled.

“It’s not just names on a page,” Koonce says. We would know their families, who were their future generations. One of our participants said, ‘Can we just stop and read the names? So we just read the names. It’s just recognize them, put a stamp on them. story at a time when they were cast. “

Koonce and Westmont are also joined by Christopher McDonough, Alderson-Tillinghast Chair in Humanities at Sewanee, who is filming a documentary on mining and convict leasing. He said that with this story recovered, it should not be forgotten anymore.

(READ MORE: Elliott: ‘A Shameful and Shameful Act’: Destruction of the Cornerstone of Sewanee)

“We live in the shadow of such stories, and we are not free to ignore them,” McDonough said. “Lone Rock is a story of great misery for many and great profit for others. We have to think about what we will do with this knowledge.”

Kooncé accepted. While finding the cemetery won’t change the genealogical society’s goals, she hopes it will give more context to African American history in the United States. More importantly, she wants to continue working with Westmont on a project that could take many years due to the number of men imprisoned and enslaved in the Palisade. She said she hopes to unify the black community through archaeological and genealogical work.

“I hope this will continue to contribute to national awareness of what has happened to African Americans in this country,” Koonce said. “It’s a conversation that can never stop being held. There is so much injustice, and it’s another layer of it.”

Learn more at TennesseeLookout.com.

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