"Ef dat uz a crime, all chain-gangs wouldn’t be black"
Chain gang prisoners and guards, Thomasville, Georgia, c.1890
Public DomainChain gang prisoners and guards, Thomasville, Georgia, c.1890 - Credit: Library of Congress

Chain-gangs are a southern invention that first appeared in the early 20th century. They were envisioned as part of a progressive reform programme that would also answer the public need for improved transportation. Shackled together by their ankles, prisoners were set to work laying roads and digging ditches under the vigilant watch of an armed white overseer. For many southerners, chain-gangs represented a comforting continuation of slavery whereby forced black labour came under state control rather than that of plantation owners. Correspondingly, they began to lose public favour as an increasing number of whites joined their ranks. The Great Depression also contributed to their decline as those struggling to find employment argued that prisoners were taking work that should rightfully be offered as wage labour. By the 1940s, most had been discontinued.


A black chain-gang demolishing rocks
Public DomainA black chain-gang demolishing rocks - Credit: Alan Lomax

This Mickey Mouse cartoon from 1930 offers a quirky take on the hardship and drudgery of chain-gang life.