Justice  /  Book Excerpt

What a Series of Killings in Rural Georgia Revealed About Early 20th-Century America

On the continuing regime of racial terror in the post-Civil War American South.

A January weekday at the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse in downtown Atlanta—today the home of the Eleventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, but in 1921, a busy warren of federal offices. Two special agents of the United States Department of Justice’s Bureau of Investigation, the forerunner of today’s FBI, were working at their desks on the third floor when up walked a Black man named Gus Chapman.

Thirty-nine years old and worn for his age, Chapman told the agents that he had been living in Atlanta the previous spring when he was picked up on a loitering charge. Fined five dollars, unable to pay it, he was facing hard labor on the chain gang when a young farmer approached him in the jail. Come home with me, he said, and you can work out your fine there. You’ll be happy you did. It’ll be like a home to you.

And so Chapman accompanied Hulon Williams home to Jasper County, in the cotton country forty miles southeast of the city, and to a sprawling plantation owned by Williams’s father. He quickly saw that “Mr. Hulon” had oversold its charms. Chapman received no pay. He was forced at the end of a gun barrel to work from dawn to well past dark. He was forbidden to leave the premises under threat of death. He was locked up at night in a bunkhouse crowded with other prisoners, and whipped for any infraction, real or imagined. The Bureau agents recognized the conditions he described. Gus Chapman had been held in peonage.

That word has fallen out of use, and today is unknown to many Americans, if not most. But throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, peonage claimed lives by the thousands and ruined untold others. It tore men from their wives and children, stole sons from their mothers, and helped fuel the Great Migration of southern Blacks to the industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest in the years on either side of World War I.

Chapman was typical of its victims. In one of its many forms, a man, usually Black, would be arrested for a trifling or trumped-up offense. Vagrancy—that is, having no job, or at least no ready proof of one—was a favorite, as was loitering. Conviction was pretty much automatic, and almost always carried a fine and fees beyond his means. A third party would then step forward to pay the fine in return for the prisoner’s labor until his debt was repaid. If, before he settled his account, he was prevented from leaving, that prisoner was a peon, trapped in what amounted to debt slavery. Ginned-up bills for his food and housing might be added to his fine, effectively turning a short jail term into a life sentence. His working and living conditions were often hellish. And if he tried to run, he’d be hunted down like an animal.