Convict Miners at Sugar Hill on Pine Log Mountain
The Convict Labor System
The Sugar Hill iron and manganese mines on the west side of Pine Log Mountain used the infamous convict labor system from 1876-1909, when the convict leasing system was outlawed in Georgia.
Instead of being placed in prisons, inmates in the Georgia penal system in the period after the Civil War were leased out to private individuals or businesses to do hard labor. Both white and black convicts were part of this system, but there was a greatly disproportionate number of black convicts (about 90%), causing historian Douglas A. Blackmon to call it Slavery by Another Name in his 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the subject.
The brutal convict labor system was documented by socialist writer and photographer John L. Spivak, who in 1932 published an exposé of the system which included this and other photos.
This 1932 photo illustrates how convicts were
tied around their pickaxes in the fetal position as a punishment for being disobedient. The convicts would be forced to stay in this position for hours.
According to local legend, Hanging Mountain, part of the Pine Log Mountain ridge near Sugar Hill, was named for the hanging of inmates that took place there. Also, local legend states that the convicts were forced to climb Hanging Mountain’s sheer cliffs as a punishment. However, these legends cannot be verified.
The John L. Spivak photos are held in the John L. Spivak Literary File at the University of Texas at Austin Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center.
This Spivak photo from 1932 also illustrates convict laborers in Georgia. Convicts were first leased in Georgia in May 1868 by Thomas Rugar to William A Fort. Coal and iron mines, railroad camps, brickyards, sawmills, and turpentine camps used convicts for labor. Convicts who had committed felonies and misdemeanors would be sent to the camps; young boys would work beside grown men. Camps also existed for female prisoners elsewhere in Georgia, although not at Sugar Hill near Pine Log Mountain.
The Georgia camps were harsh; prisoners were beaten, whipped, and shot. Sugar Hill, which held both black and white prisoners, was the site of multiple convict deaths and charges of brutality. A 1908 article in The Atlanta Constitution reported that Thomas Hutcheson, who oversaw assigning convicts to the labor camps, had stopped leasing convicts to The Georgia Iron and Coal Company at Sugar Hill "on hearing reports of cruelty" there.
The Death of Convict George Bankston at Sugar Hill
This article from The Atlanta Constitution in 1900 describes the death of a Sugar Hill convict named George Bankston. Bankston was sentenced to work 10 years on Sugar Hill for “highway robbery.” A guard named Pearson told investigators that Bankston had said that he did not “propose to do a lick of work at Sugar Hill.” The guard also admitted that Bankston had told the guard that he was sick the night before he died, which the guard interpreted as laziness.
Bankston died after receiving more than 135 whippings by the warden named A. J. Tomlinson one month after he arrived, on April 2, 1900. The warden was charged with manslaughter, but after a two-day trial, he was acquitted: "The popular sentiment has exonerated Tomlinson from blame," reported the newspaper.
Opposition to the Convict Lease System
By the 1880s, many Georgians opposed the idea of the convict lease system, and the Sugar Hill mine became infamous as the source of some of the worst examples of cruelty. Opponents created political pamphlets that explained the evils of the convict lease system, especially in Georgia. Pamphlets like this one led to the end of the lease system in 1909. General William Tatum Wofford of Bartow County was a vocal opponent of the convict lease system and made impassioned speeches against it in the Georgia Legislature.
This pamphlet is held by Emory University Special Collections.
The Atlanta Constitution, April 1, 1909,