[The following are lecture notes I wrote, based mainly on Eric Foner's classic Reconstruction. As I found out, they were more than a little too detailed. Nevertheless, they may serve as a useful summary of this important period of American history.]
The current resurgence of white supremacy—Charlottesville, Trump, the alt-right, neo-Nazis—shows that the legacy of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction continues. Whites continue to scapegoat blacks and immigrants for their economic and political problems, as in the late nineteenth century. As we’ll see, racial and ethnic divisions between workers in the U.S. have always hindered class-based movements against the rich, and have been one reason for America’s relative conservatism.
Dismal history of blacks in the U.S. Slavery, a brief opening during Radical Reconstruction, then sharecropping, Jim Crow, and industrial re-enslavement until World War II (except for those who went up north during the Great Migration—although that wasn’t a pretty story either), then some improvement in 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, then again the criminalization of black life. But for a different reason this time: after Reconstruction it was to control labor and secure cheap labor, while after the 1960s it was to control a population that, with deindustrialization, had become economically superfluous—and also dangerous, as the 60s had shown. Thus the drug war, the war on crime, and in general the war on the poor.
So on one hand the history of Reconstruction is the history of oppressed people (and their white allies) struggling for more power and freedom against former slaveowners and reactionary power-structures that want to keep them subordinate and in as close a condition to slavery as possible. Basically class struggle, but with a racial dynamic. On the other hand, the Civil War and Reconstruction are a story of expanding state power, expanding federal bureaucracies, which anticipates the later massive growth of government to administer a society full of class and racial conflicts. The end of Reconstruction signaled the end of this phase of remarkable state expansion; but expansion resumed at the turn of the century.
Because of the war’s financial demands, Congress “adopted economic policies that promoted further industrial expansion and permanently altered the conditions of capital accumulation.” Created a national paper currency, an enormous natnal debt, and a national banking system. To raise funds it increased the tariff and imposed new taxes. The Homestead Act offered free lands to settlers (to promote agricultural development). And there were enormous grants of land and government bonds for internal improvements like the transcontinental railroad, “which, when completed in 1869, expanded the national market, facilitated the penetration of capital into the West, and heralded the final doom of the Plains Indians.” (Eric Foner)
All this shifted the balance of economic power in the North. A new and powerful class of financiers was created, wealthy people and institutions that benefited from high tariffs (which protected the growth of industry in the following decades), high inflation that raised prices and lowered real wages, and the payment in gold of interest on bonds. The new national banking system helped promote future investment in industry and commerce—and it was controlled by Wall Street. “As a result, the West and, after the war, the South found themselves starved of capital.” This contributed to the South’s later backwardness.
The birth of the modern American state. (“War is the health of the state.”)
From a broad perspective, the Civil War and Reconstruction signified a second American revolution. And not only because slavery so contradicted the original ideology of liberty and democracy, thus making a mockery of the U.S.’s revolutionary heritage. Two very different labor systems, two economic systems, existing in the same country was an unsustainable situation. There was bound to be an epic clash sooner or later. Since Northern industrial capitalism was far more dynamic and wealth-generating than Southern slavery, which in some ways was like feudalism, in the long run the South’s system was doomed. It succumbed to capitalism and the market system. But it did take a long time for the process to be completed—until after World War II actually. Massive federal government intervention was necessary, as we’ll see later. (Contradicts the ideology of the free market, limited government, etc.)
After the Emancipation Proclamation blacks flooded into the Union army—eventually 180,000. Were treated and paid badly (in segregated units) but nevertheless played a crucial role in winning the war and defining its consequences. Because of their service, blacks necessarily acquired a new status across the country. They began to be treated as equals under the law (military law). Large numbers learned to read and write. White Union soldiers, too, learned about the horrors of slavery as they served in the army.
History shows that military service sometimes has a politicizing and radicalizing effect. Guerrilla armies, American Revolution militias, and during and after World War II. Likewise with the Civil War. According to a Northern official: “No negro who has ever been a soldier can again be imposed upon: they have learnt what it is to be free and they will infuse their feelings into others.” Blacks who had served became prouder and more militant; many later were political leaders of Reconstruction.
Military experience contributed to blacks’ spirit of resistance during Reconstruction that foiled the most oppressive and reactionary plans of Southern whites.
What freedmen wanted was genuine freedom. Their own land, political equality, legal equality, etc. Something (at least land-wise) like what General William T. Sherman gave 40,000 of them in January 1865 with his Special Field Order No. 15, which confiscated a vast stretch of slaveowners’ land along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia so each black family could have forty acres. In the months after the war ended, blacks organized endless mass meetings, parades, petitions, and political education clubs to demand civil equality and suffrage. They were far from passive: didn’t just let whites decide their political and economic fate.
In fact, as the war approached its end, blacks started living out their emancipation by creating and expanding a whole civil society, a whole culture, of churches, schools, mutual benefit societies, clubs, and so on. It had already existed but now, in the postbellum years, was consolidated, thus laying the foundation of the modern black community. Burial societies, debating clubs, drama societies, trade associations, equal rights leagues. Ubiquitous processions and celebrations in Southern cities; a very vibrant culture.
Also a transformation of religion—the creation of an independent black religious life. Whites wouldn’t let blacks have an equal place in white churches, and anyway ex-slaves wanted to be free of white control, so they formed their own separate churches (usually Baptist). Emotional services full of shouting, fainting, music, dancing. Later led to gospel music.
Almost as significant as the role of religion was freed slaves’ passion for education. Practically an obsession. Wanted to read the Bible, but also wanted economic advancement, and more generally independence and self-improvement. Set up classes wherever they could—in abandoned warehouses, billiard rooms, churches, former slave markets, basements, private homes, and eventually in schoolhouses that were built through fundraising campaigns, donations, and money from the Freedmen’s Bureau. All this institution-building that happened during Reconstruction fostered political awareness and the growth of a culture that united former free blacks and former slaves.
A key element in blacks’ postwar project of self-empowerment was the Freedmen’s Bureau. Created by Congress in March 1865, its purpose was to distribute clothing, food, and fuel to destitute freedmen, and to oversee “all subjects” relating to their condition in the South. So, very ambitious, even though it was planned to last for only one year! And Congress didn’t even appropriate funds for it! It had to get its money and staff from the War Department.
Perhaps its most significant accomplishment was to help establish thousands of schools in the South (especially in towns and cities), and thereby to help lay the foundation for Southern public education. Also established the first black colleges in the South. The Bureau created an extensive network of courts, hospitals, charitable institutions, and labor regulations, but most were intended to be temporary. So weren’t as effective as they could have been. Especially difficult to protect blacks from the rampant violence they were subject to. The Bureau soon phased out its own courts, but Southern courts were of course wildly racist.
The goal of Northerners—especially Radical Republicans—and Bureau leaders was to remake the South in the image of the North. The free market should structure social relations. Free labor, wages, capitalism. Many Northern businessmen wanted to lift up blacks materially and socially so there could be a vast new market for Northern goods. Even thought black suffrage was necessary to create the political conditions for Northern investment in the South. (This led much of the business community to support Radical Republicans. But other businessmen disagreed: didn’t want to disrupt the cheap Southern labor force, and wanted cotton production to resume as fast as possible.)
These goals were utopian, though. In fact, immediately after the war the army was mainly concerned with compelling freedmen to return to plantation labor. Thought it could be regulated by a system of wages and free labor, but planters wanted to recreate their earlier absolute power as closely as possible. By 1866 the Bureau was forcing blacks to sign annual contracts to work on the plantations. Were often treated brutally and viciously exploited, and couldn’t leave. Hardly “free labor,” especially because landless freedmen had basically no other option and were fined or imprisoned if they went on strike.
Freedmen had hoped the government would give them land—and in 1865 the Bureau did try to settle many of them on the 850,000 acres of abandoned land it controlled. Wanted to create a class of black small farmers, an independent yeomanry. (Jeffersonian ideal, Radical Republican ideal.) This could have meant a major social revolution, a total reconstruction of the Southern class structure. But President Johnson overruled the Bureau and restored land that had been abandoned and confiscated to Southern planters, former Confederates he had pardoned. He also forced the tens of thousands of freedmen who had settled on Sherman’s reservation off the land, which was restored to rich planters. There was massive resistance, but poor blacks didn’t stand a chance against the army and the white power-structure. 1865 and 1866 were thus years of terrible betrayal, and were felt as such. As one freedman said, blacks had been left with “no land, no house, not so much as place to lay our head… Despised by the world, hated by the country that gives us birth, denied of all our rights as a people, we were friends on the march,…brothers on the battlefield, but in the peaceful pursuits of life it seems that we are strangers.”
Planters tried to revive the antebellum gang-labor system, which was reminiscent of slavery. But in most cases blacks were able to resist this. Preferred more decentralized and less-closely-supervised forms of work. Sharecropping thus emerged (on cotton plantations)—a compromise—and gradually (over decades) became overwhelmingly dominant. Individual families signed contracts with the landowner and became responsible for a specified piece of land. Generally retained a third to a half of the year’s crop. Far from an ideal system, but at least granted blacks some autonomy from white supervision.
A new class structure therefore slowly emerged. By 1900, 70 percent of farmers in the South (including whites) were tenants and/or sharecroppers. A rural proletariat. Reliance on a few cash crops—sugar, cotton, rice—instead of a diversified agricultural system. (Bad because too many producers: prices were pushed down, and if the world market was glutted, farmers were screwed.) Endemic poverty and a largely stagnant society.
Presidential Reconstruction. Lincoln had favored a lenient Reconstruction policy: general amnesty to white Southerners who would pledge an oath of loyalty to the government and accept the abolition of slavery. When 10 percent of a state’s total number of voters took the oath, those loyal voters could set up a state government. He also wanted to extend suffrage to blacks who were educated, owned property, or had served in the army. The radicals thought this plan was far too mild.
Hoped Andrew Johnson would be more on their side, since he hated the planters and insisted that traitors must be punished. Initially seemed to crave revenge for mass treason. But it turned out he was a fanatical racist (former slaveowner) committed to white supremacy even more than punishing traitors, so he quickly adopted a policy even more lenient than Lincoln’s. Appointed provisional governors who opposed black suffrage. When the Southern states in the fall of 1865 elected legislators, governors, and members of Congress—for they had fulfilled Johnson’s conditions for readmission to the country—they tended to elect white supremacists, former Confederates, and members of the old elite. Which antagonized the North and ultimately helped cause the rise of Radical Reconstruction.
So did the Black Codes that were being passed around this time, to return things to as close to slavery as possible. “Crimes” like being unemployed or using insulting gestures could be punished with severe fines; the criminals could then be hired out to private employers who would pay the fines. Basically debt peonage. Almost slavery. In some cases blacks were forbidden from taking jobs other than as plantation workers or domestic servants.
Also heavy poll taxes on freedmen, and very low taxes on landed property.
Many Northern capitalists supported Johnson’s white supremacist policies because they were useful for controlling labor. (That’s always what the capitalist wants. A docile labor force.) But luckily Radical Republicans came to blacks’ rescue, for a time. (Irony about the Republican party—then and now.) The core of their ideology: use a powerful national state to guarantee blacks equal standing in the political system and equal opportunity in a free-labor economy.
So in the spring of 1866: another Freedmen’s Bureau bill and the first Civil Rights Act. (Both vetoed but that was overridden.) CRA: everyone born in the U.S. (except Indians) was a national citizen and had certain rights: making contracts, bringing lawsuits, and enjoying “full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property.” Nullified Black Codes. Gave the federal government some enforcement powers too, though not nearly enough. Very radical bill for its time, which also invalidated many discriminatory laws in the North. And was ahead of its time in its expansive conception of the national state. But said nothing about voting.
That summer Congress also approved the Fourteenth Amendment and sent it to the states for ratification. Its essence was a national guarantee of equality before the law. Sort of a Constitutional and therefore ironclad version of the Civil Rights Act, and so carried forward the state-building process born of the Civil War.
By now there was an open break between Johnson and nearly the whole Republican party. In the 1866 congressional elections the Radicals won a majority of seats, so didn’t have to worry much about Johnson’s opposition. Actually the intransigence of Johnson and the Southern states helped their agenda. Beginning of Radical Reconstruction. They passed the Reconstruction Act of 1867: the eleven Confederate states (except Tennessee, which had ratified the Fourteenth Amendment) were divided into five military districts. A military commander governed each district and registered voters (adult black males and white males who hadn’t participated in the rebellion). Voters would elect conventions to prepare new state constitutions, which had to include black suffrage. State governments could be elected once voters had ratified the new constitutions—and the state legislature had to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment. Then the state could be readmitted into the Union.
By 1870, all states had been readmitted.
Thus black suffrage arrived—though only in the South for now. The Fifteenth Amendment (1870) made it nationwide.
Quite radical—interracial democracy!—but not enough. Freedmen’s economic conditions weren’t changed, and no new agencies were created to protect black rights. (That came only in the 1960s.) Republicans never embraced the issue of land redistribution, since it was opposed by business.
Reconstruction Act triggered a new outburst of black political activity and resistance to segregation. More mass meetings, and a deluge of freedmen into the Union League for political education. It catapulted many ex-slaves into political leadership in their states, hundreds becoming state legislators in the following years. Throughout Reconstruction blacks remained infatuated with politics, running for elections and voting at rates of 90 percent. The Republican party became as central to the black community as the church and the school.
Carpetbaggers and scalawags (Southern-born white Republicans). The former got a major share of Reconstruction offices, but the latter (hated, often called “white negroes”) were surprisingly abundant in some states. 25 percent or more. Some were poor white farmers who allied with blacks against the planter class, which they hated partly because it had been mainly responsible for wartime devastation. Often favored confiscation. So, the beginnings of real class struggle, revolutionary attitudes. But moderate white Republicans prevented these buds from blossoming into something bigger.
A remarkable time. Blacks served as mayors, aldermen, on city and town councils, on juries, as sheriffs, police chiefs, county supervisors, justices of the peace, etc. (Were always a minority, though. White Republicans had more power.) Vagrancy laws couldn’t be used to force freedmen to sign labor contracts because Republican politicians owed their power to “the vagrant vote.”
Expansion of the public sphere. Reconstruction governments were activist: established public schools, hospitals, asylums for orphans and the insane; expanded property rights for married women, widened grounds for divorce, and so on. Couldn’t raise taxes enough to build a truly modern system of public education, but the achievements were significant. (4,000 schools by 1870, staffed by 9,000 teachers—half of them black. By 1876, more than half of all white children and 40 percent of black children were attending (segregated) schools in the South.)
In the early 1870s some states even outlawed segregation in certain private businesses, like railroads and hotels. But hard to enforce.
Impressive legislation to protect workers and poor white farmers. States outlawed corporal punishment, limited capital offenses, reduced penalties for theft, passed debtor relief laws, raised property taxes on the rich, abolished property qualifications for holding office.
Major priority was economic development. Development has always required extreme state intervention (tariffs, subsidies, tax incentives, eminent domain, appropriating money for infrastructure projects, government investment in science and technology, etc.). Conservative ideas of the pure free market are a myth. So Republicans used state policy to attract railroad and industrial companies, e.g. by exempting them from taxes. (Still going on today!)
But the program of state-sponsored capitalist development ultimately did much to bring down the Republican party and Reconstruction itself. Produced huge state debts, high taxes, and drained resources from schools and other programs. As state debts increased and the value of state bounds declined, credit collapsed. At the same time, all this aid to railroads created the conditions for widespread corruption, which undermined the political legitimacy of Republican governments. Bribery, fraud, plunder, conflicts of interest. U.S. was full of corruption at this time, but it got more attention in the South because of Reconstruction’s enemies. Nor did it help that the promised economic revolution didn’t happen: Northern and European investors were wary of sending their money to a region with so much political uncertainty.
No real modernization. But there were economic changes. Railroads made possible commercialization of the upcountry, where poor white farmers started growing cotton. Integrated into the market. Led to debt and dependency. Eric Foner: “Because of the region’s chronic capital shortage and scarcity of banking institutions, local merchants generally represented the only source of available credit. With land values having plummeted, merchants would usually advance loans only in exchange for a lien [claim] on the year’s cotton crop, rather than take a mortgage on real estate, as was conventional in the North. The emergence of the crop lien as the South’s major form of agricultural credit forced indebted farmers to concentrate on cotton [which could be sold easily], further expanding production and depressing prices.” Thousands of indebted white farmers had to become agricultural laborers and sharecroppers—especially because of the depression of the 1870s.
Bad not only for them but also Reconstruction itself: they blamed Republicans for bringing market relations into the upcountry (because of railroad promotion), and also hated the party for its high taxes. Gave political ammunition to the Democrats.
Freedmen fared a little better. Had more power than before, greater freedom to leave and seek better employment conditions, often higher wages (because planters wanted to entice them to work for them). Could work on railroads, for instance. Planters complained their workers were “unruly, insolent, and disobedient.” Couldn’t control them easily, partly because of the nature of sharecropping.
Nevertheless, like independent white farmers, black sharecroppers eventually grew more and more indebted, especially during the depression. Couldn’t escape debt to the local merchant. Lost self-sufficiency in food because they had to produce cotton for the market in order to pay the merchant. (Progress of capitalism.) In the long run became like debt peons.
Andrew Johnson did what he could to undermine Congressional Reconstruction, but he was basically a lame-duck president. The attempt to impeach him failed, but he had little power left anyway. Grant was elected in 1868.
Meanwhile, all this change provoked violent opposition. Had actually been going on since 1865. Mass murders, lynchings, and beatings by former masters on any pretext—although blacks counterattacked quite rarely. Got even worse later. Ku Klux Klan founded in 1866 as a Tennessee social club, but expanded to spread a “reign of terror” against Republican leaders black and white. Blocked blacks from voting. The KKK was basically a military force serving the interests of the Democratic party, the planter class, and white supremacy. Aimed to destroy the Republican party and restore control over the black labor force. Black churches and schools were burned; white and black politicians killed; economically successful blacks were killed, and laborers who weren’t sufficiently obsequious toward their white employers. The Klan’s leadership included planters, merchants, lawyers, and ministers. Respectable citizens, not just white trash. State governments in most cases couldn’t or didn’t want to suppress the violence.
By 1870, Northern Republicans were starting to lose interest in Reconstruction. Many thought the Fifteenth Amendment was the culmination and they should turn their attention to other matters. But as before, Southern violence and recalcitrance pushed them onwards to greater radicalism. The Ku Klux Klan Act of April 1871 for the first time designated certain crimes committed by individuals as punishable under federal law. “Conspiracies to deprive citizens of the right to vote, hold office, serve on juries, and enjoy the equal protection of the laws, could now, if states failed to act effectively against them, be prosecuted by federal district attorneys, and even lead to military intervention and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus.” A truly modern act, anticipating the Civil Rights Era. Major expansion of the central government—in principle.
Thousands of Klansmen were indicted, and many went to prison. Federal troops occupied parts of South Carolina. By 1872 the KKK was broken and violence had dramatically declined.
But Reconstruction was about to end anyway. Many reasons. Underlying condition was Republican factionalism: moderates, conservatives, fewer radicals by now. Moderates and conservatives connected to Northern finance wanted return to gold standard because deflation is good for creditors. But gold standard and Radical Reconstruction were incompatible. (Huge state, high government expenditures, budget deficits = greenback system, not gold.) Nor did they want high taxes. Also, any major empowerment of blacks in the South would mean empowerment of workers, which business was and is opposed to. And feared it might spread to the North.
Various different Republican constituencies across the country had their own interests and ideas. Conflicts over tariff, civil service reform (because of corruption), internal improvements in other regions (not the South), currency issues; the Southern Republicans were only one faction, and not very powerful.
But it was the 1870s depression that provided the context. Enormous class conflict. “Respectable” public opinion shifted right, to the necessity of protecting property and opposing democracy and activist government. For Republicans, “economic respectability” began to replace equality of rights for black citizens as the essence of their self-image. Beginning of the shift to conservatism.
Meanwhile, because of the depression, voters handed Democrats an electoral triumph in 1874. More Democrats came to power in the South. Downsized government partly because of states’ devastated budgets and tax rolls (from the depression). The depression dramatically worsened the situation of black workers. And a resurgence of violence against blacks—not KKK, not masked and hooded, but open and savage. State and federal governments did little to oppose it. In 1877 Hayes took office in return for an end to Reconstruction. (Federal troops withdrew.)
The “Redeemers” had triumphed. As a black man said, “The whole South—every state in the South—has got into the hands of the very men that held us as slaves.” For the rest of the century, Democratic governments reshaped the constitutional and legal system so as to control labor and subordinate blacks. Taxes on the poor were increased, those on the rich decreased. State budgets were slashed: money for schools, public hospitals, “welfare” for the blind and disabled, etc. was drastically cut. Said one planter: “What I want here is Negroes who can make cotton, and they don’t need education to help them make cotton.”
The Republican party collapsed in the Deep South, because of racism, violence, and electoral fraud. Poll taxes and literary requirements for voting (especially starting in 1890s). The region became a bastion of the Democratic party—until the 1960s and ’70s, when it became mostly Republican.
Rise of Jim Crow regime. Supreme Court’s decisions in 1883: 14th Amendment prohibits states from discriminating, but not individuals or private organizations. Then Plessy v. Ferguson: “separate but equal.” (Segregated seating on railroads.) Legitimized the system of racial hierarchy and segregation. Also dramatic increase of violence against blacks in the 1890s. Lynching events were sometimes like festivals, hundreds of white families watching, sending postcards about it, taking pieces of the dead bodies as souvenirs. In 1899, a plantation laborer who had killed his employer in self-defense was lynched before a crowd of 2,000 (including children). Executioners cut off his ears, fingers, and genitals and burned him alive, and then the crowd fought over pieces of his bones. No attempts to bring the perpetrators to justice.
All this was basically to control the black labor force: it was useful to the ruling class, useful for profits. Racist propaganda was also useful for dividing poor whites against blacks and so preventing a class-based political movement from challenging planters’ and businessmen’s power. (Populism had only minor success in building such a movement.)
Most “respectable” jobs were closed to blacks, though a small black middle class did emerge. Women were confined mainly to work as domestic servants, not secretaries or store clerks.
Moves toward a Southern industrial revolution. Textile manufacturing, iron industry, steel industry, mining, railroads. Northern capital came because of low wages and availability of convict labor. “Slavery by another name” (Douglas Blackmon book). Vagrants—the unemployed—could be arrested; so could black men who looked at a white woman the wrong way, or were “insolent,” etc. Criminalization of black life. Similar to Black Codes, but worse. Some men were sent to prisons and then leased out to employers; others only had to pay fines, but because they couldn’t afford them they were given to employers who paid the fine in return for using them as forced labor. Tens of thousands of convicts became industrial slaves. Were repeatedly bought and sold; stayed in the possession of companies for years. Company guards could chain them, shoot them if they tried to flee, torture them, whip them almost without limit. Mortality rates as high as 50 percent or more. Miserable living conditions in labor camps and some company towns. Starvation, disease, very little medical treatment—and no legal accountability for vicious treatment of the slaves. (p. 218)
The industrialization of the South was in fact a product, in large part, of slave labor. Industrialists, bankers, politicians, planters all profited from slave labor (convict labor)—all the way up to World War II. (Today, similarly, corporations like Apple profit from sweatshops around the world. Capitalism and the modern world were/are made possible by forced labor, colonial conquests, genocides, and the cheapening of labor to the lowest possible point. (One of the purposes of this course is to learn about the dark side of capitalism.))
Incidentally, there’s been a similar criminalization of black life since the 1970s. Possession by blacks of marijuana or crack cocaine (in the 1980s) or other drugs sent them to prison—even though it’s a victimless crime. The opioid epidemic now is a largely white phenomenon, so it isn’t seen as criminal but as a health crisis. Blatantly racist double standards.
Anyway… Partly because of workers’ inability to unionize and raise their wages, the South remained a primitive, semi-colonial region that couldn’t develop as the North did. A large middle class couldn’t develop. But the South’s impoverished agrarianism was also responsible for this. (Only the federal government’s intervention later on finally brought the South to a “civilized” condition.)
In short, between the end of Reconstruction and World War II, Southern blacks were trapped in a framework of systematic terrorization and control. Couldn’t escape it without outside help. So conservative philosophies arose like Booker T. Washington’s: be a self-made man, get a vocational education, learn skills in the trades and agriculture, don’t challenge the system or agitate for political or economic rights. Refine your speech, improve how you dress, adopt the standards of the white middle class. An individualistic philosophy. (Very different from W. E. B. DuBois’.)
 Revoke the ordinance of secession, abolish slavery and ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, and repudiate Confederate debts.
 But strictly speaking it wasn’t chain gangs. Those emerged in the early 20th century, around tasks like road construction, ditch digging, and farming. Chain gangs were usually more humane than the older convict leasing, and by the 1920s or earlier they were more common.