“I’m free from the chain gang now:” Building the Railroads of the South and Convict Labor Leasing at History Happy Hour

Join the Chester Inn State Historic Site and Museum on September 21st at 6:30 pm as we welcome Joshua Dacey, Site Manager at the Chester Inn Museum for this month’s History Happy Hour!


At the conclusion of the Civil War officials at the state and local levels in many of the former Confederate states vigorously fought to keep a racial caste system in place. This early Jim Crow period saw the enactment of laws and “Black Codes” specifically targeted at formerly enslaved individuals. For generations, skilled and unskilled enslaved men, women, and children were “hired out” to perform menial labor that their enslavers financially profited from. In a new system of convict labor leasing that developed after the Civil War, state and county governments likewise profited by using their prison populations to labor on commercial or private projects such as road construction, railway maintenance, logging, or mining.  What allowed them to do so was a loophole in the 13th Amendment that stipulates “involuntary servitude” will only be used as “punishment for a crime.” Beginning in 1866 and continuing until 1886, Tennessee quickly became one of the first states to implement convict labor leasing. Evidence also indicates that a system of convict labor leasing was utilized in Jonesborough as early as 1822. Mr. Dacey will be talking about all this and more. The program is entitled “I’m free from the chain gang now:” Building the Railroads of the South and Convict Labor Leasing. It will begin at 6:30 pm in the International Storytelling Festival. The program is free and open to the public!


The 2023 season of History Happy Hour will run from April through November with a new program every third Thursday of the month. The full schedule is available on the Chester Inn’s Facebook page and the Heritage Alliance’s website. If you can’t attend History Happy Hour in person, each program will be livestreamed to the Chester Inn Museum’s Facebook page.


This project is funded under an agreement with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, Tennessee Historical Commission.