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Prison Labor Built America's Big Steel Corporation

More than 150 years ago, a prison complex called the Lone Rock stockade operated at one of the biggest coal mines in Tennessee. It was powered largely by African-American men who had been arrested for minor offenses — like stealing a hog — if they committed any crime at all. Women and children, some as young as 12, were sent there, report the Associated Press and Reveal at the Center for Investigative Reporting. The state leased prisoners out to private companies for a fee, in a practice known all across the South as convict leasing. In states like Texas, Florida, Georgia and Alabama , prisoners were used to help build railroads, cut timber, make bricks, pick cotton and grow sugar on plantations. Convict leasing was a new form of slavery that started after the Civil War and went on for decades across the South. States and companies got rich by arresting mostly Black men and forcing them to work for major companies. The 13th Amendment, passed after the Civil War, banned slavery and involuntary servitude. It made an exception for people convicted of a crime, offering legal cover for convict leasing.


The Lone Rock stockage operated in Tracy City, Tn., for more than 25 years. Prisoners lived in cramped, unsanitary conditions. Built to hold 200 people at a time, the prison sometimes held 600. The men risked their lives above ground too, manning fiery, dome-shaped coke ovens used in the iron-making process. They were helping Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad get rich. The company was an economic powerhouse, later bought by the world’s biggest company at the time: U.S. Steel Corporation. U.S. Steel, was founded by business giants, who included J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie. It has operations in the U.S. and Central Europe, and remains a leading steel producer. The company agreed for the first time to sit down and talk with members of the affected community. U.S. Steel confirmed it owns a cemetery located at the site of its former coal mine: “U. S. Steel does not condone the practices of a century ago,” it said. “Given the amount of time that has lapsed, we, unfortunately, do not have comprehensive records relative to this situation.”

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