After the Civil War ended, the prison system in the former Confederate states was under pressure to figure out how to house convicts. Most of their prisons had been destroyed in the war. As an answer to the problem, Southern states invented the convict lease system. In this new system, convicts would be leased out on private contracts as cheap labor and for a large state tax.
Nine-tenths of the prisoners were black and plantation owners held many of the private contracts. There were no rules in place for treatment of the prisoners and ultimately, the convict lease system gave birth to the chain gang. In Frederick Douglass’ 1893 publication, The Reason Why the Colored American is not in the World’s Columbian Exposition, he writes:
“The Negro criminals are mostly ignorant, poor and friendless. Possessing neither money to employ lawyers nor influential friends, they are sentenced in large numbers to long terms of imprisonment for petty crimes….It is an astounding fact that 90 percent of the state’s [Georgia] convicts are colored; 194 white males and 2 white females; 1,710 colored males and 44 colored females.
Douglass said that even when Black men and boys from 12-18 were convicted of petty crimes like assault and battery, they were sentenced to the hard labor of the convict lease system.
“The details of vice, cruelty and death thus fostered by the states whose treasuries are enriched thereby, equals anything from Siberia. Men, women and children are herded together like cattle in the filthiest quarters and chained together while at work. (The Reason, 1893).
The private owners and contractors who leased convicts were not only given a cheap form of labor, they were held responsible for the feeding, clothing, and housing the prisoners. Often, prisoners were worked to death and replaced by others. While slaveholders had some incentive to take care of their property, those leasing convicts did not. Convict leasing remained in place from immediately after the Civil War until 1928, when Alabama, the final state utilizing convict leasing, discontinued the practice.
A Tribute to Famous Firsts - Part II
50 photos Launch gallery
1. 1964: First movie with an African-American interracial marriage: "One Potato, Two Potato" starring actors Bernie Hamilton and Barbara Barrie, written by Orville H. Hampton, Raphael Hayes, directed by Larry Peerce.
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2. 1965: First African-American nationally syndicated cartoonist: Morrie Turner (Wee Pals).
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3. 1965: First African-American star of a network television drama: Bill Cosby, I Spy (co-star with Robert Culp).
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4. 1965: First African-American cast member of a daytime soap opera: Micki Grant who played Peggy Nolan Harris on Another World until 1972.
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5. 1965: First African-American Playboy Playmate centerfold: Jennifer Jackson (March issue).
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6. 1965: First African-American U.S. Air Force general: Benjamin Oliver Davis, Jr. (three-star lieutenant general).
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7. 1965: First African-American female Ambassador of the United States: Patricia Roberts Harris, ambassador to Luxembourg.
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8. 1965: First African-American NFL official: Burl Toler, field judge/head linesman.
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9. 1965: First African-American to win a national chess championship: Frank Street, Jr. (U.S. Amateur Championship).
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10. 1965: First African-American United States Solicitor General: Thurgood Marshall and in 1967, he was the first African American appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States.
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11. 1966: First African American male to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award and first African American to win a Primetime Emmy Award: Bill Cosby, I Spy.
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12. 1966: First African-American coach in the National Basketball Association: Bill Russell (Boston Celtics) and in 1968, he was the first African-American coach to win NBA Championship.
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13. 1966: First African-American model on the cover of a Vogue (British Vogue) magazine: Donyale Luna.
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14. 1967: First African-American interracial kiss on network television: entertainers Nancy Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. on Sinatra's variety special Movin' With Nancy, aired December 11 on NBC.
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15. 1968: First African-American interracial kiss on a network television drama: Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols and Captain Kirk, played by William Shatner: Star Trek: "Plato's Stepchildren"
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16. 1968: First African-American man to win a Grand Slam tennis event: Arthur Ashe (US Open).
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17. 1968: First African American to start as quarterback in the modern era of professional football: Marlin Briscoe (Denver Broncos, AFL).
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18. 1968: First African-American woman elected to U.S. House of Representatives: Shirley Chisholm (Democrat; New York).
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19. 1968: First African-American actress to star in her own television series where she did not play a domestic worker: Diahann Carroll in Julia.
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20. 1968: First African-American woman reporter for The New York Times: Nancy Hicks Maynard.
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21. 1969: First African-American superhero: The Falcon, Marvel Comics' Captain America #117.
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22. 1969: First African-American woman to get a Business degree from Harvard University: Lillian Lincoln.
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23. 1969: First African-American director of a major Hollywood motion picture: Gordon Parks (The Learning Tree).
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24. 1969: First African-American founder of a classical training school and company of ballet: Arthur Mitchell, Dance Theatre of Harlem.
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25. 1969: First African-American woman to appear on the Grand Ole Opry: Linda Martell.
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26. 1970: First African-American member of the New York Stock Exchange: Joseph L. Searles III.
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27. 1971: First African-American pitcher to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame: Satchel Paige.
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28. 1973: First African-American Bond villain: Yaphet Kotto, playing Mr. Big/Dr. Kananga, Live and Let Die.
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29. 1973: First African-American Bond Girl in a James Bond movie: Gloria Hendry (playing Rosie Carver), Live and Let Die.
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30. 1973: First African American elected mayor of Los Angeles, California: Tom Bradley.
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31. 1974: First African-American woman to win a Primetime Emmy Award: Cicely Tyson, for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie, for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.
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32. 1974: First African-American model on the cover of American Vogue magazine: Beverly Johnson.
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33. 1975: First African-American game show host: Adam Wade (CBS' Musical Chairs).
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34. 1975: First African-American interracial couple in a TV-series cast: The Jeffersons, actors Franklin Cover and Roxie Roker as Tom & Helen Willis.
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35. 1975: First African-American four-star general: Daniel James, Jr.
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36. 1975: First African American inducted to the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player: Bill Russell.
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37. 1975: First African-American woman named as Time magazine's, Person of the Year: Barbara Jordan.
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38. 1976: First African-American woman and trailblazer Addie Wyatt was the 1st to hold a senior office in an American labor union—at both the local and international level and 1st elected President of her local meat-packing union in Chicago in the '50s and rose to the rank of International V.P. of the United Food and Commercial Workers.
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39. 1978: First African-American broadcast network news anchor: Max Robinson.
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40. 1979: First African American and first person to win the Emmy Award Best Supporting Actress in a Miniseries: Esther Rolle.
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41. 1979: First African-American U.S. Marine Corps general officer: Frank E. Petersen.
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42. 1979: First African-American to win a Daytime Emmy Award for lead actor in a soap opera: Al Freeman, Jr. (Ed Hall in One Life to Live).
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43. 1980: First African-American-oriented cable channel: Black Entertainment Television.
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44. 1982: First African American to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Drama: Charles Fuller for A Soldier's Play.
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45. 1983: First African-American astronaut: Guion Stewart "Guy" Bluford, Jr. (Challenger mission STS-8).
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46. 1983: First African-American mayor of Chicago: Harold Washington.
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47. 1983: First African-American Miss America: Vanessa L. Williams.
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48. 1983: First African-American owners of a major metropolitan newspaper: Robert C. and Nancy Hicks Maynard, (Oakland Tribune)
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49. 1986: Regina Taylor, a Golden Globe-winning actress and playwright was the first black woman to play Juliet in William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” on Broadway.
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50. 1986: First African-American musicians inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in the inaugural class: Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, and Little Richard.
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