state:
North Carolina
Local history:
Voices from the Chain Gang
What Can We Learn From Listening?
University of North Carolina at Greensboro
National Traveling Venue:
International Civil Rights Center & Museum
134 South Elm Street, Greensboro, NC 27401-2604
November 8, 2016December 15, 2016

NJ: Seeking Asylum, Resisting Detention

Exhibit on view through December 15th.

Project for Empty Space

2 Gateway Center

Newark, NJ 07102

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North Carolina: Voices from the Chain Gang
What Can We Learn From Listening?
University of North Carolina at Greensboro

In the early 1900s, courts sentenced prisoners to pound rocks and shovel dirt. Convicted of minor crimes, these men built North Carolina’s highways. The Good Roads Movement in the 1910s promoted the construction of modern highways to facilitate commerce and tourism. Progressive reformers, appalled by abuses in convict leasing to private industries, urged the state to use prisoners to build roads. North Carolina’s state government refused to oversee highway construction and left the administration of chain gangs to county governments. County employees, unconcerned with prisoners’ welfare, kept them in filthy camps and cages, refused them medical care, and beat them without mercy.

In the 1920s, social workers in the North Carolina State Board of Charities, headed by Kate Johnson, initiated investigations of the brutal treatment of chain gang prisoners. Prisoners and their families, aware of Johnson’s interest, wrote scores of letters to her and Governor Thomas Bickett, to document their experiences and advocate for change.

Prisoner appeals did not produce immediate results, but they influenced the state’s decision to assume control of highway construction during the Great Depression. Dozens of county prisons were constructed in the 1930s to house convicts, removing them from the unregulated county labor camps. As a result, sanitary conditions improved slightly and physical abuse slowly declined.

North Carolina continued to use chain gangs on roads until the 1970s.

Our Point of View

Why is this important? Studying the history of chain gangs in North Carolina compels us to think about incarcerated people today. We are troubled that while conditions have changed, historic racial patterns persist. Moreover, many do not know the reality of prison life, and believe that incarceration is justice served. Listening to incarcerated people can end complacency and creates the opportunity to start a dialogue for change.

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North Carolina: Voices from the Chain Gang    University of North Carolina at Greensboro
What Can We Learn From Listening?
North Carolina: Voices from the Chain Gang
What Can We Learn From Listening?
  University of North Carolina at Greensboro

National Exhibition Venue    International Civil Rights Center & Museum

Public Dialogues and Events
| November 8 – December 15, 2016

See Full Exhibition & Events Schedule
“I was a correctional officer here in NC for 4 years. Then I was a jailer in TX for 3 years. I always tried to do the right thing despite what my fellow COs and jailers through because my father is an inmate here in NC. I know all it takes is one bad day to end up coming through that gate. A lot of COs don’t realize it easily could be them. Inmates are people.”  — Anonymous Visitor
“Being black & being in America my greatest fear is the criminal justice system.”  — Taylor C. Hawkins

States of Incarceration is created by over 500 people in 17 states, and growing. We explore the roots of mass incarceration in our own communities—to open national dialogue on what should happen next. Click on a state to learn more.

States of Incarceration is created by over 500 people in 17 states, and growing. We explore the roots of mass incarceration in our own communities—to open national dialogue on what should happen next. Click on a state to learn more.

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