“Hell Put to Shame, the 1921 Murder Farm Massacre and the Horror of America’s Second Slavery” by Earl Swift

If you’re noticing the 1921 date in the subtitle of Hell Put to Shame (Mariner Books 2024) and thinking debt “peonage” is a past atrocity, forget it. Also known as debt slavery, the practice lives on, often targeting poor, unemployed, and homeless people. Today, it’s often immigrants. In 2010, a federal grand jury, author Earl Swift reports, indicted eight people for holding hundreds of Thai guest workers in bondage on farms from Florida to Hawaii.

Swift, author of Chesapeake Requiem, among other nonfiction titles, has written another meticulously-researched, nonfiction account. This book opens in 1921 when a Black man, Gus Chapman, tells his debt-slavery story to agents of the U.S. Dept. of Justice’s Bureau of Investigation, today’s FBI. When Chapman can’t pay a five-dollar vagrancy fine, he faces hard labor on a chain gang. A local farmer offers him work in lieu of the fine, promising, “It’ll be like home for you.”

It’s nothing like home. Chapman receives no pay. He labors at the end of a gun barrel. He is whipped, locked in at night, and threatened with death if he leaves the farm. He sneaks away, but the cotton plantation owner, John Sims Williams, “dragged him home and threatened to kill him . . . he decided instead to beat the prisoner with his fists, treat him to a savage whipping, then order him to chop firewood in the rain until the sun went down.”

Williams forces a fellow worker, using death threats, to kill runaway farmhands, weigh their bodies down with rocks, and submerge them in rivers. A frolicking youngster discovers the first body, runs for help, and neighbors find there’s a second, wired to the first. Ultimately, authorities locate eleven murdered Black men’s bodies in different rivers.

In the 1920s, among farmers in Georgia, the practice of debt “peonage,” or slavery, theoretically illegal, was nevertheless widespread. Jim Crow-era Black Codes had been designed, and passed, to circumvent the thirteenth amendment’s prohibition of slavery. They targeted poor, Black people. The codes outlawed vagrancy and unemployment. A vagrant was anyone “wandering or strolling about in idleness, who is able to work, and has no property to support him.” Almost any poor person might be considered vagrant, which could mean a year in prison.

A farmer could bail vagrants out of jail by offering pittance-pay for farm work, then keep the workers, claiming the debt unpaid, perhaps even adding fees for fabricated services. Possibly for life. Possibly at gunpoint. Deprived of economic and educational opportunities, rural Black workers had few choices of wages above those the farmers claimed to offer.

Four months after his first try, Chapman successfully escapes to Atlanta, and shares his eyewitness accounts with the agents. Horror stories such as a re-captured runaway, draped over a gasoline barrel, hands and feet held by field workers, and whipped until he’s crying and begging for mercy. The farmer orders another farmhand to shoot him.

Earl Swift

Hell Put to Shame details these, and other, atrocities. Swift weaves a thoroughly-researched, readable, and rich history of the 1920s that includes background on the growing presence and rise to prominence of Black activists, artists, intellectuals, and educators speaking out against race crimes like debt peonage.

Around this time, W.E. B. DuBois, the noted author of The Souls of Black Folk, organizes the Niagara Movement, “united in their demand for racial equality,” which helps build the foundation for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP]. James Weldon Johnson becomes its first Black leader. The polymath lawyer, poet, journalist, and musician also regularly contributed to the influential New York Age, a prominent African American newspaper. Three months later, the Murder Farm, as the episode is known, makes headlines.

Johnson immediately wires President Warren G. Harding, urging the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate peonage in Jasper County, Ga., because peonage is so widespread in the South. A second telegram goes to the U.S. Attorney General, urging “the entire machinery of federal justice be devoted to the case.” A third message urges Georgia Gov. Hugh Dorsey to “bring to justice the murderers of eleven Negroes,” and “flush out this vicious system of economic exploitation and debt-slavery . . . .”

Ultimately, the plantation owner and the Black worker who murdered the men under his orders stand trial. Swift’s fully-fledged, riveting courtroom scenes immerse readers through specifics including details about stifling heat:

“The courtroom, which had been close and sticky from the trial’s start, grew so hot that paper fans were passed out.”

He describes courtroom crowds, jury selection, cross-examination, and, especially interesting are insights into the personalities of politicians, lawyers, and judges.

Swift’s writing is textured and nuanced, fortified through these details. Hell Put to Shame is compelling, start to finish, a fact-laden and highly-readable account of this shameful practice.

Lest we forget.


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