Carceral State: Baton Rouge and its Plantation Environs Across Emancipation Open Access
Downloadable ContentDownload PDF
This work examines systems of incarceration across emancipation, beginning in slavery and ending with the unravelling of Reconstruction in late 1868 and early 1869 in the Baton Rouge area. The enslavers in the region built a system of carceral consumption in the 1850s, basing their wealth and power on their control of the state to police the property of others in an attempt to retain the benefits of ownership for themselves. They outlawed forms of commerce and interaction from which they did not benefit and maintained the boundaries of their propertied power through vigilantism. When their consumption of black bodies as an elite prerogative seemed in danger, they supported secession in the hopes that founding a nation on the bedrock of unfree labor would guarantee their wealth. Instead, enslaved men and women rejected slavery in droves when the Union liberation of south Louisiana afforded the opportunity. The white Northerners who facilitated self-emancipation, however, had their own notions of racial hierarchy and treated black Louisianans in ways reminiscent of slavery. Together with former enslavers, they defined postemancipation wage labor as an exclusively white benefit. Postwar planters found reliable allies among the rank and file of the Union Army and used these alliances to leverage unpaid work from African Americans through mechanisms like the “boisterous clause.” They forged a common cause with poor and working-class whites who they once exploited, relying on a more vigorously policed racial divide to grasp power. The result was a state premised upon binding and controlling African American workers through theft, extortion, vigilantism, and the control of the legal process.This work reveals how rapidly former enslavers refurbished the carceral capitalism of the antebellum regime. It defines incarceration broadly, focusing on the ways that planters and employers used the spectacle of violence to control their workers before emancipation and in its wake. It also demonstrates the extent of black radicalism across emancipation. African American workers took enormous risks to thwart white claims to the fruits of their labor. They vigorously pursued an alternative vision of work that was undermined only because of the accumulated white power produced by slavery and reinforced by the state. This power imbalance rested on a state that substantially shifted its approach to poor and working-class whites, which became one of the most consequential aspects of Reconstruction. The result was an early reconciliation that aligned white supremacist Northerners and Southerners after emancipation. Finally, the work points to the impact of ecology on wage labor as a series of floods and crop failures drained the capital from the region at the apex of postemancipation black power. This convergence of African American power with regional poverty exacerbated the rapid escalation of white vigilantism and entrenched the carceral state.