One of the most poignant (unexpectedly so I’ll admit) parts of our Black/Inside exhibition is a panel that lists the names of prisoners who died between 1902 and 1904 in Alabama prisons. When we discussed including this in the exhbition, I don’t think that we fully appreciated the power of the statement that we were making. We wanted to make the point that the convict lease system in Alabama and other southern states was brutal and destructive. We wanted to insure that this part of our history was not sanitized. We wanted visitors of the exhibition to understand that real people died in the convict camps and in the mines of Alabama. The fact that I found a document at a library used book sale that listed ACTUAL names of prisoners was serendipitous. The report allowed us to re-embody the prisoners who had previously been anonymous, even forgotten by history.
Below are just a couple of pages from the Fifth Bienniel Report of the Board of Inspectors of Convicts in Alabama (from September 1, 1902 to August 21, 1904).
I’d like to believe that this can be the beginning of a reclamation project of sorts. One where we can re-insert the names of the people who have been relegated to the dustbins of history simply because they were convicted of crime.