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“By 1860, just before the start of the Civil War, 44 percent of Florida’s 140,000 residents were slaves. When that system abruptly ended in 1865, cooperative local sheriffs obligingly arrested gangs of African American men, typically on bogus vagrancy charges, and rented them out to landowners in ‘convict lease programs,’ a good deal for both the municipality collecting the feeds and the farmers. ‘Before the war, we owned the negroes,’ one planter famously said of the system in the late 1880s. ‘If a man owned a good nigger, he could afford to take care of him. But these convicts: we don’t own ’em. One dies, get another.’

“After 1923, when Florida and Alabama became the last two states to ban the convict lease system, unscrupulous growers switched over to debt peonage. Workers racked up debts to their bosses through exorbitant charges for rent, food, beer, and cigarettes. When deductions from their wages were made at the end of each month, they found that they had fallen even further behind. Their souls might have been their own, but they owed their bodies to the company store. A landowner of that time told an interviewer for the 1960 CBS documentary Harvest of Shame, ‘We used to own our slaves, now we just rent them.’ Today, fifty-one years after that film first aired, unscrupulous crew bosses find that time-tested debt-peonage tactics still work just fine.”

Barry Estabrook, Tomatoland, pg. 82.

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