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ISU Professor's New Book Reveals Jim Crow's Legacy Alive In Today's Justice System

Amy Louise Wood poses with her book
Charlie Schlenker
Amy Louise Wood co-edited a new book, called "Crime & Punishment in the Jim Crow South."

Jim Crow at first glance seems like the past, but Illinois State University history professor Amy Louise Wood's new book reminds us how it lives on today in our legal system.

In “Crime & Punishment in the Jim Crow South,” Wood’s chapter specifically focuses on a historical case study in South Carolina, with Gov. Cole Blease from 1910-1912. During his years as governor, Blease pardoned over 1,700 prisoners and demanded prison reforms, but for reasons aligned with white supremacy.

“What's interesting about him is he has this very kind of Southern take, or what I would call Southern flavor, to his brand of reform, which, in fact, works against the idea of a kind of modern bureaucratic state,” said Wood on GLT’s Sound Ideas.

While pardons are typically associated with progressiveness, the practice is outdated and a move of political power. Blease disbanded the pardoning board of South Carolina in order to give himself the sole power of pardoning, much like a king in a monarchy.

South Carolina's white population during Jim Crow was very traditionalist and localist. Progressive reform was heavily discouraged, since such reform was imposed by the progressive urban elite class outside of the south.

“They liked Cole Blease. He was a race baiter, and he absolutely was a virulent white supremacist. He appealed to this population for that reason. And at the same time, he could speak this kind of language of reform, but it was reform that didn't threaten South Carolinan values in any way,” said Wood.

Blease had ulterior motives for all of his pardons. He pardoned mostly white prisoners, and only pardoned African American prisoners who had killed other African Americans. This left the prisoner population to be primarily African American, but portrayed Blease as a benevolent “paternalistic” figure towards African Americans.

While Blease advocated for prison reform, his reforms exploited prisoners more than aid them. Prisons originally had prison labor, where the prisoners would create products to sell. This created competition with South Carolina’s rural working class, so Blease pardoned prisoners to diminish the market. Blease also reformed prisons to be controlled by the county, so prisoners were put into “chain gangs,” where they were chained together to perform menial or physical labor for the state. This meant the prisoners were not being compensated for their labor, and the state was able to get public infrastructure repaired for free.

“It's a great irony that it was progressives, who deemed themselves humanitarian, who were pushing for this move to the chain gangs. They were just as brutal as the convict leasing, largely because there was no state oversight. These were run by county sheriffs who had that fear-sense of localism ... who had no sense of having any kind of obligation to care for prisoners or treat them well at all,” said Wood.

Wood’s book, co-edited with UT Dallas professor of history Natalie J. Ring, reminds us of how recent and brutal Jim Crow was, and how it still has an impact. The book features chapters from various academics across the country, studying the legal systems of the Reconstruction Era.

Listen to Wood’s interview with GLT's Charlie Schlenker below:

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
Katie Seelinger is an intern in the GLT newsroom.