The Testimony of a Laborer Forced Into Peonage in Early 20th-Century Alabama

The Vault
Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
Aug. 29 2014 12:30 PM

The Testimony of a Laborer Forced Into Peonage in Early 20th-Century Alabama

The Vault is Slate's history blog. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter @slatevault, and find us on Tumblr. Find out more about what this space is all about here.

In this 1903 affidavit, Pat Hill, a laborer from Roanoke, Alabama, described the chain of events that led to his virtual enslavement at the hands of local plantation owner John W. Pace. The plainly written description, sealed with Hill’s “X” signature, shows how local businessmen, law enforcement, and judiciary conspired to enmesh Hill. A series of happenings that began with Hill’s arrest for leaving one job ended with his 10-month imprisonment on the Pace plantation, where he was whipped and locked up at night.

Blacks in the South were often coerced into labor throughout the first half of the 20th century, in a system called “peonage.” Pat Hill was unlucky enough to experience both common modes of entry to the peonage system: First, he was held in a job to pay off an unfairly assessed debt to an employer; then, he was arrested, convicted by a corrupt judge, and forced to work as a convict.


Writing about the Pace case, historian Pete Daniel describes how the plantation owner used his position as a county contractor for convict labor to obtain workers with convictions and without. “Constables with blacks in tow invariably checked with Pace to ascertain if he needed extra labor,” Daniel writes.

By this method Pace kept a large labor force of valid convict-lease prisoners and also the victims that local constables brought in for minor infractions. … Pace made no distinction between those on bond and the genuine prisoners.

While federal prosecutors indicted Pace and his collaborators of many counts of peonage or conspiracy to enable peonage, Pace managed to evade the public eye by pleading guilty to some of the charges, thereby avoiding trial. 


National Archives.


National Archives.



Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

The Congressional Republican Digging Through Scientists’ Grant Proposals

Renée Zellweger's New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Whole Foods Is Desperate for Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again

The XX Factor

I’m 25. I Have $250.03.

My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I’m 25. I Have $250.03. My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Free Speech

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 3:13 PM Why Countries Make Human Rights Pledges They Have No Intention of Honoring
Oct. 21 2014 1:12 PM The Global Millionaires Club Is Booming and Losing Its Exclusivity
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger's New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 1:47 PM The Best Way to Fry an Egg
Oct. 21 2014 10:43 AM Social Networking Didn’t Start at Harvard It really began at a girls’ reform school.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.