Fondren Library exhibit shines light on history of convict leasing in Texas

Coinciding with the 150th anniversary of when the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in the United States became law, an exhibit on the history of convict leasing in Texas is now on display at Rice. “Convict Leasing in Sugar Land: Featuring the Research Collection of Reginald Moore” will be viewable through Dec. 24 in the main first-floor hallway of Fondren Library.

From left, Woodson Research Center archivist Amanda Focke, History Professor Lora Wildenthal and activist Reginald Moore collaborated on the creation of an archival research collection detailing the history of convict leasing. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

The exhibit, which was created by Amanda Focke, an archivist in the library’s Woodson Research Center, grew out of collaboration between Reginald Moore of Sugar Land and Lora Wildenthal, professor of history at Rice. Moore had contacted Wildenthal in fall 2014 to discuss the work that he and others in the Texas Slave Descendants Society were doing to raise public awareness about the relatively unknown history of convict leasing in Fort Bend County and in Texas more generally. Rice’s History Department specializes in Southern history, the history of slavery and the history of post-emancipation labor, Wildenthal said.

“When the convict-lease system started here in Texas in 1867, it was an atrocity how they treated those individuals,” Moore said of his motivation to research the issue and begin assembling a collection. “I just wanted to tell that story. I’m hoping that the community, the city and the university will be aware. I’m hoping that this education will be compelling to everybody.”


After the Civil War, Southern plantation owners and businessmen lost the low-cost labor forces of slaves around which they had built an economy, according to the exhibit’s website. Businessmen and state governments in Southern states soon realized that the protections of the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to African-Americans who had been convicted of crimes and could subsequently receive prison sentences. A system called “convict leasing” was developed in which an individual, usually an African-American man, would be convicted of a crime and sentenced to labor. A business owner would then lease the labor of the convict from the state and regain access to the low-cost, unregulated labor market once provided by slavery. Convict leasing wasn’t abolished until the early 20th century.

Over the summer of 2015, a Rice Center for Civic Leadership Houston Area Research Team consisting of Rice undergraduates Breland Coleman, Ryan Deal and Alexandra Franklin worked to create a permanent record of Moore’s personal papers and other materials he has collected related to convict leasing and that he decided to donate to Rice. Together with Focke, the students digitized Moore’s collection and created a website to highlight the project, http://exhibits.library.rice.edu/exhibits/show/sugarlandconvictleasing.

“The collection also shines a light on early 21st-century activism in Texas regarding convict leasing and on related issues such as gaps and inaccuracies in Texas history schoolbooks and racial disparities in the criminal justice system,” Wildenthal said. “The collection documents efforts to spread knowledge about the history of convict leasing and the refusal to accept the manifestations of racism, prisoner abuse and worker abuse that are part of convict leasing and its legacies.”

Moore’s materials will be permanently housed, in their original physical form and in digitized form, at the Woodson Research Center. The collection is titled “Reginald Moore Sugar Land Convict Leasing System Research Collection 1872-2015 MS 636.”

To view a Rice News video about the exhibit, go to http://youtu.be/fC6dsIE-mY8.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.