Recently, an interesting set of records appeared on Ancestry: “Alabama Convict Records, 1886-1952.” I lecture on court records, so these types of records always get my attention.
If you watched “Slavery By Another Name” which aired on PBS in February, these records will be familiar. You can watch the whole episode online.
I highly also recommend reading the book itself. I blogged about this book sometime ago. Also, Bill Moyer’s interview with the author is quite good.
The 13th Amendment
People are often surprised to find out that slavery was allowed to continue past 1865. Look at the language of the 13th amendment:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
(If this interests you, watch the documentary on the 13th amendment called “13th” by Ava Duvernay–it is available on Netflix and for free on You Tube.
This exception for crime ushered in a decades-long system of convict leasing mostly in the southern states.
Primarily black people were charged with frivolous crimes like vagrancy and then held in prison when they could not afford their court fines. Their labor was sold, and they were put to work under horrific conditions in mines and plantations. Tens of thousands of people died.
Alabama was one of the worst perpetrators of convict leasing. Now that I’ve traced my Fendricks and Springer ancestors back to Alabama, I’m searching through as many Alabama records as possible.
Alabama’s Convict Records
The records on Ancestry are images from ledgers. The ledgers were filled in by hand with varying degrees of detail about the prisoner.
I spent some time going through these records at Ancestry. Although filled with mostly black Americans, I did find some whites who were prosecuted. I also saw a few women women and several teenagers.
Some of the records contain case numbers that can be used by researchers to find more information about the court case. You will want to find the court records if you find a family member in these files.
These records detail charges of larceny, grand larceny, assault, attempted murder and a few first degree murders.
There were men convicted for running distilleries. I also saw a young black man convicted of rape, and his entry includes a date of death. I wonder if the rape was for a white woman and whether or not he was lynched?
Most of the people whose records I viewed were eventually released from prison.
If you have Alabama ancestors that “disappeared” for a few years, you’ll want to search these records. There is also a related database on Ancestry called Alabama Death Record of State Convicts, 1843-1951.
Remember that these are state documents, so you’ll want to check with the state archives in your research locale to see what records they have about their prison system.
Here are a few more examples (click on the image to see it magnified):
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.
Karen, I have the exact same situations. V P L. I wonder if it’s petty larceny? My guy had a 50 dollar fine or 20 days in jail…
I’m researching a friend’s family history and found one of her relatives in the Alabama Convict Records, 1886-1952. The crime was listed as V. P. L. Any idea what this abbreviation stands for?
VPL stands for Violation of Prohibition Laws
[…] a family history online. I particularly enjoyed two of her more recent posts, the earliest on Alabama Convict Records and a newer one, Criminals in the Family: Joseph Harbour about one of her wayward ancestors. If […]
[…] also wrote a great post on Alabama Convict Records which gives great tips on using convict records to locate ancestors who seem to have disappeared […]
Very interesting! Thanks for sharing!!
As always, an excellently done and informative post.