Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers

April 15, 1939

Guest post by Daniel Arico, undergraduate student at Iowa State University.

On April 15, 1939, a very extreme article was posted in the Washington Afro-American newspaper. This newspaper just so happened to be “The Capital’s Home Newspaper.” On this particular day in history, an African American’s article was displayed giving explicit details of a prison that he prefers to call “Camp Hell Hole.” This article was named, “I Fled the Chain Gang.” Throughout the post, the fugitive, who remains anonymous, gives unambiguous details of an intolerant prison camp where he was falsely sentenced to fifteen months, as he aspires to bring to the public’s attention this hellish prison camp (click to view article as PDF).

The unidentified fugitive begins by explaining how he recognizes that most people may not believe him and his stories, as he understands the ignorance of people at that time. He then goes into explaining how horrible this prison camp was, located in Salisbury, North Carolina. “I was taken to the Salisbury prison camp, a shackled hell hole if there ever was one, where members of our race are treated like animals instead of human beings. The food was nauseating, the beds unclean and lousy, and living conditions most unhealthful. Several times during our hard hours at labor I have seen the superintendent really whip the men with cat-o-nine tails to speed their efforts. One can easily imagine the hated scowl on the super’s face while doing this as well as hear the defenseless prisoner cry out in pain.” Although the fugitive's claims are hard to hear, they are not at all hard to believe. Most people know about the ongoing racism issue in the southern part of the United States, so this claim should not surprise most people. At one point in his time at camp, the fugitive attempted to escape. Although escaping prison will always come with life-threatening repercussions, it is easy to understand that most of these prisoners felt as if they has nothing to lose. “I saw that in the future my not-any-too-strong physical condition would make a maniac of me, under the treatment existing. After several months, I had to get out somehow, not only for my own good, but to run as far north as I could and seek to expose Camp No. 707 in Salisbury, N.C. I finally escaped in a manner which I cannot reveal, for I may have cause to use the same method again. I managed to cover a nice distance from the camp, but was captured by the cracker guards, assisted by (I hate to say it) colored trusties. What happened after they brought me back was terrible and certainly a stain on the state of North Carolina, which told the newspapers some time ago that such conditions of which I speak did not exist in their penal institutions. Strapped to a crudely erected whipping post, I was lashed by every guard in the camp as well as the superintendent. After that, it was six weeks before I could walk again.” The fugitive made an attempt to expose this prison camp, but failed horribly and was literally tortured for it. They added an additional two years to his sentence for his escape attempt. Shortly after he recovered, his condition only got worse as everyone in the camp now knew who he was. He was put in solitary on a regular basis, with little to no food provided to him. The only thing that these horribly abused inmates had to live for was visiting time, where they could receive gifts and spend time with their loved ones. Eventually, the fugitive escaped prison again and made his way as far up north as he could. “Back to the torturous prison routine we went, up to the time I again escaped and have managed to reach this far north. I hope to go farther, and even though I may be captured finally, I hope I can report the existing conditions emphatically enough before then. It is my greatest hope that this shall be accepted as even halfway truthful and brought to the attention of North Carolinians or sympathizers of our group in all parts of the country.” His escape seems to be justified, or more precisely, unselfish. He most likely speaks for many people in this article that were trapped inside of this prison. It is unknown if this article was effective in the state of North Carolina, but this fugitive risked his life just to bring attention to the situation, which to him, was worth it.

This article is surprising in a few ways. Considering the time frame that it was posted, it is hard to believe that an editor would allow this to be published. Assuming that the editor was white, it doesn’t make sense why someone, who could be presumed to be racist at the time, would allow this to go through. It can’t possibly look good on the white folks during this horrifying period of our country’s history. At the same time, the article is not surprising. These conditions were part of this country at one point. White men in power would take advantage of black men who weren’t in prison. It is no surprise that a black prison camp would have torturous conditions, especially if a convict attempted to escape. It seems as if this particular convict in the article had somewhat smooth sailing before his failed escape attempt. This article is very interesting, not only because it is a thrilling story of a prison escape in the twentieth century, but for the reasons this fugitive did what he did. He didn’t do it to run around and commit crimes, or get himself into a bad situation. He did this because the conditions were so bad in this one particular camp that he would die trying to expose it. That is amazing, and this article is an example of exactly what history has taught us about racism—it was horrible.

“I Fled the Chain Gang” was an electrifying story that luckily made its way into the Washington Afro American newspaper. Hopefully, people read it and believed the anonymous fugitive. His purpose was clear and very touching. The details of his story were so gruesome that it is hard to believe that somebody didn’t stand up and try to make a change.

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