Browse Exhibits (5 total)

Black Women

“The Black female subject was defined by the unbearable flexibility of nonbeing”—Sarah Haley

“Violence is a language that can only be communicated by passing it on.”—Nell Bernstein

Researching the experiences of Black women inmates from Depression-era Los Angeles has been a daunting exercise. Leaving behind so few sources other than their criminal records, telling the stories of these women is at once a project of recovery and a project of reinterpretation. The researcher must both excavate clues of these women’s lives and dismantle the distorted institutional and popular narratives that have been written about them in newspapers and correctional files. This essay begins with two quotes that capture, in their brevity, significant truths rendered from studying black women and their entanglement with the criminal justice apparatus—that they are largely invisible to mainstream society until they are charged with a crime, and that their lives are rife with constant and myriad forms of violence. The stories of black women found here on the Black Prisoners Project are not complete stories, but the hope is to provide a broad sketch for understanding the lives of working-class Black women, and the trends that contour their encounters with law enforcement, courts, and incarceration. The hope is that these women become visible and multidimensional.

 Although each woman has a unique story, taken together, their criminal records illuminate some general trends and similarities. For example, the majority of the women in our sample are not Los Angeles natives, but southern transplants. As part of a larger exodus of Black migrants leaving the South, some of the women in this study journeyed extensively throughout the United States looking for work before arriving in Los Angeles. In some cases, women went as far as Vancouver, British Columbia in the hopes of finding viable employment. As transient people constantly on the move, the details of migration patterns are scarce. If, however, some women became targets of local law enforcement, they accumulated criminal histories by the time they reached Los Angeles. In general, their charges were for minor offenses such as vagrancy, drunkenness, or petty theft, which were occasionally dismissed but remained on their records. These lists of prior charges adversely impacted black women and their likelihood of receiving sympathy in court. Judges and juries interpreted records of minor offenses as proof of black women’s criminality and delinquency. Ultimately, these lists of prior charges provide important information regarding migration patterns and trajectories, and collectively suggest that black women migrants faced frequent police surveillance and harassment wherever they travelled.

While Los Angeles seemed to hold the promise of racial equality and social mobility, many working class black migrants found similar problems of police harassment and white supremacy in Southern California. Due to racially restrictive housing practices, African Americans found housing in the Central Avenue district. Central Avenue flourished. As the heart of Black Los Angeles, it was a thriving hub home to several black businesses and the liveliest nightlife in the city. Central Avenue’s popular jazz joints and nightclubs attracted more than just white thrill-seeking Angelenos interested in “slumming”, the district also caught the scrutinizing attention of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). In particular, the LAPD’s vice squads hovered over Central Avenue seeking to bust bootlegging, speakeasies, drug rings, prostitution, and enforce the city’s de facto segregation norms.  As historian Gerald Woods has written, the period between 1924 and 1938 marks a nadir in LAPD history, in which the force demonstrated a blatant disregard for civil rights in their brutality towards vagrants, radicals, and people of color, earning them the nickname “the Cossacks”. In response to progressive demands to clean up city vice and general negative public opinion towards the police, Chief August Vollmer began an assault on commercial vice, and part of this agenda targeted prostitution. As a result, Black women especially around the Central Avenue district were immediately pegged and suspected of prostitution.

 Consequently, a major trend that shaped Black women’s experiences with law enforcement and the criminal justice system are allegations of prostitution. Whether or not some actually worked as prostitutes, Black women constantly faced suspicion and association with sex work. This stigma is rooted in the history of sexual violence and exploitation of female slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the construction of black women as sexually immoral, lascivious, and deceitful. Moreover, cultural representations of Black women as harlots and streetwalkers were pervasive in newspapers and scandal rags to the extent that the connection between Black female bodies and sex work was firmly ingrained in the minds of law enforcement, judges, and ordinary citizens. No example illustrates the deep connection between criminality and Black women’s sexuality like the “badger, a popular construction of the archetypal criminal Black woman. In a typical badger crime, a black woman pretends to be a prostitute in order to steal money from white men. In many criminal cases, complaining white male victims or their legal counsel imply that the accused Black women are badgers that force themselves on to innocent and respectable white men.  Accusations of this nature were common in theft and prostitution cases against Black women because they served strategic purposes for the prosecution. It drew on the long history of linking Black women with sexual depravity and promiscuity, and in doing so, leveraged the innocence of white men.

Being caught in the company of Black women in general, and prostitutes in particular, was a tremendous source of shame that white men tried as hard as possible to conceal. In fact, in one particular case, prosecution declined to pursue felony charges “due to the embarrassment of a white man accompanying a Negro woman into an alley.” Denying any intention or desire to visit black prostitutes also had the potential to ruin the case for complaining victims because some judges believed that white men deserved the crime they suffered for even soliciting Black women for sex in the first place.

 In addition to prostitution, another significant theme that emerges in the cases of Black women inmates is the violence that permeates their lives. Close readings of sentencing documents will reveal that inasmuch as Black women are perpetrators of violence, they are victims of violence as well. In instances where charges include assault or murder, Black women maintain their innocence and dignity by claiming they acted in self-defense, and that the men in question attacked them first. As a pattern, these self-defense refrains reveal that black women lived with a chronic threat and fear of violence. In at least two of the cases showcased in the Black Prisoners Project, black women explain to white judges and juries that they frequently carried knives or pistols on their persons because the risks of attack were so severe and pervasive. Being a Black woman in Los Angeles was simply not safe.

Moreover, Black women inmate files also contain stories that suggest abusive relationships. For instance, Barbara Bramlette, an inmate profiled on in this project, killed her ex-boyfriend after the police refused to help protect her from him. He had been incessantly harassing her and pressuring her to sell her body for sex, which she repeatedly refused. Reaching the end of her rope, Bramlette raised her pistol and shot her former boyfriend, effectively ending the cycle of abuse she couldn’t escape. Violence was her way out. As scholar Kali Gross argues, researchers can use crime as texts to reveal the muted voices and stories of Black women convicts: “Those who are victimized by violence often resort to it in an effort to be powerful…Violence became an instrument of power and vengeance, often supplanting the protection and justice that continued to remain elusive.”[1] In other words, crime and violence were the only viable mechanisms black women had at their disposal to express their agency, resist abuse and exploitation, and make their lives visible to society writ large.

Thus, when reading through these correctional files of Black women inmates we must be attentive and sensitive to the layers of violence and erasure that shape their experiences. The only documents that survive to tell the stories of these women are their prison and court records, and the occasional newspaper report of their crimes. Were it not for these sources, their lives and experiences would remain invisible in the historical record. In order to avoid perpetuating one-dimensional interpretations of Black women prisoners, we cannot take these narratives about Black women’s criminality at face value. But if we listen closely, the silences, too, tell stories.

[1] Kali Gross Colored Amazons: Crime, Violence, and Black Women in the City of Brotherly Love, 1880-1910, (Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2006) 89. 

Freedom of Movement: Car Thieves and Chauffeurs in Los Angeles during the 1910s & 1920s

Since its popularization in the late 1910s and 1920s, the automobile took its place as one of Americans’ most cherished possessions next to their homes.  Early on, the automobile acted as a luxury, a symbol of wealth, and a practical means to enhance one’s personal mobility.  Enthusiasm for the new technology seemed universal.  Wealthy owners, working class chauffeurs, professional thieves, and youthful joyriders all craved the opportunity to drive.  Although car theft plagued the United States as a whole during the early twentieth century, it particularly impacted Los Angeles, California.  During my research on the Black Prisoners Project, I encountered numerous cases of black men charged with grand theft auto in Los Angeles and subsequently sentenced to San Quentin State Prison.  Whereas some of them worked as chauffeurs prior to their arrests, others were habitual joyriders.  Some were desperate for cash and others for escape.  Chauffeurs, with their mechanical knowledge and close proximity to their employers’ cars, were especially able and accused of auto theft.  Car thieves dubbed Los Angeles as “the easiest city in America” to steal an automobile.[1]  Car theft and joyriding provided both symbolic and physical freedom of mobility to those who could not afford the luxury of owning an automobile.  This essay attempts to explain both the material and ideological motives behind the crime that imprisoned Los Angeles auto thieves in the California State Prison at San Quentin. 

In the early twentieth century, city planners and boosters envisioned Los Angeles as a metropolis paradise, endowed with a mild Mediterranean climate, sweet smelling orange groves, and modest bungalows dotting a suburban landscape.  The rise of the automobile in the 1920s supported the city’s trend towards decentralization and suburban sprawl.  In the downtown area, horse-drawn transportation, streetcars, and now automobiles contributed to acute traffic congestion.  Traffic served not only as an urban flaw in need of repair by city planners, but also as inspiration to modernize Los Angeles’ transportation system.  Charles Henry Cheney, a renowned city planner of California, argued that “a city is built up entirely from its traffic routes...and if they are not properly laid out, can cause absolutely the wrong and most harmful development of a city.”[2] Progressive city planners studied traffic patterns to trace human activity.  Proponents of the City Beautiful movement, for example, imagined the construction of broad boulevards in Los Angeles for aesthetic and a practical means to connect the periphery with the urban core.[3]  Yet, this tendency for sprawl and the precedence of the automobile in Los Angeles defied contemporary notions of modernity in the United States. Other cities boasted skyscrapers, elevated railways, and subterranean subway systems.[4]  Thus, Los Angeles embraced the automobile as its vehicle for modernity, simultaneously inspired and burdened by it.  Thieves also saw opportunity in the automobile-driven city.  

Newspapers nationwide concurred that spring awakened dormant desires to possess an automobile.  For those who could not afford to purchase one, the West, and more specifically auto-obsessed Los Angeles, posed an easy target for car theft.  Although only a minority resorted to thievery to whet its desire to drive, the crimes were extensive enough to galvanize the newspapers.  As far away as the Midwest, newspapers like the Chicago Tribune characterized Southern California as a winter resort for the wealthy, as well as for car thieves.[5]  In 1920, a Los Angeles Times article coined the phenomenon as the “Spring Drive of Thieves.”  Visiting car thieves wintered in the mild climate of Southern California and, by summer, returned to the East Coast in stolen vehicles.[6]  This seasoned discourse demonstrated Los Angeles motorists’ attempt to understand the motives behind car theft.  The city’s passion for cars resulted in car owners’ paranoia about the security of their vehicles.  However, the promise of mobility motivated the desire to possess an automobile, purchased or stolen, all year round.

For thieves and victims alike, the automobile offered freedom of movement in that it significantly improved one’s mobility.  Mass transportation, the collective movement of a mass of passengers at once, characterized ships, railroads, and streetcars.  An individual yielded to the schedules (and inconveniences) established by the operating companies of mass transportation.  In contrast, the automobile allowed the individual the ability and choice to move whenever and wherever he desired. 

The automobile, stolen or purchased, imparted ultimate mobility upon its possessor.  By stealing a car, the thief stole the owner’s freedom of movement, appropriating it for himself.[7] Moreover, auto theft was an innovative crime because the stolen property facilitated its own escape.[8]  It’s own movement enabled evasion of the police and insurance companies.  Yet if caught, the auto thief risked imprisonment, the ultimate loss of freedom and extreme immobility.[9]  If caught, he would be sentenced to prison.

Twentieth century Americans stole cars for thrills, profits, or power, or any combination of the three.[10]  Some car thieves simply enjoyed the thrill of the steal and the excitement of a speedy getaway.  Joyriding, driving a vehicle without permission of the owner, was a new type of crime.  Some criminals considered joyriding an act of borrowing an automobile.[11]  For instance, Kirk Morgan, the reported king of auto thieves in Los Angeles, explained in a 1917 Los Angeles Times article, “‘I have a mania at certain times for stealing certain kinds of autos, which is beyond my control…Never yet have I taken a car for speculative purposes.’”[12]  

Other car thieves were motivated by the potential for profits.  With the rise of mass-production and interchangeable parts, introduced by Henry Ford’s Model T automobile, some car thieves stole parts rather than the entire vehicle.  The Chicago Tribune insinuated that no car in Southern California was considered safe.  When thieves could not manage to steal the entire vehicle, they stole parts.[13]  Mechanical parts, as well as stolen autos, were sold in domestic and international markets for high profits. 

Finally, in addition to the freedom of physical movement, car theft offered symbolic freedom from American society’s status quo.   Behind the wheel of a car, in a temporary suspension of social classes, thieves experienced the same freedom of movement as wealthy motorists.  The chauffeurs of the early twentieth century exemplified this transposition of social status and realization of power through their close relationship with the automobile.

Similar to car thieves, chauffeurs reimagined their role as wage laborers by operating an automobile, despite not owning one.  In the early twentieth century, no precedents were set regulating which race dominated the new profession.  Many blacks made the transition from draymen to chauffeurs.  By 1920, African American men constituted nine percent of all Los Angeles chauffeurs, a decent proportion given that blacks represented three percent of the total Los Angeles population.[14]  Wealthy motorists hired chauffeurs not only as on-call drivers, but also as mechanics due to the extensive maintenance and frequent problems associated with early models.  Thus, auto owners expected their chauffeurs to be knowledgeable of the practices of the road, to obey their employer, and to act as full-fledged mechanics.  Because car owners were often unfamiliar with the mechanical workings of the automobile, chauffeurs’ special knowledge allowed them to challenge their secondary status.[15]  In this way, chauffeurs possessed more power over the automobile than the detached owner with little understanding of its mechanical workings. 

Chauffeurs took advantage of this superior knowledge and their responsibility to maintain the automobile, by dabbling in fraud and joyriding.  They bargained with different garage owners to receive kickbacks in exchange for their employers’ business in parking their vehicle at a specific garage.  They demanded commission on supplies and services sold to their employers.  A.R. Shattuck, an important member of the New York City branch of the Automobile Club of America, noted at a 1905 meeting that chauffeurs’ “temptation to fraud has been very great.”[16]  Although car owners exercised power over their employees by setting the wage rate for their chauffeurs, the latter wielded their own by collecting kickbacks and commission in addition to wages.  They exploited the property they did not own.  In addition, their duty to be available to drive for their employers at any hour of the day produced the temptation for joyriding, especially during the long hours of the night.  They also compelled garage owners to stay quiet out of fear of losing business.  However, the chauffeurs’ act of defying social status through their relationship with and knowledge of the automobile did not last as owners became suspicious of joyriding and theft by their employees. 

Precisely due to their association with automobiles they did not own, chauffeurs were suspected car thieves during the early twentieth century.  A 1920 Los Angeles Times article cited the Automobile Club of Southern California stating that the crime epidemic began “under the guise of chauffeurs and ‘night men’ [having] conducted a score or more successful raids on public garages and wealthy car owners lately, using their positions to advantage.”[17]  Thus, motorists viewed chauffeurs suspiciously in the wake of extensive auto thievery.  Often times, chauffeurs and mechanics were responsible for theft.  In a 1923 Los Angeles Times article, a “clever gang” of automobile thieves, composed of two chauffeurs and a mechanic, was arrested for stealing and wrecking a car.[18]  Instances such as this established the common suspicion relating chauffeurs and crime, thus dismantling the chauffeurs’ power over their employers.

Because motorists believed that auto thieves were posing as chauffeurs, they made efforts to regulate those admitted to the trade.  According to the Los Angeles Times, “Local employment agencies would do well to examine more carefully than ever the antecedents of alleged chauffeurs applying for positions and thus help stop the auto-stealing crime wave now sweeping over the city.”[19]  The Automobile Club of Southern California only recommended chauffeurs with proper credentials and references.  By organizing as a union, chauffeurs and night garage men could better protect their reputations and try to prevent more thieves from entering their ranks.  Moreover, the new National Chauffeurs’ Association banned African American drivers to discourage their employment by motorists.[20]  By banning black membership, the chauffeurs’ union adhered to the precedent established by other unions that represented skilled occupations in the early twentieth century.  Thus, the union associated African Americans with car thieves in that it blocked both unwanted populations from chauffeur employment.  In addition to these more stringent chauffeur hiring practices used to quell the wave of thefts occurring in garages and at the hands of hired drivers, Los Angeles authorities implemented broader measures to prevent auto theft.

In general, Los Angeles authorities increasingly took action against car theft with plans for more thorough policing.  For example, Los Angeles Chief of Police Butler visited New York City in 1917 to study its policing tactics against car thieves.  Policemen’s schools educated every officer belonging to the Metropolitan force in New York City on the various makes and models of automobiles.  Therefore, when searching for a stolen vehicle, police officers only read the identification numbers for passing automobiles that matched the stolen vehicle’s make.[21]  Upon his return to Los Angeles, Butler intended to implement New York’s policing practice to recover more stolen cars.  A Los Angeles Times article in 1921 quoted a local businessman suggesting, “California might do well to follow the plan adopted in New York in addition to her own excellent methods for nabbing the thief.”[22] 

To impede the interstate trafficking of stolen automobiles, Congress enacted the Motor Vehicle Theft Act, also known as the Dyer Act, in 1919.  It stipulated that the accused was considered guilty if he possessed a stolen car, knew that the car was stolen, and moved it across state lines.  Those caught in violation of the act were prosecuted in the location where authorities apprehended the stolen vehicle.  Then, they were fined five thousand dollars or sentenced to ten years in prison, or both.[23]  Not unique to Los Angeles, the Dyer Act attempted to deter car theft and to severely penalize offenders.

Automobiles symbolized the ultimate freedom of movement during the early twentieth century.  Motorists realized this freedom largely on the streets of Los Angeles, idealized as Autopia by city planners.  Car thieves were driven by the desire to sit behind the wheel, despite their inability to purchase their own automobile.   They transformed mobility into evasion.  They fled the law in the very property they stole.  Similarly, chauffeurs took advantage of their specialized knowledge of autos to surpass society’s expectations of wage laborers.  They exploited their employers’ property to advance their own status and wealth.  While authorities attempted to stamp out car theft and Los Angeles suffocated from more and more traffic, the desire to drive remained.

[1] "Youthful Leader of Auto Thieves Calls Los Angeles an Easy City." Los Angeles Times, 23 Dec.1917, VI1.

[2] Jeremiah B.C. Axelrod, Inventing Autopia: Dreams and Visions of the Modern Metropolis in Jazz Age Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 43. 

[3] Ibid., 23. 

[4] Ibid., 16.

[5] "Thieves Collect Automobile Parts on the Pacific Coast." Chicago Tribune, 24 Sept. 1922, II12.

[6] "Plan to Stop Car Stealing." Los Angeles Times, 29 Feb. 1920, VI1.

[7] John A. Reitmann and Rebecca H. Morales, Stealing Cars: Technology & Society from the Model T to the Gran Torino (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), 2. 

[8] Ibid., 12.

[9] Ibid., 3.

[10] Ibid., 2.

[11] Ibid., 14.

[12] “Youthful Leader”.

[13] “Thieves Collect Automobile Parts”.

[14] Douglas Flamming, Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 75-76. 

[15] Kevin Borg, "The ‘Chauffeur Problem’ in the Early Auto Era: Structuration Theory and the Users of Technology,"Technology and Culture 40.4, (1999), 809.

[16] Ibid., 814.

[17] “To Take Stand Against Crime,” Los Angeles Times, 1 Feb. 1920, VI1.

[18] "Trio Held as Auto Thieves," Los Angeles Times, 5 July 1923, II17. 

[19] "Chauffeur Springs New Theft Problem," Los Angeles Times, 22 Feb. 1920, VI1. 

[20] Borg, 822.

[21] "Chief Butler Ready to Snatch All Violators," Los Angeles Times, 4 Nov. 1917, VI1. 

[22] "Pickings Poor for Thieves," Los Angeles Times, 24 Jul. 1921, VI11. 

[23] Reitmann and Morales, 22.

Life at San Quentin

Each of the inmates presented in this project were sentenced to serve time at San Quentin State Prison; their imprisonment must be understood through an historical narrative that provides a window into the “ Walled City” that would be come their homes for years and decades to come. We are only left to imagine what prison conditions were like for our inmates. Although majority of the inmates in this project were caged during the depression years of the 1930’s and early 1940’s, a brief history of the evolution of San Quentin is necessary for illuminating the dreadful conditions that exacerbated their imprisonment.

            The history of human caging in California is inextricably linked with the birth of the state in 1850. “Early legislators first leased its prisoners to private entrepreneurs who sold the prisoners’ labor to various businesses, including their own.”[i]  The early days of the states’ first human caging were filled with subjugation, corruption, physical abuse, and horrific conditions. “For five years after the American occupation, California seems to have worried along without any fixed penal laws or penal institutions.”[ii] Prisoners were first housed on ships; one of the little known instances is the Waban ship, which is said to have been corrupt and poorly ran according to early historians. “In April 1850, all the county jails were solemnly declared to be state prisons, and the county authorities were authorized to use prison labor on public works. By early in 1851 plans for a state prison were included in an offer made to the state legislature by a former Mexican general named Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo. Inmates from the ship were commissioned to build the new prison on a small peninsula called Punta de Quentin by the Californians. At first the Americans called it Point Quentin; later it became Point Saint Quentin.”[iii]  The goal was to build a prison as quick as possible to have a site to house leased convicts. The inmates labor would be used to pay for expenses associated with their caging, clothes, food, and expenses. “Every day, including Sundays and holidays, the convicts were rowed ashore where they worked from daylight until dark chopping and hauling wood or making bricks. While the prison was under construction, the convicts were kept aboard a ship at night. Since the population had tripled before the year was over, four men had to be crowded into each of the eight by eight foot cells in which no provision had been made for sanitation.”[iv] With no prior experience in penology, the first ten years of San Quentin were chaotic and lacked proper structure to function as an ethical institution of justice. “Before California’s first prison building stood ready for habitation, California legislators had thus enunciated a fundamental conflict of goals that would persist for the next one hundred years: punishment versus reformation. As a way to save money, architecture became the next debated issue that would lead to the building of the first inmate housing space. This first cellblock quickly gained the nickname, ‘The Stones’, which opened in 1854 and remained in use until 1959. The cell sizes measured nearly 6 by 9 feet, typically the size of a solitary cell. In the first decade, prison escape rates were extremely high. [v]


Work in the Walled City

The jute mill at San Quentin opened April 3, 1882. During its first year of operation the jute mill helped cut in half the $200,000, which the upkeep of San Quentin had been costing the state. Ultimately, the jute mill became the focal point for infection that erupted in mass mutinies by the prisoners and in graft corruption among the managers. Yet it never failed to show a profit.[vi] Prisoners labor, moreover allowed the institutions that held them to function. San Quentin became known as the “Walled City”; it held a city’s worth of work. “Prisoners cooked the food and served it, sowed the clothes they wore and washed it when they got dirty, swept the halls, wrote and printed the prison newspaper (one of the only prisons in the world with an inmate ran newspaper), they also built furniture, assembled shoes, wove jute sacks, and pressed licensed plates, all of these could help recoup the costs of caging so many.”[vii] The inmates presented in this project held at least one of these jobs at one time or another, especially the jute mill. Women did not receive a separate building at San Quentin until 1927. By 1929, California finally separated women from San Quentin, and established The California Institution For Women at Tehachapi.[viii]

            At the head of the prison system of California is the State Board of Prison Directors, consisting of five members. The Board of Prison Directors should be distinguished from the Board of Prison Terms and Paroles. The soul function of the latter body, created in 1931, is the fixing of sentences under California’s indeterminate sentence law

[i] Messinger, Sheldon L. "The Foundations of Parole in California." Law & Society         Review 19.1     (1985): 69-106. JSTOR. Web. 02 Mar. 2015. Pg. 70


[ii] Wilkins, James Hepburn., and Clinton T. Duffy. The Evolution of a State Prison: Historical      Narrative of the Ten Years from 1851 to 1861, during the Period When the Care and       Employment of Convicts Was Turned over to Lessess. Place of Publication Not            Identified: Publisher Not Identified, Pg. 1 Print.


[iii] Lamott, Kenneth Church. Chronicles of San Quentin; the Biography of a Prison. New York:   D. McKay, 1961. Print. Pg. 5-17


[iv] Duffy, Gladys Carpenter. Warden's Wife. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1959.

            Pg. 12 Print.


[v] Bookspan, Shelley. A Germ of Goodness: The California State Prison System, 1851-1944.              Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 1991. Print. Pg. 6-7


[vi] Lamott, Kenneth Church. Chronicles of San Quentin; the Biography of a Prison. New York:   D. McKay, 1961. Print. Pg 139

[vii] Blue, Ethan. Doing Time in the Depression: Everyday Life in Texas and California Prisons.    New York: New York UP, 2012. Print. Pg. 65-66


[viii] Bookspan, Shelley. A Germ of Goodness: The California State Prison System, 1851-         1944. Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 1991. Print. Pg. 80



The Civil Rights Congress Involvment in Wesley Robert Wells's case

“The power of the people got me out, and I am deeply grateful”

Wesley Robert Wells


      Although, the American Justice system is to protect the rights of the people, now and again there occurs a case in which "justice clearly miscarries". This can be specifically seen in the issue-surrounding inmate Wesley Robert Wells who was imprisoned for his entire life. Though Wells was set free in 1979, the legal fight for his life was long and arduous as it took him fifty-six years until his release. However, the success of his freedom was not fought alone and primarily due to the large support of the Civil Rights Congress. Thus, through illuminating the nation wide protest for Wells’s freedom, one can illuminate how the Civil Rights Congress utilized specific tools and strategies that ultimately led to Wells’s release.

       In 1946, three groups, the International Labor Defense, the National Negro Congress and the National Federation for Constitutional Liberties grouped together and formed the Civil Rights Congress in Detroit, Michigan. Their mission focused on creating a legal defense team in order to fight for the civil rights and liberties for African Americans. In doing so, they defended many cases that included “publicizing lynching’s” and “pressing authorities for prosecution of African American murderers”[1]. The tactics and tools in which were utilized were similar to those that were used during the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1950s and 1960s; mass political action through public media, protests, and legal strategies were all applied as a way of combating racism in the criminal justice system[2]. Ultimately, the Civil Rights Congress sought to expose American racism in the United States, something that was new to the public and government officials.

       The Civil Rights Congress targeted “red cases” that focused mainly on victims whom had been suppressed by various legislative efforts, including the case of Wesley Robert Wells, a prisoner in Los Angeles who was unjustly given the death penalty for a minor offense. The Civil Rights Congress originally became involved in Wells’s case in 1947, after Wells was given the death penalty for throwing a cuspidor at a prison guard in which violated Section 45000 of the California Penal Code that stated that a “life-termer guilty of assault could be executed”[3]. Originally, Charles Garry, who would eventually become the future chief counsel of the Black Panthers, along with the Civil Right Congress, took Wells’s case in 1948 by arguing that Wells’s sentence should have never been considered a “life termer” to begin with. Additionally in 1950, Garry also filed a lawsuit against Governor Earl Warren and the California Department of Correction with “discrimination against black prisoners at Folsom and San Quentin”[4]. In this lawsuit, Garry illuminated severe discriminatory acts at the prisons, such as segregation where African Americans were forced to eat separately and that blacks were treated more harshly than any other prisoners.

       Although Garry and the Civil Right Congress made strong arguments for Wells’s, in 1953 the U.S. Supreme Court denied Wells’s appeal. Wells’s unsuccessful appeal was so shocking, that the Civil Right Congress utilized its strong organizational skills and contacted the mass media in order to launch a widespread protest for Wesley Robert Wells’s justice. In doing so, the publicity efforts turned into a call for help to the larger issue of racial inequality in the United States, specifically in the judicial legal system. The Civil Right Congress made key points to the public by stating that Wells was “not a hardened, vicious criminal” and that “Wesley Wells was a victim of a government policy that enforces second class citizenship on the Negro people” bringing the issue of racial discrimination to a new level that the American public had never scene before[5]. The Civil Right Congress proved itself successful as the public campaign for Wells’s justice became so widespread that in March of 1954, the Civil Right Congress had received over 50,000 signatures on a petition for Wesley Robert Well’s freedom[6]. Additionally, numerous of civilians wrote letters along with the Civil Right Congress to the warden and the governor, arguing and demanding for Wells’s release.

       After the Civil Right Congress legal team was able to receive a stay of execution, the Civil Right Congress went on another publicity campaign by inviting newspapers, such as the California Eagle, to showcase Wesley Robert Wells’s case. Newspapers began to become key supporters in Wells’s case whereas they were giving Wells’s case full coverage. The California Eagle, Los Angeles Herald, and the Los Angeles Tribune were only a few of the newspapers that participated in a widespread attempt to illuminate Wells’s story.  With many articles being written in the California Eagle, a mass public movement was led by Civil Right Congress director, IDA Rothstein, who led an entire protest to California Governor Earl Warren in October of 1950, and demanded Wells to be released as well as arguing for prison reform at Folsom and San Quentin prison. While Governor Warren refused to listen, the Civil Right Congress in February of 1951 began to collect all letters that Wesley Robert Wells had written to them and published a pamphlet titled “My Name is Wesley Robert Wells” in which illuminated Wells’s story of injustice through his own eyes[7]. After the success of the pamphlet, Wells continued to explicate and reveal the issues from his cell in letters to the Civil Right Congress describing his situation and the racial discrimination he would receive. The Civil Right Congress again published this in 1953, as a book titled Letters from the Death House[8].

       Additionally, in 1951, the Civil Rights Congress published a book, We Charge Genocide, in which specifically petitions for the idea of black genocide. The book argues that genocide, as defined by the United Nations, is the “killing members of the group” and also includes “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group”[9]. African Americans during this time were subjected to segregation, discriminated against and the “target of violence” and therefore, according to the Civil Rights Congress, are suffering from genocide[10]. The book calls for attention to this crucial issue and cites specific cases as evidence towards black genocide in America. Wesley Robert Wells was mentioned in the sense that he was a victim of “institutionalized murder” through the judicial system and the prison system of California. Although Wells had not been killed yet, Wells fell into that “pattern of genocide” that resulted from segregation in the prison, and was not only apart of a conspiracy to commit genocide, but as well as an attempt to publicly commit genocide[11]. His mental state being was severely harmed in his stay at Folsom and San Quentin Prison, as seen in his psychiatric reports, and therefore directly falls under the definition of genocide in the United States. The Civil Rights Congress’s book, We Charge Genocide, served as a huge contributor in Wells’s case, whereas Wells himself was not only a petitioner in the book, but also provided evidence towards Wells being apart of the concept of black genocide.

       Moreover, after the success of the book, the Civil Right Congress began receiving support from more organizations. Black churches now became involved where they would distribute handouts on Wells’s case and under the Civil Right Congress, letter-writing campaigns were initiated all over the United States where thousands of citizens wrote letters to the supreme court arguing for Wells’s freedom[12]. With the now large support from organizations all over the United States, the Civil Right Congress along with the Wells Defense Committee started to release weekly newsletters called The Wesley Wells Defender, that consisted of four to five pages of updates, future protests, and other crucial details about the case in order to gain more support along with ways in which people could become active participants in fighting for Wells’s life[13]. The number of organizations now involved with the Civil Right Congress to fight for Wells became long and extensive as there became a “grassroots effort” to fight for his rights[14].

       After endless efforts and years of campaigning and protesting, Wells was officially set free on July 1st, 1974. His freedom was primarily due to the involvement that the Civil Rights Congress had not only in creating a legal defense team for him, but also due to the mass political attention they brought to the case. Through having a various groups, newspapers, book publishers, and overall complete media attention, Wells’s freedom was done through “the power of the people” and the Civil Rights Congress.

[1] "Civil Rights Congress Seeks Anti-Lynch Bill", Chicago Defender, 27 September 1947

[2] Gerald Horne, Communist Front The Civil Rights Congress, 1946-1956 (Rutherford:  Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1987), 4

[3] Court Documents

[4] Hamm, Theodore. "Wesley Robert Wells and the Civil Rights Congress Campaign." Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society 2, no. 1 (2009): 22-33.

[5] Hamm, Theodore. "Wesley Robert Wells and the Civil Rights Congress Campaign." Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society 2, no. 1 (2009): 22-33.

[6] Ibid., 24.

[7] Wells, Wesley Robert. My Name Is Wesley Robert Wells. California: State Defense Committee for Wesley Robert Wells, 1951.

[8] Wells, Wesley Robert. Letters from the Death House. Los Angeles: [Civil Rights Congress], 1953.

[9] Congress, Civil Rights. We Charge Genocide; the Historic Petition to the United Nations for Relief from a Crime of the United States Government against the Negro People. [New ed. New York: International Publishers, 1970.

[10] Ibid., xi.

[11] Ibid., 10.

[12] Hamm, Theodore. "Wesley Robert Wells and the Civil Rights Congress Campaign." Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society 2, no. 1 (2009): 22-33.

[13] Ibid., 25.

[14] Ibid., 27.

Road Camps

During the early 20th century, prisoners in California worked in different forms of labor to benefit the state economy and as a method of rehabilitation through work.  Prison road camps, in particular, became an alternative source for convict labor more appealing than dangerous, less rewarding jobs within prisons.  Road work provided rewarding wage labor and a more comfortable lifestyle to the prisoners, and was promoted as a path to reintegrating with society by instilling a work ethic and personal responsibility into convicts.  The state benefitted at the same time, using the road camps to develop highways to expand the state economy while saving money.  Pressure to reduce the use of convict labor in the Great Depression led to the decline of the camp system, disregarding their role in the economy and in rehabilitating prisoners.

Road work emerged as a new form of convict labor in California in order to benefit the state and save money. Wardens of San Quentin and Folsom prisons had experimented with utilizing convict labor to crush granite and construct roads, mirroring a similar program in Oregon that employed convicts to construct roads throughout the state.  At the same time, there were growing concerns with the conditions of jute mills in prisons like San Quentin that had been the primary form of labor available to prisoners at the time.  A 1911 report on the jute mill at San Quentin found that "the air (in the mill) is charged with fine particles of dust, fatal to the weak-lunged,” a concern that was confirmed by a later report that found 20 cases of tuberculosis among San Quentin inmates attributed to the mills.[1] The alternative offered by the road camps operated by the warden of San Quentin in 1913 offered work outdoors on roads adjacent to the prison.  Prisoners were kept there on an honor system, trusting they would not escape despite the absence of armed guards because of the healthier working conditions compared to the jute mill.[2]

Where convicts saw an opportunity for safer work, state lawmakers saw an opportunity to benefit and expand their state’s economy. The state legislature pursued this goal by authorizing state road camps under the supervision of the Division of Highways in 1915.  Despite the appeal of using convict labor this way to try to expand roads at lower costs, the early road camps were not without problems.  Convicts reportedly wasted materials and worked inefficiently, due to the lack of reward for their service.  In order to provide incentive for working hard, the state legislature amended the law on road camps in 1923, providing a maximum daily wage of $2.50 to prisoners.[3] This did not mean, however, that convicts were allowed to keep all of their wages. Indeed, the 1923 law allowed the California Highway Commission (which was charged with hiring and paying convict workers) to deduct from these wages prisoners’ expenses and operating costs of the camps, and to limit the amount prisoners could save from their daily pay. A Los Angeles Times report on the conditions of the Kern River Canyon camp (twenty miles east of Bakersfield) found that, from the $2.10 daily wage the camp gave to its convicts, the commission deducted the costs of maintaining their guards and expenses incurred for recapturing escaped convicts.[4]  A 1932 report by the Division of Highways found that the prisoners saved, on average, about twenty seven cents per working day since 1923.[5] This left prisoners with less money to purchase goods from the commissary or to save for their lives after prison.  Interestingly, any debt prisoners accumulated was used as grounds for punishment.  If convicts failed to save enough to pay for prison administration, tools, and other materials, they could be sent back to prison without their good time credits or lose parole.  By tying prisoners’ monetary interests and chances of early release to the efficiency of the camps, officials sought not just to make the road camps self-sustainable, but to make prisoners responsible through “honest labor and its fruits”.[6]  This disciplining against accumulating debt thus became part of prisoners’ rehabilitation into fiscally-responsible consumers, as well as workers. .

Prisoners enjoyed other benefits in the road camps besides wages. Prison authorities, for instance, reduced one day of their sentences for every two days they worked.  Combined with “good-time” credits awarded to prisoners for good behavior for road work, work credits helped convicts earn early release.[7] Moreover, the road camps offered a greater degree of freedom to convicts than confinement within San Quentin and Folsom.  This was evident in the lesser amount of security and surveillance in the camps. The camp at Kern River County, for example, only had five armed guards. One guard, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, remarked that, if even three prisoners tried to escape to the surrounding mountainous terrain, “the guards would have little chance of catching them.”[8] Camps were operated with little discipline, requiring prisoners only to report to guards or supervisors for mealtime and before going to sleep. This leniency may have reflected good behavior on the part of the convict laborers.  Since the implementation of payments to the prisoners in 1923, reports of fights and thefts between camp workers had steeply declined. The Los Angeles Times argued that this was due to the fact that prisoners knew that failing to meet their obligations or misbehaving would cost them parole and early release. They would then be returned to prison.[9]  The road camps also offered a relatively comfortable lifestyle that convicts did not have in prison. Camps like the one in Kern County, for instance, offered comforts like radios, bathing facilities, and libraries. As prisoners worked and relaxed in the outdoors, outside the constraints of prison, they could also socialize with one another. This, along with the minimal security in the camps, undoubtedly provided a sense of freedom and humanization that prisoners were deprived of in prison.  

In addition, the California Division of Highways was tasked with organizing and regulating the conditions of road camps, as well as selecting convicts for this work.  The Division, for instance, required that all road camps be close to the highways in construction, have access to clean water, and be distant from railroads and residences to deter escapes.[10] Convicts were housed in eight-man bunkhouses, organized in groups adjacent to the quarters of camp personnel and guards for supervision.  The bunkhouses allowed for prisoners to be grouped by race and segregated, while making convicts responsible for the upkeep of their own quarters.  Though prisoners may have been segregated within the camps, they were primarily chosen based upon physical health and their “temperamental fitness", rather than race.  In practice, officials chose prisoners based on the recommendations of prison personnel (such as the warden), who were able to comment on their temperament and working abilities.[11]  In addition, a 1937 academic report found that the populations in San Quentin’s road camps roughly reflected the racial distribution of its prison population.[12]  This indicates that assignments to these camps were not dependent on race.  Prison officials did, however, distinguish job assignments in road work between prisoners and skilled free workers. Laws stipulated that skilled labor, such as bridge building or machine operating, was to be left to free workers, due to pressure from organized labor to not allow prisoners to take such skilled jobs.[13]  Such skilled engineers and machine operators lived with prisoners in the camps (though in separate barracks), combining their labor to lay gravel and pave many miles of the state’s highways and county roads.

The road camp system benefited the state tremendously. The promises that the convict labor would save the state money seemed vindicated by reports of its earnings. One estimate found that the state saved $500 per day by moving prisoners from the supervision of prisons into the labor camps.[14] Savings were also attributed to the prisoners’ wages, which incentivized them to work harder and use materials more efficiently.  In 1926, the Los Angeles Times estimated that convict laborers saved the California Highway Commission $127,594.[15] The savings and profit from the road camps encouraged their expansion, peaking in the 1920s when 12.6% of California prisoners worked on state highways. Groups within and outside this system pushed for further expanding the use of road camps and similar convict labor with the belief that it would combat “convict idleness” and help rehabilitate prisoners by instilling them with a work ethic and trade. A 1930 San Francisco Chronicle editorial decried the fact that a majority of prisoners were still not employed in any form of labor--be it the road camps, San Quentin’s jute mill, or the rock quarries of Folsom--as a “waste of human material.”[16] Beyond costs and revenues, the road camp system helped to significantly expand California’s highway system.  From the beginning of the camps in 1915 until 1936, convicts built more than five hundred miles of roads.  These included highways connecting remoter, rural parts of the state with urban sprawls like Los Angeles, helping to stimulate tourism, travel to and from the cities, and the timber industry.[17]

The onset of the Great Depression after 1930, however, marked the beginning of the decline of the prison road camp system. Labor unions increasingly pushed to end state investment in convict labor, viewing it as unfair competition. In response, Californian legislation reduced the employment of inmates in the road camps even when the economy rebounded during better times in the 1940s and 50s.  By 1950, only 200 inmates worked in road camps in the entire state.[18]  The diminished employment of convicts in road work clashed with the mission of rehabilitation and hard work the camps had represented. As late as 1937, a national report found that California’s road camp system had been the most effective rehabilitation program in the state’s history.[19] The report echoed the findings of a 1926 Los Angeles Times article that argued that the prison road camps had made better citizens of “men who have fallen over the moral cliff” than any other system.[20] While the California prison system would utilize convicts for smaller industrial tasks and craft making in the years to come, these programs would never substitute the meaningful work, benefits, and sense of freedom the road camps offered to prisoners in the early 20th century.  Instead, the state relapsed into the model of isolation and caging that characterized the state prisons.  In doing so, it closed off a road to prisoners’ earlier release and reintegration into society, making both goals more distant and beyond reach.



[1] Ward M Mcafee. "A History of Convict Labor in California." Southern California Quarterly. P. 28.

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] John Shaw.. "Where Useful Toil Chases Prison Pallor." Los Angeles Times 26 Oct. 1924. Proquest.

[5] Ethan Blue. Doing Time in the Depression Everyday Life in Texas and California Prisons. New York: New York University Press, 2012.  P. 71.

[6] Ibid, p. 74.

[7] Mcafee, p. 27.

[8] "Usefoil Toil".

[9] "Prison Road Work Lauded." Los Angeles Times 26 Dec. 1926. Proquest.

[10] HARD Work Camps Team (2007) Work Camps: Historic Context and Archaeological Research Design, 2nd Draft . Report Prepared for California Department of Transportation, Sacramento, CA. P. 84.

[11] Blue, P. 71.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Mcafee, P. 28.

[14] "Prison Road Work Lauded"

[15] Ibid

[16] Mcafee, P. 28.

[17] Blue, P. 71.

[18] HARD Work Camps Team, P. 86.

[19] Mcafee, P. 29.

[20] "Prison Road Work Lauded"