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John S. Williams and Clyde Manning Trials: 1921

Peonage Outlawed, But Flourishes For 50 Years

In 1867, Congress outlawed peonage in an effort to curb the problem; violators were subject to a $10,000 fine and 10 years imprisonment. Some states also prohibited the practice. However, the police and courts usually turned a blind eye to what was going on. Many local law enforcement officials even arrested blacks on false charges to maintain a supply of manpower for the local farmers and actively helped to keep the workers on the farm.

One of those who took advantage of the situation was John S. Williams. In 1921, the 54-year-old father of 12 was the owner of a 2,000-acre plantation in Jasper County, Georgia, approximately 40 miles southeast of Atlanta. With three of his adult sons, he ran his spread by using peons.

Williams managed his farm like a brutal dictator. One man made only 35 cents during an entire year and there is no record of any peon paying off his debt to Williams. At night, the hands were crowded into bunkhouses whose windows were nailed shut, shutters boarded from the outside, and doors locked and secured with a chain. But worst of all was the physical treatment the men received.

Beatings and whippings were handed out daily for such offenses as picking less cotton than the other field hands and being unable to do physical tasks because of on-the-job injuries. On Sundays, the Williams family took their tracking dogs out for practice by forcing a black to run through the woods for the hounds to chase. And there was murder. Before 1921, there were at least four, and possibly as many as 10, killings for such offenses as trying to escape from the plantation and not rolling wire up a hill the way the family liked.

For years, stories circulated in Jasper County about conditions at the Williams place, but nothing was done to discourage or stop John or his sons. The Williams family was rich, powerful, respected, and intimidating. They were not alone in using peons and no one wanted to be seen as being on the side of the blacks. Besides, the occasional killing of a peon was considered nothing more by the southern white society than as a minor business expense (you could always get another peon cheap) and no white southerner had been convicted of murdering a black for over 40 years. But all of that changed in early 1921.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940John S. Williams and Clyde Manning Trials: 1921 - Peonage Outlawed, But Flourishes For 50 Years, Murdering The "evidence" Of Peonage, Southern Peonage Draws National Attention