ABBEVILLE, Ala. -- After 82 years, the legacy of convict leasing still lingers in the fragments of family stories Pearline Danzey remembers hearing about a great uncle named Martin.
"My granddaddy used to talk about him. He went off to prison and died there," Ms. Danzey says, sitting in the cramped house she shares with cats and relatives. "They was real sad about it."
This is Henry County, a place where cotton has been grown for most of two centuries and where Ms. Danzey's family traces its history back to 1832 and the slave, Frank, brought to the county by a local white farmer named John Danzey.
Uncle Martin was remembered in the family mostly as a man who spelled his last name without an "e," as did one line of white Danzys who lived nearby. Ms. Danzey -- Pearl to her relatives -- says she no longer remembers her Uncle Martin's alleged crime.
But in years past, she has told her granddaughter, Melissa Danzey, that Mr. Danzy and another local man were arrested after a brawl among men gambling outside a rural church. By the end of the fight, one man was dead. It isn't clear whether the elder Ms. Danzey's recollection has failed or, as was the case in many black families in Alabama, the stigma of imprisonment makes her uncomfortable discussing the subject. One thing is certain: After his arrest, Uncle Martin never came back.
State and Henry County records show that three years before Ms. Danzey's birth in 1918, Martin, then a 33-year-old sharecropper and a husband of nine years, was arrested with another local black man in connection with a third man's death. There are no records of the precise charge, the evidence against Mr. Danzy or the trial. But on Oct. 21, 1915, he was sentenced to a term of 25 years at hard labor, according to the sheriff's register of prisoners. The man arrested with him, Bud L. Clark, was sentenced to 20 years.
Mr. Danzy was promptly "leased" by the state to Henderson Land & Lumber Co., a company long since defunct that put Mr. Danzy to work in a turpentine-harvesting camp near Tuscaloosa. In such camps, men worked from dawn to dusk in remote, often-malarial swamps, collecting the sap of trees to be processed into turpentine.
Mr. Clark lasted just over two months at labor before pneumonia killed him. Mr. Danzy contracted pneumonia as well, state records show. Five months after his conviction, he was dead, too.
On a cool evening, Ms. Danzey presides over a visiting parade of nieces, nephews and children. She sits in a worn vinyl recliner in the living room, telling stories of lynchings, night riders and her childhood on a share-crop farm. Across the room, her grandfather -- one of Martin Danzy's older brothers -- squints from a faded photograph above the television set.
"To kill a colored person then, it wasn't nothing," she says. "We was slaves too in a way."
-- Douglas A. Blackmon
Write to Douglas A. Blackmon at firstname.lastname@example.org
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