Plateau VISTAs Honor MLK Legacy

VISTAs investigate historical civil rights abuses at Tracy City stockade

Local VISTAs joined thousands of volunteers across the nation on Jan. 18, to participate in the national MLK Day of Service. Inspired by the Roberson Project at the University of the South, the VISTA project began by examining the practice of convict leasing in the state of Tennessee and throughout the South. VISTAs then transcribed records from Tracy City’s historical Lone Rock Stockade, where thousands of African American convicts were leased to the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company for forced labor in coal mines between 1872 and 1896.

As background, VISTAs attended presentations by professor Woody Register, Director of the Roberson Project, and by visiting assistant professor Camille Westmont, Director of the Lone Rock Stockade Project. VISTAs additionally viewed the PBS documentary titled “Slavery by Another Name,” which is based on Douglas A. Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize winning book of the same name.

VISTAs subsequently transcribed handwritten records for 913 prisoners incarcerated at the Lone Rock Stockade. Using FromthePage online transcription software, participants transcribed scanned-in, handwritten documents into easy-to-read typed text. “We accomplished an incredible amount today,” said Westmont of the event.

Participants in the virtual event included South Cumberland Plateau VISTAs, the VISTA management team, and VISTAs serving elsewhere in the U.S. “I commend you for making the most of a difficult situation and am grateful,” said Register, in reference to the VISTA cohort’s ability to adapt and serve meaningfully despite pandemic conditions.

The 913 completed transcriptions contribute to Westmont’s research of the Lone Rock Stockade, ultimately helping Westmont and her team to determine just how many convicts labored in Tracy City’s coal mines.

“It is too early in the transcription effort to know, but I expect to find the numbers lie between 5,000 and as many as 10,000 convicts forced into unpaid labor over the course of the stockade’s nearly 25-year history,” said Westmont of the record transcription effort.

Westmont’s research has already revealed that between 70 percent and 90 percent of stockade convicts were of African-American descent, while only an estimated 25 percent of Tennessee’s total population was of African descent at that time. “The stockade—one of several convict leasing prisons in Tennessee and throughout the South—was a blatant continuation of slavery under inhumane prison conditions. Leased labor greatly benefited the local economy and continues to, indirectly, even today. I suspect as a society we will struggle to reconcile these conflicts for generations to come,” said Westmont.

The transcription service project was inspired by the Roberson Project at the University of the South. Chartered in part with “shedding light on how slavery and its legacies have marked our local history,” the Roberson Project is focused on the history of the University, the town of Sewanee, and its people. Still the history of the South Cumberland Plateau and the University are inextricably linked. “Dr. Register, spoke to the VISTAs in December. His presentation sparked curiosity about convict leasing in Grundy County where many of our VSITAs serve,” explained VISTA Leader, Julianna McBee about how the project was developed. “Our MLK Day of Service was truly a success.”