On This Day in History (July 10th, 1907)

Imperial Sugar & Co. signed a contract with the Texas State Penitentiary to lease convicts as a cheap labor force.

If the name Imperial Sugar sounds familiar, it should. It has been a staple in Texas history and grocery stores and is the oldest running company in Texas and a heavy contributor to the state’s economy and infrastructure. However, did you know that this prestigious company gained its wealth from the exploitative labor of enslaved peoples and then the labor of convicts as well? While Imperial Sugar & Co. prides itself on contributing to "the land that sugar built,” they fail to mention who built it.


State of Texas. Contract, Bond, &C. Contract. Austin: Attorney General’s Department. Rosenberg Library. Kempner Business Papers 08-0003. (accessed July 21, 2020).

This contract agreement between Imperial Sugar & Co. and the Texas State Penitentiary is dated and signed July 10th, 1907. The contents of this document specify the conditions that allowed Imperial Sugar to rent Black prisoners. The contract orders that Imperial Sugar is to pay the Texas state prison $31.00 a month per person for two years. Under this contract, 125 convicts were to work on the Ellis Plantation Farm (7,000 acres of land in Fort Bend County) for the cultivation of sugar and general farm labor.


But how did we get to that point of exploiting convicts? After the Civil War era, slavery was abolished by the 13th amendment. As a result, planters were forced to find a new source of forced labor for Southern states to pay their war debt. The economic decline combined with new legislation, including the “Black Codes” and “Jim Crow laws” for example, made it easy to target and transform the newly freed population from citizens to criminals. Black freedmen were charged with minor transgressions and received disproportionately long prison sentences. As a result, the Texas prison system was overwhelmed by inmates and consequently needed to offset the cost of their growing prison population by renting out convicts as laborers to the highest bidder. During these prison sentences, convicts were leased out to private companies to do work previously done by slaves. This included sugar cultivation, railroad construction, and farm labor. Convicts were exploited as cheap labor from 1878-1912.


Schlueter, Photographer. [Imperial Valley Railroad Yard], photograph, n.d. University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; Fort Bend County Libraries. (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth610816/ (accessed December 22, 2021).

Under the convict leasing system, incarcerated people were rented by local private businesses as cheap labor to increase their bottom line. One beneficiary of this system is Imperial Sugar & Company. While Imperial Sugar has not used convict labor since 1912, this company still reaps the benefits from it to this day. Imperial Sugar’s profits averaged 3.5 million in the year 1957 and while the Imperial Sugar & Company is one of the hundreds of entities to have benefited from convicts’ labor, it is a prime example of how forced labor was used to build this country at the price of Black bodies.


“Guards and Convicts at the Imperial Farm.” Texas Prison Museum 1908. Texas Department of Corrections Photograph, https://www.tsl.texas.gov/exhibits/prisons/convictlease/page3.html (accessed October 16, 2021).

The reality is that the “Imperial Sugar Company is an important part of the economic structure of Texas.” [as] Imperial Sugar, “ [spent] more than 3,000,000 a year to build Texas railroads and truck lines aiding in the transport of its raw materials and finished products,” across the state. The fruits of convicts’ labor can be seen all around us. Though a complete total dollar amount that convicts’ labor has contributed to the Texas economy has yet to be totaled, as we continue to research and discover ties to businessmen and private companies that total amount grows.





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