Few know, however, that Flagler built his tourist empire — and modern Florida — by exploiting two brutal labor systems that blanketed the South for 50 years after the Civil War: convict leasing and debt peonage. Created to preserve the white supremacist racial order and to address the South’s labor shortages, these systems targeted African Americans, stealing their labor and entrapping them in state-sanctioned forms of involuntary servitude.
Why do so few know this chapter of our history?
Committed to preserving his and the state’s reputation, Flagler co-opted powerful news outlets to spread distorted versions of events. When the U.S. Justice Department, African American leaders and northern muckraking journalists exposed Flagler’s labor practices, he colluded with powerful government, newspaper and business interests in Florida to whitewash public knowledge and, by extension, the historical record itself.
Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, Flagler, like many white industrialists across the South, leased African American convict labor from the state. Convicts extended his Florida East Coast Railway (FECR) from West Palm Beach to Miami, cleared the land for his Royal Palm Hotel in Miami and graded the rail lines running from the mainland to his FECR extension across the Keys.
Flagler and Florida were not aberrations. Convict lease laws in almost every Southern state essentially criminalized blackness, providing a means for authorities to arrest freed people for pseudo-crimes like vagrancy, lease them to private companies and force their labor.
For the state, convict leasing generated revenue and provided a tool to intimidate and control black citizens. For private businesses, the state offered vulnerable laborers who could be worked beyond human endurance and brutalized at whim.
The convict lease system in Florida was especially violent. Chains, hounds, whips, sweat boxes, stringing up by the thumbs — these were part of everyday existence in convict camps. Sanitary conditions were widely deplorable and medical attention scant. Prisoners with gruesome injuries and diseases were forced to work despite their conditions. Sexual assault was a constant threat for women caught in the system. Not even children were spared.
When convict labor proved insufficient to solve the South’s labor shortages, industrialists used another system of forced labor that targeted African Americans: debt peonage. A federal statute outlawed peonage, but in practice, it overlapped with convict labor. Convicts held beyond their sentences became debt peons, forced to labor to pay off debt owed to their lessor-turned-employer. Escaped peons were often arrested for vagrancy and leased out as convicts.
The same labor practices that forced African Americans into brutal work conditions ensnared immigrant workers, too. Flagler worked with Northern labor agencies to lure new immigrants with false promises of paradise. In reality, the Keys were a living hell: isolated islands with unbearable heat, relentless mosquitoes, poisonous plants, rampant disease and meager medical care.
Workers were refused passage off the islands unless they worked off hefty transportation, boarding and commissary fees. Men promised positions as cooks, foremen or interpreters were compelled to work as common laborers. Those who refused to work were denied food. Foremen often carried guns, and sick laborers were beaten and threatened with death if they didn’t work. Some drowned attempting to flee the harsh conditions, while others died of gunshot wounds, work injuries, disease and neglect.
Some 4,000 workers, including many as young as 15, became slaves in all but name.
Such practices soon drew the attention of progressive-era muckraking journalists and social reformers who exposed problems like urban poverty and the exploitation of workers in the meatpacking industry.
In 1907, Cosmopolitan Magazine published Richard Barry’s exposé of widespread “industrial slavery” in Florida and Flagler’s role in it. “The monumental error made by the employers of Florida,” Barry wrote, “was going beyond the black man with their slavery.”
When the Cosmopolitan exposé appeared, the Justice Department was deep into its own investigation of peonage at the FECR work camps. Lawyer Mary Grace Quackenbos had learned of peonage on the Keys from returning immigrant workers she saw in her law firm serving the poor in New York’s Lower East Side. The Justice Department, after hiring her, indicted two top FECR officials.
The FECR fought back, bribing Justice Department witnesses to sign statements contradicting prior affidavits and pressuring them to leave New York before they could testify at trial.
For reasons lost to history, the Justice Department prosecuted the FECR using a federal slave-kidnapping law instead of the peonage statute. When the case went to trial in 1908, the FECR admitted it had held laborers in a condition of peonage but asserted the government couldn’t prove a conspiracy to hold them as slaves. The judge agreed, and the case unraveled.
It was not just Flagler’s labor practices that were on trial. The reputation of Florida was at stake. Flagler’s business empire and the state’s fortunes depended on Forida’s pristine image as a tourist destination. Working hand in glove with the “best men” of Florida, Flagler organized a fierce challenge to the northern press and Justice Department exposures of his labor practices on the Keys.
Frank Clark, a prominent Florida member of Congress, rumored to hold his position through Flagler’s patronage, attacked the Justice Department and the press from the House floor, claiming that peonage did not exist anywhere in Florida. He called reports of peonage in Florida “sensational rot” and dismissed northern newspapers and magazines as “slimy publications.”
The Flagler-owned Times-Union carried front-page stories crowing about Clark’s attack and glorifying “Mr. Flagler’s Wonderful Work in the Development of Florida.” Many white Florida newspapers, some owned by Flagler, followed suit.
The Florida State Board of Trade cited “grossly erroneous and flagrantly unjust” reports in Northern papers to pressure Congress into authorizing a counter-investigation of the Justice Department, alleging it had unfairly defamed both Florida and the South. The president of the State Board of Trade, it turns out, was the head of the convict system and the ring leader of Democratic politics in Florida.
The congressional investigation concluded there had been little immigrant peonage in the South and none in the FECR camps in the Keys. Newspapers in Florida and across the South spread the deceitful news.
The Flagler Museum in Palm Beach, housed in Flagler’s Gilded Age mansion, Whitehall, prominently displays in its gift shop a popular history about the construction of the Florida East Coast Railway extension across the Keys. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the author dismisses Flagler’s practice of immigrant peonage (the immigrant workers — “uneducated,” “alcoholic” and “criminal” — were not reliable witnesses) and glosses over his use of African American convict labor.
But the truth remains despite Flagler’s denials, appeals to tribal loyalties and prejudices, spread of alternative facts and attacks on the rule of law.
The commodification of vulnerable African Americans and immigrants after the Civil War paved the way for the modernization of Florida. Manipulated and coerced by the thousands, these people suffered, even died, to create the Sunshine State.