Joel Hurt: a 19th-century businessman who abused the convict leasing system

From slavery to convict leasing, one Atlanta businessman blurred the lines between the two. Photo Courtesy of GSU Library Archives

Joel Hurt, an Atlanta Businessman of the late 1800s to the early 1900s and co-founder of Suntrust Bank, is credited with building the Atlanta we see today. He is the man behind The Hurt Building on 33 Hurt Plaza, featured in the Golden Globe-nominated series “Lovecraft Country,” the Equitable Building and the Inman Park neighborhood’s development. 

However, people do not say much about how Joel Hurt contracted labor from prisons to create materials for his buildings. 

After the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865, which abolished slavery in the United States, business owners could no longer rely on enslaved people’s labor. However, the legalization of convict leasing in 1868 made it easy for business owners to rent out prisoners charged with misdemeanors to perform strenuous physical work. 

In 1876, the U.S. passed legislation allowing multiple companies to lease prisoners for a maximum of 23 years, giving the government and large business owners incentive to continue the prison-labor system. 

Although business owners convinced the public that prison labor was an ethical practice, rumors spread to Gov. Rufus Bullock about the laborers’ actual treatment.

Members of the Prison Commission began discussing the end of convict leasing in 1902, citing issues with disciplining convict camp wardens over their treatment of prisoners. The commission wanted to ensure prison labor’s allocation to building and maintaining public roads, paving the way for chain gangs.

In most instances, prisoners lived in convict camps. Camps allowed for prisoners to be easily accessible to leaseholders. In 1908 former prisoner Ed Strickland detailed to a jury how convict wardens working at the Chattahoochee Brick Company camp whipped laborers for hours, with most of the day filled with their screams. 

Some prisoners were whipped so severely they succumbed to their injuries, such as Peter Harris, who Joel Hurt contracted for labor. 

In this same court case, the plaintiff called several business owners, including Joel Hurt, to the stand to defend their use of convict leasing. In a convict camp leased by Hurt, a prisoner contracted pneumonia due to poor living conditions. 

Hurt refused to provide medical care to the prisoner, causing him to die. There were instances in which he demanded prisoners be whipped for singing and smiling.

The Prison Commission declared Hurt to be the most challenging private business owner to work with because he refused to follow the law.

Not only did Hurt engage in unethical business practices, but there is evidence that he paid wardens a confidential second salary to ensure the mistreatment of prison laborers. Hurt paid wardens and medical practitioners an additional $40 to $700 a month under the table. That is roughly $1,400 to $20,000 in today’s money. 

The Hurt family made documented complaints about prisoners not being worked before sunset and after sunrise.On April 1, 1909, convict leasing was officially abolished in Georgia through a Senate and House bill. Although convict leasing ended, companies such as Georgia Correctional Industries use prison labor to build furniture, produce paint and screenprint, and Georgia is one of five states where prisoners do not receive mandatory compensation for their work.