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Today's road crews wear brightly colored vests while picking up trash along the highways. Chattanooga's crews of 1900 were most likely dressed in jailhouse blue overalls and a cap with their legs linked by a chain at the ankle, sometimes along with a heavy ball. Chain gangs operated as both a system of punishment and a means of labor. Men and sometimes women, most often African American, worked on the gangs that were assigned to public improvement projects. These groups of prisoners began forming after the Civil War. They started to disappear between the Great Depression and World War II as movies and stories of abuses made headlines. Beginning in 1995, groups of prisoners once again worked the streets in a "get tough on crime" approach employed in several states, including Tennessee.

The Chattanooga city code of 1871 to 1875 listed gang specifications in chapter 47, sections 525-528. All prisoners confined to the "calaboose" would be working on the streets, attached with a chain extending no more than one foot and a ball weighing no more than 25 pounds. The code stipulated that the prisoners work from 7 a.m. to noon and from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. under the supervision of the Committee on Streets. The marshal and recorder purchased balls, chains and any necessary tools including axes, picks or brooms. Each group of prisoners labored under a "boss of the chain gang," who was elected annually and received the same salary as a police officer.

Refusal to work on the chain gang put one in solitary confinement in a dark cell with bread and water for at least three days, unless the city physician diagnosed the prisoner as too ill. Confinement was postponed until the prisoner regained his health. Seldom did a prisoner get out of work on the gang. The Chattanooga News reported in January 1895 on a confrontation between Ferguson, a gambler sentenced to pay a fine, and the prison guard Clint Morgan. Ferguson asserted that he would not work on the chain gang. After a "short consultation" with guard Morgan, Ferguson picked up his tools and joined the group.

Female prisoners seldom worked on the gang. The Dec. 13, 1885, Chattanooga Daily Commercial reported that the chain group had 28 men and only three women who were working on McCallie Avenue. The 1899 city code, section 551, stipulated that "female prisoners shall not be required to work on the city streets." They instead would work off fines where the public could not see them.

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An excellent description of a Chattanooga chain gang can be found in an essay written by Louise Chamberlain for the Vassar Miscellany in 1897. Miss Chamberlain wrote about the men sent to repair roads near her family’s cottage on Lookout Mountain. The prisoners received bacon, coffee and one vegetable. To read the full article, go to https://newspaperarchives.vassar.edu/ and search for Tennessee chain gang.

Early newspapers carried reports on chain gangs including days worked, escapees, cost of meals and location of street work. The convicts worked 172 days in 1894. In March 1895, they placed trees in the Confederate Cemetery. In April 1907, they installed a drinking fountain in Houston Park. In 1886, the gang built fences around depressions between 4th and 5th streets caused by sewer drainage. From Market Street to Cameron Hill, they worked to clear rock, clean gutters and make the streets passable.

Chain gang bosses and guards were usually white men from the top political party of the day. In 1885, the Republican Party promoted Andrew "Andy" Thompson, an African American recognized as a "prominent representative" of his race. He came to Chattanooga in 1869 and was elected constable in 1872. He served as policeman and in 1886 was boss of the chain gang. Andy later worked as a volunteer firefighter, was elected as alderman from the 7th ward, served as city jail guard and later cook, and ended his days as janitor of the Park Place School in Hill City. The 1885 Daily Commercial stated that "no one can get more work out of prisoners than he." Andy proved that he could efficiently oversee the gang in March 1886 when he retrieved prisoner Pat Kilgore, who had walked off.

Suzette Raney is archivist for the Chattanooga Public Library. To learn more, visit the local history and genealogy department of the Chattanooga Public Library. Call 423-643-7725 or email localhistory@lib.chattanooga.gov.

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