Nebraska’s early history is connected directly with efforts to oppose slavery and promote the liberty of black Americans. Nebraska’s state capital is named after the signer of the Emancipation Proclamation, in which Abraham Lincoln framed the Civil War as a fight against slavery. Nebraska entered the Union only after the federal government insisted that territorial leaders here take action to guarantee voting rights for black residents.
But while the Nebraska Constitution of 1875 prohibits slavery, it provides a strange exception, allowing involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime. Authorities in Nebraska used that provision for decades to allow convict leasing, in which prisoners were leased out to provide labor for farms, roads and other projects.
Leased convicts helped build Nebraska’s second Capitol building in the 1880s. By 1908, some 82 percent of state prisoners were at work as leased convicts, said State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha. The practice continued off and on until 1940. In the South, convict labor gained infamy during the Jim Crow era for allowing terrible abuse of black inmates.
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Wayne has introduced a proposed constitutional amendment to remove this exception from the Nebraska Constitution. The Legislature has approved it on a 44-0 vote. It will appear on the statewide ballot in the fall of 2020.
Voter approval next year is needed. Convict leasing was a much-abused action. Let’s sever Nebraska’s constitutional connection to it.