In 1923 NAACP Secretary James Weldon Johnson wrote the editor of the New York World thanking him for the paper’s exposure of brutality in the Florida turpentine camps which had caused the state legislature to abolish the leasing of county convicts to private companies. Himself a product of the progressive era and a believer in man’s ability to reform his society through positive legislation, Johnson wrote that “ending this evil” was “a long step toward the ending of peonage.” The state had already been prohibited in 1919 from leasing its prisoners to private firms, but counties had continued the practice until the World published a series of articles recounting the horrible death of Martin Tabert, a white South Dakota youth, after brutal beatings inflicted by Walter Higginbotham, a prison guard in one of the Putnam Lumber Company’s turpentine camps. In the same progressive spirit as that embraced by Johnson, N. Gordon Carper recently wrote of the events leading to the legislature’s 1923 action and the sentencing of Higginbotham to twenty years in prison for second degree murder. Many who read Carper’s article generally accepted the premise that society was capable of improvement by the discovery of wrongs and by correcting them through improved legislation. So believing, it was natural to infer that James Weldon Johnson was correct and that in 1923 the legislature ended a long-standing abuse. But a brief look beyond the 1923 enactment reveals the difference between enactment of a law and its implementation. It further raises serious doubt about the effectiveness of positive law when it runs counter to established customs.
Shofner, Jerrell H.
"Postscript To The Martin Tabert Case: Peonage As Usual In The Florida Turpentine Camps,"
Florida Historical Quarterly: Vol. 60:
2, Article 4.
Available at: https://stars.library.ucf.edu/fhq/vol60/iss2/4