While driving through Anderson County, John and Ruby were appalled to see a chain gang of approximately 80 prisoners connected by an ankle chain; they recorded the group singing spirituals and work songs, and composed a letter to the governor to protest this inhumane practice.
1939 Southern Music Trip
Field Notes, Anderson County, S. C.
After the visit to Mr. Adams's broadcast Sunday morning, we stopped at the Anderson County Convict Camp. Our experiences there are related elsewhere.
And if I get drunk in your city, ole woman
And stumble and fall down at your door
Don't you run your hand in my pocket, ole woman
And take all my silver and gold
I ain't been there but I been told
Ain't no heaven on the county road
She'll take a stranger on her knee, and she'll tell him things that she won't tell me
And if I get killed in Arkansas-saw-saw
Won't you send my body to my mother-in-law
Anderson County Convict Camp near Sand Springs, South Carolina
Honorable Burnet R. Maybank,
Governor of South Carolina,
Columbia, S. C.
My dear Governor:
Since 1934 I have spent much of my time travelling throughout the south making records of folk songs. In this work I have visited Negro convicts in all Southern penitentiaries, and in many of the road camps. In making my reports to the Library of Congress I have found so much unjust criticiam and misinformation about the treatment of Negro convicts in the South that a year or so ago I wrote a news article explaining the widely misunderstood term "chain gang". In this story I stated that I had never soon convicts chained together. (As a matter of fact no instance of physical brutality in all my experiences have come under my personal notice). I can no longer make this claim.
A few Sundays ago I visited the convict road camp in Anderson County, South Carolina, near Clemson College. There I saw a hundred negroes resting in their quarters, all fastened togother on a single long chain, so that when a small group agreed to sing for me, the entire bunch had to move out of the tent and stand in the open.
I do not know of the special reasons that make it necessary for these men to be chained together on their rest day. I only know that I have never before seen a practice which seemed to me unnecessary and inhuman.
I am writing to you, Governor, only in the hope that, through the power of your office and the high esteem in which you are held by your people, you can have this situation corrected. I am a Texan and I was for years on the Faculty of the University of Texas, but my father, James Avery Lomax, was born and reared in Abbeville/District, South Carolina, while my mother came from Alabama. By inheritance I hold dear the righteous ideas of a Southern man.
I wish to add that I was most courteously received by the guards at the Anderson County Prison Camp, and I was touched by the cheerful acceptance of their hard fate shown by these black boys as they slowly dragged themselves about with their legs manacled to that long chain.
Sincerely and respectfully yours.
P. S. Without their permission I refer you to Ben Robertson, Jr. of Clemson, S. C. and to Professor Read Smith, South Carolina University, whom I have known somewhat intimately since we were students together at Harvard University.
The afternoon we spent on the Toccoa Falls Singing Festival project.
June 11, 1939
Anderson County, S. C.