Part II: The Chain Gang Era

Part II: The Chain Gang Era

Prisoners built North Carolina’s roads.

North Carolina prisoners worked on railroads, farms, and factory floors. But most dug and graded roads.

It was dangerous work. Conditions were bad and prisoners worked “under the gun” of law enforcement without enough food or medical care.

North Carolina’s Highway Department took over its prisons. It built dozens of new prisons, including Wagram’s, in the 1930’s—each one a road labor hub.

Soon, most of North Carolina’s 100 counties housed a road camp prison. 

Black and white photograph of prisoners digging railroad trenches
Prisoners working on the railroad, Scotland County, NC, ca. 1900. Courtesy Thomas McKinnon
Black and white photograph of a group of prisoners outside in front of a canvas tent.
An early Scotland County prison camp in Laurinburg, NC, ca. 1910. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Black and white photograph of a man in a suite in a field with several dogs
Archibald Thames, superintendent of the Scotland County road camp prison in Wagram, NC, ca. 1940. Courtesy John Thames
Color photograph of a Black woman in a chair in front of a cinder block wall
Sarah Blue, ca. 1940. Blue cared for Wagram prison superintendent Archibald Thames’s children and lived near the prison with her family. Courtesy Betty Blue Gholston
Black and white photograph of a Black man in a suit and hat standing in front of a house's front porch
Lacy Blue, North Carolina Highway Department employee, ca. 1940. Known as “Road Drag,” he oversaw prisoner road work. Courtesy Betty Blue Gholston

Audio Transcripts

Betty Blue Gholston

My connection to the Wagram prison site was my daddy, Lacy Blue, who worked there at the Highway Department, which was a part of the prison. The superintendent was over the prison as well as the highway department. So my daddy, worked for the highway department and, therefore; he worked somewhat with the prisoners, also. And he was called ‘Road Drag’ because a lot of his work was dragging the roads, and we had a lot of dirt roads at the time. And so they drug the roads to make them passable, and people would maybe use them…

My grandmother must have kept me while my mother was working because you know we lived in that prison home out there by the house – out there by the Spring Hill Middle School… went to Spring Hill Middle School. There’s a white house sitting back there in the woods, and that’s where apparently, we lived— that’s where I was born. And apparently my grandmother kept me while my mother worked because my mother walked from that house to cross over to the house that was on the prison ground. But she went there… she worked there every day, and she was taking care of Johnny’s daddy, and his aunt—Bobby and Betty. And in fact, how my mother ended up there was Mr. Thames came and found my daddy and said,

“Lacy, if you let Sarah work helping my wife out in raising my two kids, Bobby and Betty, I will give Lacy a job working on the Highway Department.”

Well, I mean that was something to think about— no Black man had ever worked for the Highway Department – or for the State. So, therefore, my daddy said yes. So, therefore, my mama got the job and at some point I guess they moved into that white house. My mother walked back and forth from that little house across the highway and to the white house where the Thames lived, and I understand she did most of the cleaning and taking care of the kids, and a cook from the prison would go over there and cook the meals.

But my daddy, in a way, was a role model for the Black youth and Black people, period. Because, they’d say, “There’d go Mr. Lacy Blue, Road Drag.” But he was a role model for people because they didn’t see Black men working for the state. Now the only Black men that would work for the state would have been Black school teachers. And Black school teachers were not mostly men. The principal was a man, and the only other person that was sort of independent was the preacher, the minister. But other than that, people were sharecropping, they were working on the farm, and that’s just the way things were.

John Thames

JT: My grandfather was the warden at that camp for probably 30 plus years. And back then, the prisoners did all the road work. I mean they run the drag lines, and they cut all the banks. with bush axes—those big long-curve bush axes. They cut… they did all the road maintenance.

Granddaddy would go to work. He’d go to the camp. He could walk to his office from the warden’s house, and he would come home for lunch, and they had a fellow…One of the prisoners cooked quite a bit too in that house. I think Sarah Blue, Betty’s mama, I think her job was pretty much the private quarters of the house, the bedrooms, if you will, and the bathroom, because the prisoners couldn’t go up there.

But they clearly had a prisoner or two that worked the yards. The yards, the gardens on that prison camp around the warden’s house were second to none in this county. Granddaddy, he loved goldfish pools. They even had a couple big goldfish pools, and I mean that place used to be gorgeous. You can’t tell that now, but… And every Christmas, the prisoners would go cut the top out of a huge cedar tree.

Understand that it took, oh Lord, ten or twelve of them to run that farm. My God, they were harvesting crops, they were killing hogs, they were loading the hogs. There was I don’t know how many road crews went out every morning; it was a convoy of trucks that left every morning from down there about at the tractor barn with a guard riding along behind with his shotgun. And they went somewhere and worked on roads. Granddaddy’s responsibility was road maintenance in the county. The wardens don’t do that no more; they just run prisons.

I heard my granddaddy say one time that back in the day, back in those days, if you were of color, you didn’t have to do much to go to prison from jail, okay.

Interviewer: And most of the prisoners… you were saying most of the prisoners there when you were growing up were Black?

JT: All of them. There weren’t no white prisoners at that camp. A lot of the prisoners on that camp were farmers; they were trustees. They had earned their keep. They wasn’t on no road gangs. I can tell you that. So a lot of those prisoners worked the grounds around the warden’s house, the grounds around the prison, the dairy barn down back, the hog farm across the road, which is now all pines. There were probably three, or four, five road gangs that went out every day on those trucks.