The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution is passed by Congress in 1865 so “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude” However, the amendment would pass with much controversy over its interpretation.

The Emancipation Proclamation, declared by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 during the American Civil War, only freed slaves held in confederate states. Only through the Thirteenth Amendment did emancipation become national policy. It was passed by the Senate on April 8, 1864, and by the House on January 31, 1865. The joint resolution of both bodies that submitted the amendment to the states for approval was signed by President Abraham Lincoln on February 1, 1865. Ratified on December 6, 1865, it was the first of the three Reconstruction Amendments, adopted between 1865 and 1870 following the American Civil War. 

The amendment states: 

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Abraham Lincoln 16th President of the United States of America

However, it was with this exception, “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” that a new form of slavery developed in the 20th century. The Angola Prison guard tower, part of our Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom exhibition shares in the legacy of this post-Civil War incarceration practices. The tower belonged to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, originally a slave plantation on the banks of the Mississippi. After the Civil War, black codes and other discriminatory laws made it easy for local officials to arrest African Americans and other poor residents for minor infractions.

Angola is one of the largest maximum-security prisons in the U.S. Samuel James, a major in the Confederate Army, bought the plantation land and secured the lease to run the state’s penitentiary. The prison cells were located on the old slave quarters. The prison officially opened in 1901 and drew some of its labor directly from the state’s prisons in a common post-Civil War penal labor practice known as convict-leasing that allowed private individuals to lease prisoners out for forced labors. Convicts built roads, erected levees, toiled in factories, or worked at any other task that needed labor. For some states convict labor became a major source of revenue. The prison tower remains a harsh reminder of the surveillance and segregation a largely black prison population faced. 

Angola Prison guard tower on view in our “Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: Era of Segregation 1876-1978,” inaugural exhibit. One of the two first artifacts to arrive to the Museum and to large to be brought in later, our Museum was constructed around the guard tower. 

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Visit our Slavery and Freedom exhibition to view more objects that reflect the nation’s transformation in the fight for African American freedom during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

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