From NKAA, Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (main entry)

African American Shoemakers in Kentucky Prisons (A Leading U.S. Industry)

Submitted by Reinette F. Jones, August 17, 2015

The Kentucky State Penitentiary in Frankfort opened in 1789; it was the first state prison. It was renamed the Kentucky State Reformatory before closing in 1937. Though it was said to be closed, there were still 159 inmates there in 1940, none of whom were shoemakers [source: U.S. Census].

A branch of the Kentucky State Penitentiary was built in Eddyville, opening in 1886. This second prison was meant to relieve overcrowding in the Frankfort State Penitentiary. There have been many additions and other changes to the facilities in Eddyville, which is now a maximum security prison [more info at KSP website]. The third prison, the new Kentucky State Reformatory, was built in LaGrange, opening in 1936 through funding by the Kentucky General Assembly and the Public Works Administration [more info at KSR website]. The present day Kentucky State Reformatory is a medium security prison.

The shoe factories were located in the Frankfort and Eddyville penitentiaries. The making of shoes is no longer a major prison industry in Kentucky, though during the final decades of the 1800s and the early decades of the 1900s, the shoe industry in Kentucky prisons ranked among the top in the United States.

From early on, there was a shoe factory in the Kentucky State Prison in Frankfort; the shoes were made by prison labor. In 1816 there were 12 convicts working in the shoe factory [source: p. 102 in A Report on the History and Mode of Management of the Kentucky Penitentiary from Its Origin, in 1798, To March 1, 1860prepared by W. E. Sneed]. These convicts were probably white. The prison population was fairly small in 1816: by 1844 there were 157 white male prisoners and 19 colored male prisoners [p. 385]. The year 1844 was during the period when most colored males in Kentucky were enslaved and considered valuable property. Colored males in the Kentucky State Penitentiary prior to the end of slavery had been free (not enslaved) before being incarcerated. Freedom came to all enslaved in Kentucky after the Civil War ended. With more freed colored men in the general population, more freed colored men were charged with crimes and imprisoned. With more prisoners, there were more workers in the prisons. [For a comparison of the number of free colored persons in the 19 state prisons in the United States, see "Appendix: Table A" on p. 282 in the section "Pauperism and Crime" in De Bow's Review and the Industrial Resources, Statistics, etc., vol. XIX, New Series, Vol. II, 1855.]

In the 1850s, the cause of crime was still attributed to race, ethnicity, the wrong religion, class, lack of education, and many other reasons and prejudices. Work was thought to be good for the prisoners' souls, helping address their bad ways as well as providing funds to pay their bills and fill the pouches of those who operated the prisons.

There were different types of factories in prisons, with  shoe factories becoming a major work area for the colored prisoners after 1880 and up to the 1920s. All shoemakers were male; women prisoners did not make shoes in Kentucky prisons [though they did in Virginia, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Michigan]. Shoemaking was a trade most colored inmates learned while incarcerated. In Kentucky's general public, there was not an overwhelming number of African American shoemakers, and those numbers did not drastically decrease as the numbers within the prisons increased [see the NKAA subject search for shoes].

After 1880, there were more colored shoemakers in prison than out of prison. Making shoes using prison labor became the most profitable industry in Kentucky prisons. The training and working of prisoners was to the financial benefit of those who leased the prison, of financial benefit to the prison keeper, and was soon of great financial benefit to the State of Kentucky. During the earliest years, the head of the prison leased the entire prison to the highest bidder. The leasing system was compared to slavery; many of the guards had received their jobs as political favors and were not trained for their jobs inside the prisons. The person or company that leased the prison set the tone for the level of care the prisoners received, which led to the death of prisoners as a result of company cost-saving measures with food, sanitation, and health, as well as physical abuse of the prisoners.

A warden system was established in the Kentucky State Penitentiary in the 1880s, with individual prisoners leased by the State to work on public projects. Many prisoners died from malnourishment, on the job accidents, and physical abuse. In 1890, the Kentucky Constitution prohibited the leasing of convicts, leading to a system of contracted prisoner labor with company operations inside the prison. [For more about the early prison years in Kentucky and the south, see "The Blackburn Governorship and the Prison Issue" on pp. 259-261 in A New History of Kentucky, by L H. Harrison & J. C. Klotter; Slavery by Another Nameby D. A. Blackmon; and One Dies, Get Another, by M. J. Mancini.]

Kentucky was not unique in the leasing of prisoners, especially African American prisoners; it was a practice throughout the south. But Kentucky excelled in the business of making shoes using prison labor, which placed the state among the top prison shoemaking industries in the nation, starting around 1882. The high market value of the shoe industry had developed in the late 1800s, and Kentucky prisons were actually a little late participating in the boon. The U.S. Census listed very few shoemakers in the Kentucky Penitentiary in 1870, and those few were all listed as white male prisoners except one. The African American male prisoners were listed in the census as "laborers" along with the occasional brick maker, carriage maker,  wagon maker, and barber. The African American women prisoners were all noted as domestic servants.

Ten years later in the 1880 U.S. Census, African American women prisoners were still listed as domestic servants. The job listings of the African American male prisoners had been upgraded from laborers to more definitive job titles such as brick mason, farm labor, blacksmith, carpenter, and other job titles. There were four African American shoemakers in the Kentucky prison in 1880. 

Most inmates in Kentucky were illiterate. There were few who were considered educated: "24 is good, 183 common, and 355 have no education" [source: p. 13 in Report of the Directors and Warden of the Kentucky Penitentiary to the General Assembly, January 1, 1884, at Google Books]. 

Around 1882, one of the Kentucky State Penitentiary contracts was awarded to C. R. Mason and Company [later Mason and Ford Co.], a shoe factory managed by Charles E. Hoge. The company was said to have provided the prison shoemakers with all provisions, clothing, beds, bedding, and medicines, as stipulated in the contract [p. 12]. The inmates also received spiritual enlightenment from four ministers who came to the prison to preach; the colored minister was Rev. J. W. Asbury. In December of 1883, there were 542 inmates in the Frankfort State Penitentiary: 249 White males; 256 Colored males; 2 White females; and 35 Colored females [p. 22]. The majority of the inmates came from 103 counties in Kentucky, with the absolute most from Jefferson and Fayette Counties [pp. 24-26]. The second largest group of prisoners by state of origin came from Tennessee, followed by Virginia [p. 27]. Murder was the number one offense of the inmates, followed by grand larceny and house-breaking [p. 26]. [For more about prison life for African American inmates in Kentucky Prisons, see  "Sacrifice upon the altar of the law" in Racial Violence in Kentucky, 1865-1940, by G. C. Wright.].

"The new shoe factory at the Frankfort penitentiary started up on the first of the month, known as the Southern Shoe Co., owned by Mason and Ford Co. They will employ about 400 convicts for the manufacture of ladies', misses' and children's shoes. This is one of the most complete shoe factories in our state, and turns out some of the strongest medium priced lines built. They have had quite a successful past in manufacturing shoes, and trade appreciate the value for the money. Trade has been principally with jobbers and large department stores." - - [source: Southern Department: "Among the Manufacturers" on p. 84 in Boot and Shoe Recorder, March 17, 1897.]

The shoe industry in Kentucky prisons started to pick up momentum in the 1890s; by the close of 1898 there was an average of 300 prisoners at the Frankfort Penitentiary working in the shoe shop under the watchful eyes of six guards [source: pp. 49-50 in The Annual Report of the Board of Prison Commissioners to the Governor of the State of Kentucky for The Year Ending November 30, 1898, Document No. 11, within Kentucky Public Documents]. In 1900, the prisoners at the Kentucky Branch Penitentiary in Eddyville were all listed in the U.S. Census with the occupation of prisoner, though there were probably shoemakers there also. At the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Frankfort, the number of African Americans involved in shoe production was 35 times greater than the 1880 census total (see table below). The  making of shoes by prisoners had become a major industry. The job duties were listed as steps in the assembly line for shoemaking, e.g., shoe bottomers, shoe cutters, shoe lasters (sew shoes together), shoe fitters (measure shoe length), shoe finishers, and workers in the shoe stock department.

Starting in 1850 and up to 1900, there had been a boon in the making of shoes in the United States because of the invention of machines that did the work faster, more consistently, and cheaper than the work of an individual human making one shoe at a time. With the cheap prison labor, it became possible to have a much larger supply of the finished product and a much more affordable product for consumers. In the Kentucky prisons, the making of boots and shoes was the major profit-making industry for the State [source: "Kentucky" on pp. 95-96 in The Report of the Industrial Commission on Prison Labor, Vol. III, House of Representatives, Doc. No. 476, Part 8, 56th Congress, 1st Session, Approved June 18, 1898]. All abled-bodied prisoners in the Kentucky prisons worked under a prison lease or a contract system, or for the public-account system. The cost was 40 cents per man per working day at the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Frankfort, and 35 cents per day per man per working day at the Branch State Penitentiary in Eddyville.

The State continued to lease the shoe factory in the Frankfort State Penitentiary to the Claiborne R. Mason Manufacturing Company, located in Frankfort [later named the Mason and Ford Company] and managed by Charles E. Hoge [Find A Grave]. The C. R. Mason Company had been leasing prison labor for the making of shoes as early as 1882. The shoe factory in the Kentucky Penitentiary in Eddyville was leased by the Southern Shoe Company, owned by Mason and Hoge, until the shoe factory burned down in 1896 under mysterious circumstances.

By 1905, the Kentucky Shoe Manufacturing Company leased the Eddyville Penitentiary, employing 175 men at 45 cents per day [source: p. 8 in "The Abuses of prison labor," by C. Lovely in The Shoe Workers' Journal, August 1905]. Charles E. Hoge would go on to form his own company, the Frankfort Shoe Company, and in 1905 changing the name to Hoge-Montgomery Shoe Company [James F. Montgomery]. The Hoge and Montgomery Company, the Southern Shoe Co, the Kentucky Shoe Mfg. Co., and the Mason Company tightly controlled the leasing of the prison shoe industry, controlling the day-to-day shoe operations in Kentucky prisons and heavily influencing the type of employment systems used for prison labor in Kentucky. The shoe manufacturers using prison labor also beat out competition in the general public in Kentucky, but even more so in other states where Kentucky prison-made shoes were sold.

The 1905 Annual Report of the Commissioner of Labor states that the making of boots and shoes in Kentucky prisons produced the most valued goods among Kentucky prison industries, valued at $780,000. The 477 male prisoners' labor was valued at $172,292 [source: Table III, p. 275]. Within the boot and shoe prison industries in the United States, Kentucky placed 4th in value of goods produced among 38 states and in U.S. prisons. Kentucky ranked 4th in the number of prisoners employed in the shoe industry: the top five states were Missouri ($1,863,685) using 1,114 prisoners; Virginia ($1,631,540) using 996 prisoners, Illinois ($990,431) using 288.5 prisoners; Kentucky ($780,000) using 477 prisoners; and Wisconsin ($685,440) using 284 prisoners [sources: Table III, pp. 285-286; and Table III, p. 330].

The majority of the shoes made in Kentucky prisons were sold in other states: Disposition of Goods (boots and shoes) Made - $45,000 within state, $670,000 Outside State, for a total of $713,000 [source: Table V, p. 458]. The successful profit of the prison shoe industry in Kentucky depended on sales in other states, which was not always appreciated by competitors in those states. There were no limitations on the sales of boots and shoes made in Kentucky prisons, and the items did not note the products were "made by prisoners in Kentucky" [source: Table V, p. 425].

The 1905 value of the prisoner-made boots and shoes in Kentucky of $780,000 equated to approximately $20,600,000 in 2014. The shoe industry in Kentucky prisons accounted for 52% of the value of all goods produced in the Kentucky prison industries [all goods produced valued at $1,494,563; source: Table III, p. 296]. Kentucky ranked third among the 27 states that used a contract system for prison labor and the value of goods produced; Kentucky was third from last among the 40 states that used a public-account system for prison labor; Kentucky was fourth from the bottom of the 17 states with a piece-price system for prison labor; and Kentucky was fourth from the bottom of the 47 states that employed prisoners for a state-use prison labor system [source: Table III, p. 303]. [For a more detailed definition of the leasing systems in the Kentucky prisons at the turn of the century, see "Kentucky" on p. 148 in The Report of the Industrial Commission on Prison Labor, Vol. III, House of Representatives, Doc. No. 476, Part 8, 56th Congress, 1st Session, Approved June 18, 1898; and "Kentucky. State Convicts. Constitution" on pp. 674-679 in 20th Annual Report of the Commissioner of Labor, 1905. Convict Labor.] 

By 1900, there were about 139 African American shoemakers in Kentucky's prisons; a decade later there were over 700. Close to half of all the prisoners making shoes in Kentucky were African American males. Some of the additonal information recorded about the prisoners included the literacy rate, which had increased overall. Of the African American prisoners who made shoes in the Kentucky State Penitentiary, a little less than half could read and write (see table below). Practically all of this group of men were born in Kentucky, along with eight prisoners born in Tennessee, five in North Carolina, and no more than three in the other states mentioned in the table below. 

In 1910 the making of shoes was still the most profitable prison industry in Kentucky. At the Eddyville Branch, the majority of the shoemakers were African American men born in Kentucky; of that group, the majority could read and write. Of those who were not born in Kentucky, 23 were born in Tennessee, and there were no more than three from the other states listed in the table below. Also in 1910, of the more than 600 African American prisoners making shoes in the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Frankfort, the majority were born in Kentucky, with 31 born in Tennessee, 15 in Virginia, 10 in Ohio, nine in Indiana and Georgia, eight in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Alabama; five or fewer from the states and countries listed in the table below.

For the 1910 Census, race was primarilynoted for African Americans as either Black or Mulatto. This breakdown of race was due to the changes implemented at the U.S. Census Bureau. The census takers were instructed that “B” was called “black” only. The definition for “B” and “Mu” is: “For census purposes, the term ‘‘black’’ (B) includes all persons who are evidently full blooded negroes, while the term ‘‘mulatto’’ (Mu) includes all other persons having some proportion or perceptible trace of negro blood” [source: Race and the Census: the "Negro" controversy, by D. Cohn, a Pew Research Center website]. The combined total of Black and Mulatto shoemakers in both of the Kentucky prisons in 1910 represented 3/5 of all the prison shoemakers in the state. The year 1910 represented the last of the best years which were the height of the shoemaking era in Kentucky prisons. Within the prisons, the African American male labor force was transitioning from shoemakers to pant and shirt makers, with African American female prisoners added to the labor force as seamstresses [source: 1910 U.S. Census].

In 1920, the shoe industry at the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville had been totally converted to a shirt making factory. The prisoners' job titles were listed as laborers [source: U.S. Census]. Meanwhile, at the Kentucky State Reformatory in Frankfort, the number of African American shoemakers had dropped to less than half the total counted in the 1910 census. There were 65 Black shoemakers and 218 Mulatto shoemakers according to the U.S. Census. It should be noted that the U.S. Census Bureau once again was making the distinction between those who were perceived as full-blooded Negroes and those thought to have a portion of Negro blood. The census taker for the Kentucky Reformatory went overboard with the instructions, so the collected data gives the impression that there were far more men in prison with a portion of Negro blood (Mulattoes) than those that appeared to be full-blooded Negroes (Black). 

Along that same line of thinking, the collected data also showed far more literate Mulatto male prisoners making shoes in 1920 than any other year the census was taken. The Black and Mulatto shoemakers made up a little less than half of the shoemakers in the Kentucky State Reformatory in Frankfort. The majority of these shoemakers were Kentucky natives, followed by 27 born in Tennessee, 12 in Virginia, 11 in Alabama and Georgia, and less than five in the states listed in the table below. The other African American inmates in the Kentucky Reformatory were shirt makers, broom makers, chair makers, and a few who worked on the farm. The African American female inmates worked in the laundry. The census for the year 1920 was the last to have listed the shoe-making occupations of the inmates in Kentucky prisons.

For more about the shoe industries in Kentucky prisons see "The Courts and convict labor" by J. Leavitt on pp. 649-656 in International Molder's Journal, vol. 49, no. 1, January 1913; and the announcement that includes the sale of Kentucky Penitentiary Shoes in the ad "The Red Flag" on p. 5, columns 5-6 in The Abbeville Press and Banner (Abbeville, S.C.). For more about the fire of unknown origins that destroyed the Southern Shoe Company at the Eddyville Penitentiary, see "Kentucky News: Fire in prison" on p. 4 in the Daily Public Ledger, 5/16/1896; and Prison Slavery, by B. Esposito, et. al.

For more on the history of shoemaking in the United States see The Path to Mechanized Shoe Production in the United States, by R. Thomson; Feet and Footwear, by M. DeMello; Pacemakers of Progress, by H. R. Quimby; and Labor Productivity in the Boot and Shoe Industry, by B. Stern and S. E. Thompson.  

Below is a summary of African American shoemakers in Kentucky prisons from 1870 to 1920. 


 1870  Kentucky  Penitentiary
1   Indiana NO   1 U.S. Census pp. 70-88
 1880  Kentucky Penitentiary
2 2 Kentucky & Connecticut     4 U.S. Census pp. 1-58
 1900  Kentucky State Penitentiary
139   Kentucky, Tennessee, Illinois,
Virginia, Missouri, Indiana,
North Carolina, South Carolina,
Ohio, Alabama, Georgia,
Michigan, and New York
NO 74 / YES 65   139 U.S. Census pp. 1-26
 1910  Kentucky Branch Penitentiary
170   Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina,
Mississippi, Illinois, South Carolina,
Indiana, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, 
Michigan, Louisiana, Alabama,
New York, Texas, England
NO 65 / YES 105   170  U.S. Census pp. 1-14
Kentucky Branch Penitentiary
 1910  Kentucky State Penitentiary
355 255 Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, North Carolina,
Indiana, Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia,
Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, Idaho,
Michigan, Nebraska, Kansas, West Virginia,
Florida, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania,
Illinois, Oklahoma, California, Louisiana, Colorado,
West Indies/Jamaica, U.S. or Unknown,  Canada
NO 179 / YES 431    610 U.S. Census pp. 1-30
Kentucky Penitentiary
 1920  Kentucky State Reformatory
65 219 Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, Alabama, Georgia,
Indiana, North Carolina, Illinois, Ohio, Iowa, Oklahoma,
Missouri, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Maryland,
Florida, Texas, New Jersey
NO 42 / YES 242   284 U.S. Census pp. 1-25
Kentucky State Reformatory

Kentucky County & Region

Read about Franklin County, Kentucky in Wikipedia.
Read about Lyon County, Kentucky in Wikipedia.
Read about Oldham County, Kentucky in Wikipedia.

Kentucky Place (Town or City)

Read about Frankfort, Kentucky in Wikipedia.
Read about Eddyville, Kentucky in Wikipedia.
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Outside Kentucky Place Name

Item Relations

Cited in this Entry

NKAA Source: A Report on the history and mode of management of the Kentucky Penitentiary from its origin, in 1798, To March 1, 1860
NKAA Source: De Bow's review and the industrial resources, statistics, etc. (serial)
NKAA Source: A New history of Kentucky
NKAA Source: Slavery by another name
NKAA Source: One dies, get another: convict leasing in the American South, 1866-1928
NKAA Source: Racial violence in Kentucky, 1865-1940 : lynchings, mob rule, and "legal lynchings"
NKAA Source: Boot and shoe recorder: the magazine of fashion footwear (periodical)
NKAA Source: The Annual report of the Board of Prison Commissioners to the Governor of the state of Kentucky for the year ending (serial)
NKAA Source: Report of the Industrial Commission on prison labor (GPO)
NKAA Source: The Shoe workers' journal (periodical)
NKAA Source: Report of the Industrial Commission on prison labor (GPO)
NKAA Source: Annual report of the Commissioner of Labor
NKAA Source: International molder's journal (periodical)
NKAA Source: The Abbeville press and banner (newspaper)
NKAA Source: Daily public ledger (newspaper)
NKAA Source: Prison slavery
NKAA Source: The Path to mechanized shoe production in the United States
NKAA Source: Feet and footwear: a cultural encyclopedia
NKAA Source: Pacemakers of progress: the story of shoes and the shoe industry
NKAA Source: Labor productivity in the boot and shoe Industry
NKAA Source: Report of the directors and warden of the Kentucky Penitentiary to the General Assembly, January 1, 1844

Related Entries Citing this Entry

NKAA Entry: African American Shoe Makers, Repairers, Shiners - Frankfort, KY [B. F. Spencer] [B. F. Sayre]
NKAA Entry: African American Shoe Makers, Repairers, Shiners - Louisville, KY
NKAA Entry: Wood, Henrietta
NKAA Entry: Black Migration from England to Kentucky

Cite This NKAA Entry:

“African American Shoemakers in Kentucky Prisons (A Leading U.S. Industry),” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, accessed July 25, 2024,

Last modified: 2022-11-23 19:32:05