Freeman's Challenge: The Murder That Shook America's Original Prison for Profit (Hardcover)

Freeman's Challenge: The Murder That Shook America's Original Prison for Profit By Robin Bernstein Cover Image
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An award-winning historian tells a gripping, morally complicated story of murder, greed, race, and the true origins of prison for profit.

In the early nineteenth century, as slavery gradually ended in the North, a village in New York State invented a new form of unfreedom: the profit-driven prison. Uniting incarceration and capitalism, the village of Auburn built a prison that enclosed industrial factories. There, “slaves of the state” were leased to private companies. The prisoners earned no wages, yet they manufactured furniture, animal harnesses, carpets, and combs, which consumers bought throughout the North. Then one young man challenged the system.

In Freeman’s Challenge, Robin Bernstein tells the story of an Afro-Native teenager named William Freeman who was convicted of a horse theft he insisted he did not commit and sentenced to five years of hard labor in Auburn’s prison. Incensed at being forced to work without pay, Freeman demanded wages. His challenge triggered violence: first against him, then by him. Freeman committed a murder that terrified and bewildered white America. And white America struck back—with aftereffects that reverberate into our lives today in the persistent myth of inherent Black criminality. William Freeman’s unforgettable story reveals how the North invented prison for profit half a century before the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery “except as a punishment for crime”—and how Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and other African Americans invented strategies of resilience and resistance in a city dominated by a citadel of unfreedom.

Through one Black man, his family, and his city, Bernstein tells an explosive, moving story about the entangled origins of prison for profit and anti-Black racism.

About the Author

Robin Bernstein is the Dillon Professor of American History and professor of African and African American studies and studies of women, gender, and sexuality at Harvard University. She is the author of Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights.

Praise For…

“Freeman’s Challenge is a provocative, robust, and rigorously researched interrogation of the historical meaning of imprisonment. Bernstein’s compelling narrative provides insight not only into the institution of the prison in the United States but also into the lives of those whose newly experienced dreams of freedom were crushed by evolving intersections of punishment and racial capitalism. By disengaging the emergence of the prison from what has become its inevitable partner—‘rehabilitation’—Bernstein deftly reveals the deep connections between imprisonment, racism, and the development of the capitalist economy.”
— Angela Davis, distinguished professor emerita, University of California, Santa Cruz

"Freeman’s Challenge changes the way we understand the development and lived reality of the American convict leasing system and the contours of racial inequality in the nineteenth century. Through captivating storytelling, Bernstein demonstrates that incarcerated people and their allies consistently challenged the prevailing logic of white supremacy and punishment to advocate for reform. Although Freeman’s remarkable story unfolded nearly two centuries ago, his struggle offers vital lessons for contemporary movements for social justice."
— Elizabeth Hinton, author of America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s

"Rigorously researched and powerfully told, Freeman’s Challenge reimagines a life shaped in the crucible of America’s first great industrial prison. Along the way, Bernstein shines a light on the foundations of the system that ensnares so many thousands of lives today. This is a story about race and violence, but it is no less about land, labor, and money on a massive scale. Read this book if you want to understand the real history of crime and punishment in the United States."
— Caleb Smith, editor of The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict

"In this narrative tour de force, Bernstein offers a riveting and heartbreaking account of one Afro-Native adolescent’s refusal to be broken by an inhumane New York prison. Freeman’s Challenge is itself a challenge, presenting a bold new argument about the Northeastern roots of an exploitative carceral labor system and the racialized ideology of criminality that followed the formal end of slavery. This study shines a bright light on the interconnected histories of US prisons and economic development; race, indigeneity, land loss, and uncompensated work; and the complications of abolitionist rhetoric, representational politics, and Black community defense."

— Tiya Miles, author of All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake, winner of the National Book Award

"As Bernstein‘s stunning latest makes so clear, well before the rise of mass incarceration, and long before passage of the Thirteenth Amendment and its deadly sanctifying of slave labor behind bars, American prisons were sites of deep racial injustice, extraordinary abuse, and brutal labor exploitation. Indeed, they were never built to be sites of redemption, but rather have always existed as places to establish and reinforce this nation’s race and class inequalities. As this narrative also shows, however, America’s prisons were also always sites of unfailing and Herculean resistance. And therein lies the future."
— Heather Ann Thompson, author of Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Freeman’s Challenge vitally shows that decades before the Civil War, as slavery started to gradually end in the North, New York State created what ultimately replaced chattel slavery in the United States: the profit-driven prison. Bernstein’s heavily researched and deftly written story of the progression of racism—of William Freeman’s audacious resistance to this new unfreedom—is a triumph.” 

— Ibram X. Kendi, author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, winner of the National Book Award

Product Details
ISBN: 9780226744230
ISBN-10: 022674423X
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication Date: May 1st, 2024
Pages: 288
Language: English