Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Igal Roodenko, April 11, 1974. Interview B-0010. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Chain gang prison sentence

Rodenko describes his experiences on a North Carolina chain gang. Rodenko and the other CORE activists appealed their conviction following the Journey of Reconciliation; however, their sentencing was upheld and they served thirty days on the chain gang. Rodenko describes what it was like to serve his jail sentence, which he says was a typical form of punishment for minor crime during that time period. Later, he emphasizes the fact that he faced little harrassment from his fellow white prisoners despite the fact that he was serving time for challenging Jim Crow segregation.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Igal Roodenko, April 11, 1974. Interview B-0010. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JERRY WINGATE:
Do you think they saw this an additional form of punishment to put you on a road gang? In those days, was it humiliating to put you on a road gang?
JACQUELYN HALL:
It was very common.
IGAL RODENKO:
I think that was the routine for a misdemeanor, local drunks and petty crime, and minor things, you were put out on the road. I saw this old newspaper man on the road with us, who served twelve thirty-day sentences and in a course of one year, because he would get out on good behavior after three weeks and get drunk in the next day or two and be right back again. That was the routine thing for minor crimes. By the time I was coming down there, I was really frightened. A good friend of mine in New York said, Igal, you are going down to a place and you are going to be in a place where people take their white supremacy quite seriously, and you are not going to fit in there, and if you are out there on the road gang, it might just accidentally happen that someone might just accidentally drop a sixteen pound sledge on your back or your head. My fears got enormously built up, but we had no choice. Maybe we had a choice of skipping bond or something, but that was no choice for me, I just had to go and do it. I remember the first night on the road gang, it was just one large room with a catwalk running through the middle of it. The trustees on one side and the less trustworthy prisoners on the other. Double bunks, pretty crowded, and another building right next to it which was the mess hall, and that was the sum total of the physical plant. There was some sheds for the trucks, and there was a sweatbox, and the warden's house a little ways off.
JERRY WINGATE:
What was the sweatbox?
IGAL RODENKO:
Well, I never saw it. Do you know about it Joe?
JOE FELMET:
Yes, that was solitary confinement. I don't know that it was a sweatbox, but it was solitary confinement. That was where a prisoner had to stay alone . . .
IGAL RODENKO:
In pitch darkness.
JOE FELMET:
I'm not sure of that.
JERRY WINGATE:
What were working conditions like on the road gang?
IGAL RODENKO:
Well, I can tell you the nice side of it. We were doing the time in the early part of the spring, like this. We left New York after a three day snow storm, and we got down to North Carolina and the sun was shining. We spent some of the time in a rock hole, which was pretty much protected from the wind. We were stripped down to the waist with the sun beating down, good hard work. A few weeks of that and I came back looking like I had been down in Miami, and I think my mother was a little bit disappointed. I think she saw herself bringing me back to health after this harrowiing experience, and after the dissipated life of the city, this was a marvelous experience for me.
JOE FELMET:
Here is an amusing sidelight on this. Igal, an ethical vegetarian, had to eat Navy beans cooked in pork or not eat.
IGAL RODENKO:
Well, it was pork and beans twenty-one times a week, and I wouldn't eat that, and there was very little for me to eat. There would be a little fruit in the morning, stewed peaches or something that the women in the women's jail (State Women's Prison) would put up. But there was a can of blackstrap molasses on every table, and the other prisoners wouldn't eat it, because they wanted the refined molasses, but I remember my mother said that blackstrap stuff is the most nutritious. So my meal consisted, particularly when we were out in the rock hole, and they would send a trustee over to a nearby farm to get some milk and buttermilk for those who had the money. I lived on blackstrap molasses and biscuits and buttermilk for three weeks.
JERRY WINGATE:
What do you mean he got milk and buttermilk for those that had the money?
IGAL RODENKO:
He would go over to a nearby farmer and buy the stuff, and the prisoners who had the money would buy the stuff. This was over and above the prison feeding.
UNIDENTIFIED:
Were the groups of whites and blacks separated?
IGAL RODENKO:
No. The jails were segregated. We were in a white road gang. Bayard was of course in a black road gang, but he fell in with a group who were very supportive of him. He did quite a bit of organizing and agitating, and he did a sociological report on the thing that I haven't seen in a long time. His was a more positive experience. It wasn't too bad, it was pretty bad for Joe. One day he wasn't working fast enough to please one of the guards there, and the guard called him out and told him to dig faster, and Joe didn't increase his pace fast enough, and they warned him a second time and then finally they spreadeagled him and tied him to the bars for . . .
JOE FELMET:
All night.
IGAL RODENKO:
All night.
UNIDENTIFIED:
That was the only kind of punishment you saw?
IGAL RODENKO:
Yes. Two of the prisoners had leg fetters on, they had tried to run and were caught, this was before we got there. Chains, locking their . . .
JERRY WINGATE:
Connecting their two legs . . .
IGAL RODENKO:
Every time they went in and out of the jail, the guard went over every link in the chain to make sure no attempt had been made to cut them apart. They slept in these things, and they slept in their clothes because of that.