Progressives and Prison Labor

Rebuilding Ohio’s National Road during World War I 

Jeffrey Alan John, PhD 

Size: 6 x 9

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SKU: 978-1-62922-140-3 Category: Tags: ,


During World War I Ohio Governor James M. Cox accepted pleas from the federal government to initiate a road-building project that would make the National Road suitable for military vehicles. A lack of workers threatened the plans, however, so in a controversial move hundreds of convicts, almost all African American, were pulled from Ohio’s prisons to comprise the labor corps. The multi-million-dollar undertaking, completed just as the war ended, created what was reputed to be the world’s longest stretch of continuous brick road. Today, the enterprise serves as an excellent example of how racism and plain old-fashioned politics permeated good intentions of one of the last Progressive Era endeavors. Drawing on archives, contemporary records, and many previously unpublished photos, Progressives and Prison Labor: Rebuilding Ohio’s National Road During World War I recalls the National Road background, the personalities, and the massive construction project that consumed southeast Ohio through the spring and summer of 1918. 

About the Author

Jeffrey Alan John, PhD, experienced journalism as a daily newspaper reporter, motorcycle magazine editor, and historical society public relations writer. He then taught journalism for thirty years, and he continues as a Professor Emeritus in Wright State University’s Department of Communication. He is co-author with the late Frank L. Johnson of the true-crime tale A Bird in Your Hand: A story of ambiguous justice, and author of the science fiction Lab Rats Can’t Say No: a story in the future; his scholarly works include a study of the Wright Brothers’ photography, and a longitudinal examination of news content in a Midwest city. He and his wife Karin Avila-John live in Dayton, Ohio’s Oregon Historic District. 

Advanced Praise for Progressives and Prison Labor

A lot has been written about the National Road, the nation’s first interstate highway. But Dr. John’s extensive research has revealed a previously little known part of that history in Ohio which he has woven into the Road’s story in an interesting and informative way. By bringing to light the human aspect of the convict laborers, mostly African American, who in 1918 helped to rebuild the by then nearly-impassable highway as part of the war effort, Jeff has brought life to what might otherwise be a dry subject. The book is well-written and extensively illustrated, making it an enjoyable read.
Cyndie Gerken, researcher and the author of three award-winning books on Ohio’s National Road

Dr. Jeffrey John has written a high-interest meticulous narrative about the evolution of the Historic National Road in Ohio. Along with the historical account, readers will enjoy the book’s anecdotes and photographs. This book is certain to remain a reliable reference text.
Elizabeth A. Taylor, The National Road and Zane Grey Museum 

“The first decades of the Twentieth Century complicate our understanding of ‘Progressive’ and the era. Employing social history to examine the intersections of transport, political, carceral, and labor history, Professor John offers here an engaging narrative that unfurls the complicated story of Ohio’s National Road. In these pages he ably pushes us to think about the wider Progressive Era and the rank and file, African American, and often nameless workers that – as part of this broader though imperfect American movement for ‘reform’ — made this important public works achievement a reality.”
Jeffrey A. Johnson, author of They Are All Red Out Here, Reforming America, and The 1916 Preparedness Day Bombing 


“Of special value to readers with an interest in 20th Century Ohio History and Criminology/ Penology, “Progressives and Prison Labor” is an especially recommended addition to professional, community, and academic library collections.” Midwest Book Review

Additional information


convict labor; James M. Cox; racism; brick road paving; Progressive Era; World War I National Defense Council

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