I was taught in school that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, but in fact tens of thousands of African-Americans in the South were enslaved in everything but name from the 1870s through the 1930s.
They were bought and sold for money, whipped and abused by their masters, supervised by overseers with guns and hunted down with hounds when they tried to flee.
Douglas A. Blackmon wrote in SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War Two that we should not speak of the “Jim Crow” era, but the era of neo-slavery.
The way it worked was this. A black person would be arrested. Sometimes he would be guilty of a real crime. But any black male not under the control of a white employer was subject to being arrested, charged with something like “vagrancy” or “offensive behavior” or a trumped-up charge. Some records list only the sentence and not the nature of the offense.
The black person would of course be convicted automatically and sentenced to a prison term or a fine, which would include not only the lawful penalty for the offense, but also the cost of his arrest and imprisonment.
A white employer would pay the fine in return for a contract entitling him to the black person’s labor The sheriff or police chief, jail keeper, magistrate and court clerk would divide up the payment. The buyer might sell the contract to someone else.
The convict would typically work under armed guards and be whipped regularly for trivial offenses or for not working hard enough. Overseers would commonly soak a leather strap in water or molasses and then coat it with sand, so that a whipping would flay the skin off.
It is true that, unlike slaves before the Civil War, the convict did not serve a lifetime sentence, his children were not automatically enslaved and the majority of blacks were not enslaved.
But the threat of enslavement hung over everyone, and conditions under the new slavery were often worse than under the old.
In the earlier era, slaves were valuable property and slave owners had an incentive to keep them strong and healthy.
But in the neo-slavery era, there was no reason not to work them to death because, just as in Hitler’s labor camps or Stalin’s Gulag, there was an unlimited supply of fresh laborers. Employers suffered no penalty when convicts died, even when they were beaten to death.
I’ve heard people say that slavery would have ended of its own accord if there had been no Civil War because slave labor was not suitable for modern industry.
But Blackmon showed that neo-slavery was practiced not just by individuals, but by corporations that exist to this day.
One of the many individual stories told by Blackmon was Green Cottenham, a 22-year-old black man who was arrested at the train station in Shelby County, Alabama, one day in 1908, and charged with riding on a freight train without a ticket. He pleaded “not guilty” and pointed out there was no evidence against him.
The judge simply changed the charge to “vagrancy” and sentenced him to three months hard labor. He also ordered him to pay $38 to cover the cost of his arrest and jail upkeep—which would have been equivalent to thousands of dollars in today’s money.
The sheriff sold his labor to the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Co. for $12 a month. A few days later, he and other prisoners were chained other in leg irons and steel collars and taken to the Pratt Mine, a coal mine owned by the TCI&R.
Blackmon wrote that Cottenham was lucky that his jail time was so short, because he was young and strong and would have been weakened by malnutrition if he’s stayed long.
At the Pratt Mine, he and other convicts were crowded into a wooden barracks with bunk beds, and chained together. There was literally not room enough for them all to lie down. Some slept standing up, leading on hammocks stretched between the bunks.
Except on Sundays, they spent all their waking hours, from before sunrise to after sundown, working in a coal mine. Each one was given a biscuit and a chunk of bacon for breakfast when they got up, and some sort of food out of a bucket during the working day.
Each miner was given a pick, a short shovel, a sledge hammer and two wooden or iron wedges. With those tools Cottenham was expected to hack out eight tons of coal a day. This was done in tunnels that usually were too low to stand up in, and sometimes amounted to mere crawl spaces. Those who failed to meet their quotas were publicly whipped.
Whipping was not the only punishment. Some convicts were hung in handcuffs from steel bars. Others were tied up in painful positions in which their wrists were tied behind their backs to their ankles. The Pratt Mine also used the “water cure”—what we’d now call waterboarding.
While infractions of discipline were punished, the mine authorities made no attempt to stop fighting and sexual abuse among the prisoners. Blackmon gave an example of a killing that went unpunished.
The mines and barracks were pestholes of infectious disease. The only drinking water during the day was seepage in the mine. It was contaminated with toxic metals and human waste. Dysentery, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases were common. Workers died almost every month and were buried in a company graveyard. Cottenham died of an untreated illness.
Blackmon came across that graveyard years later, and his curiosity as to why there would be a graveyard in the middle of a major industrial site led to his research for this book.
This is just one of many individual stories he told. His information came from old court records and family histories (mainly of white people), but also from investigations by humane white people.
The most noteworthy attempt came during the administration of Theodore Roosevelt, who appointed a brave U.S. attorney, Warren Reese, and a brave judge, Thomas Goode Jones, both white Southerners who, without trying to overthrow white supremacy, defied public opinion and sought to end the abuses of the system.
Higher courts pointed out that while the Constitution and Congressional law abolished slavery, there was no law on the books that made it a crime to enslave people. Reese sought indictments under an obscure 1867 law aimed at abolishing debt peonage in New Mexico, a hangover from Mexican law. He won some convictions and minor fines.
Southern public opinion was outraged. Lynch mobs rampaged across the South and as far north as Springfield, Illinois. Black people were not only hung, but sometimes burned alive. President Roosevelt hadn’t realized what a hornet’s nest he was stirring up, and gave way.
The final abolition of neo-slavery did not come until World War Two. The Franklin Roosevelt administration saw how it would feed German and Japanese propaganda. In 1941, a directive was issued to start to enforce the Constitutional amendments abolishing slavery, the Reconstruction era laws passed to enforce them and other largely forgotten laws, such as the Slave Kidnaping Act, which made it illegal to capture or return forced laborers in U.S. jurisdictions where slavery was prohibited.
The U.S. federal code was rewritten in 1948 to clarify the laws against involuntary servitude. Finally, in 1951, Congress passed an even more explicit law making any form of enslavement a crime in the United States.
I found this book painful reading. Suppose you or I had been kidnaped, forced to work to the limits of our strength and brutally whipped for the slightest reason or no reason at all. Suppose a loved one had been. How would this affect us? What would be teach our children about how to survive in America? The effects don’t end with one generation.
Remember, too, that neo-slavery did not exist in a vacuum. Most black people in the South worked on contracts that forbid them to quit their jobs while the contract was in effect, and could be hunted down and imprisoned if they quit their jobs.
Remember that black and white tenant farmers were subject to a kind of serfdom. They would depend on a rich landowner to lend them the money to plant and grow their crops, buy their supplies in the landowner’s store and sell their crops to the landowner.
Remember that white people in the South could kill a black person or take their property without any repercussions.
Remember that the resurgence of neo-slavery coincided with the Sundown Towns movement, in which small towns in the North and West drove out their black residents.
Blackmon doesn’t think any form of money compensation for neo-slavery is practical. Neither do I. But what we can do, as Americans, is to remember that this is part of our past and that the past lives on in the present.
It is our duty, just as it is the duty of Germans to remember the Holocaust and Russians to remember the crimes of Stalin.
Not that the history of the United States or any other country consists of crimes and nothing else. We need to remember both the good and the bad in the past in order understand the present.
Douglas Backmon is the descendent of an old white Mississippi family. He was the Atlanta bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal and now is host and executive producer of American Forum, a public TV program supported by the University of Virginia.
Slavery by Another Name won a Pulitzer Prize for 2009 and was the basis for a Public Broadcasting System documentary in 2012. Somehow I missed both the book and documentary.
Slavery by Another Name TV documentary.