The enslavement of Black Americans did not end on June 19, 1865; it continued until World War II.
In his March speech on race, Barack Obama said:
[W]e do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow….
Legalized discrimination – where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments – meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today’s urban and rural communities.
A new book from Wall Street Journal reporter Douglas Blackmon explodes “that history” referenced by Obama and deepens modern understanding of Jim Crow and the Black Codes in Slavery By Another Name – The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.
The book’s website explains:
Under laws enacted specifically to intimidate blacks, tens of thousands of African Americans were arbitrarily arrested, hit with outrageous fines, and charged for the costs of their own arrests. With no means to pay these ostensible “debts,” prisoners were sold as forced laborers to coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, quarries and farm plantations. Thousands of other African Americans were simply seized by southern landowners and compelled into years of involuntary servitude. Government officials leased falsely imprisoned blacks to small-town entrepreneurs, provincial farmers, and dozens of corporations—including U.S. Steel Corp.—looking for cheap and abundant labor. Armies of “free” black men labored without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced through beatings and physical torture to do the bidding of white masters for decades after the official abolition of American slavery.
The neoslavery system exploited legal loopholes and federal policies which discouraged prosecution of whites for continuing to hold black workers against their wills. As it poured millions of dollars into southern government treasuries, the new slavery also became a key instrument in the terrorization of African Americans seeking full participation in the U.S. political system.
Bill Moyers talked with Blackmon on a recent episode of Bill Moyers’ Journal (watch an excerpted clip below the flip or the whole interview at PBS where you can also read the transcript):
Although the scope at which private citizens and companies enslaved post-war Black Americans is new to me, it’s been well documented for years how much state governments reaped obscene profits from these laws through convict leasing. David Oshinsky notes in his book Worse Than Slavery that in 1918 Mississippi, whose prison population was 90% Black, extracted a profit $825,000 – about half the state’s education budget – from Parchman Prison Farm. Matthew Mancini shockingly notes in his convict leasing study, One Dies, Get Another that “[i]n 1898 Alabama obtained 73% of its total revenue of $378,120.48 from the hire of its convicts.”
It’s a shame so many Americans aren’t informed enough to acknowledge how radical our post-bellum apartheid was and the extreme degree to which Americans inflicted terrorism on fellow Americans during the first part of the 20th century. The reason for the disparities outlined by Obama are more complex and ugly than his speech acknowledges. The truth about post-bellum slavery needs to be taught in grade school and become as mainstream as Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, or else we’re going to be stuck in the same watered-down dialogue race dialogue that we participate here in 2008.
- Listen to an extended conversation with Blackmon on NPR’s Talk of the Nation.
- The New York Times reviewed the book praising it as “relentless and fascinating”.
- “Worse than Slavery” author David Oshinsky delivered a paper at Yale in 2004 on Forced Labor in the 19th Century South
The extended clip on the PBS site really is fantastic. Especially the Georgia prison photos by John Spivak.
The scope of what went on was surprising to me. I knew that being Black was criminalized and that states profited from convict leasing, but I did not realize how much private citizens and industry participated in this.
Also worth noting, children were enslaved. Oshinsky’s paper linked above states that 25% of Mississippi’s leased convicts were 18 or younger:
Will Evans was convicted, and then leased to a plantation, for stealing some change from a dry goods store. He was eight years old, and his case was hardly unique. More than one-quarter of Mississippi’s leased convicts were below the age of nineteen.The system amounted to state-run slavery, with Mississippi acting as the catcher and the trader, and with a single lessee, chosen by the legislature, paying the state $1.10 per-convict-per-month for the entire state prison population, and then sub-leasing the prisoners to plantation owners and others for about $9 per month. Employers preferred convicts over Asians (“too fragile), Irish (“too belligerent), and local Blacks (“too slow.”) In requesting convict “darkies” and “niggers,” the planters seemed to forget that emancipation had occurred. “The crop [here] is being considerably damaged by want of sufficient labor,” said one. “I hope you will send additional convicts without a moment’s delay.” “When you get a moment,” said another, “won’t you send a slave out to fix my cemetery fence?”
The Mississippi plantation leasing records from this era tell a story of relentless brutality and neglect. The convicts ate and slept on bare ground. They were punished for “slow hoeing” (ten lashes), “sorry planting” (five lashes), and “being light with cotton (five lashes). Many dropped from exhaustion, malaria, pneumonia, sunstroke, dysentery, gunshot wounds, and “shackle poisoning” (the constant rubbing of chains and leg irons against bare flesh). A doctor sent by the state on a rare visit to a Delta plantation wrote that the word “unsanitary” did not begin “to express the filthy conditions of the convict cage”: bloodstained dirt floors, overflowing waste buckets, and vermin-covered walls. In the 1880s, the annual mortality rate for Mississippi’s leased convicts ranged from 9 to 16 percent. Not a single one lived long enough to serve out a sentence of ten or more years.