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After slavery, new system recreates old torments

Jailed African-Americans were forced to help build river levees, probably in Mississippi in the 1930s. Jailed African-Americans were forced to help build river levees, probably in Mississippi in the 1930s. (FROM "SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME")
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By James Smethurst
June 22, 2008

Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II
By Douglas A. Blackmon
Doubleday, 468 pp., illustrated, $29.95

Douglas A. Blackmon's "Slavery By Another Name" details the rise and flourishing of African-American involuntary servitude long after its prohibition by the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution - particularly the 13th, banning slavery and involuntary servitude, and the 14th, guaranteeing the rights of citizenship and due process of law to all born or naturalized in the United States.

As Blackmon, Atlanta bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal, points out, one problem facing white planters and incipient Southern industrialists as the South emerged from the ruins of the Civil War was the psycho-economic issue of labor. Agriculture and the emerging mining and smelting industries required large numbers of workers. At the same time, the planters, coal-mine operators, and industrial employers found the notion of negotiating labor contracts and paying wages to former slaves, not to mention the idea of true African-American citizenship, repugnant.

Southern white opponents of Reconstruction and black citizenship launched a series of attacks on African-American economic and political rights. One such assault involved exploiting the portion of the 13th Amendment allowing use of unfree labor "as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." This subterfuge involved planters, mine owners, sheriffs, magistrates, legislators, other local officials, and, in time, large corporations, such as the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Co. (eventually a subsidiary of US Steel). Ultimately, thousands of African-Americans were convicted of often minor (and frequently trumped-up) crimes such as vagrancy, riding freight trains, disturbing the peace, petty theft, and nonpayment of an alleged debt.

While the fines imposed by the court for these crimes would frequently be small, much larger court costs far beyond the ability of the accused to pay would be levied. The convict would then be sentenced to hard labor and his or her contract sold to a planter or commercial concern. This system had the multiple utility of providing the states and municipalities (and individuals managing the buying and selling of contracts) with capital, employers with extraordinarily cheap labor, and the proponents of white power with a tool for the social control of African-Americans.

One of Blackmon's most interesting points is that this sort of peonage was not an atavistic holdover from the antebellum period, but was in many respects a product of the "New South." While many of these neo-slaves labored in agriculture, Blackmon shows that such coerced labor was a hallmark of the rise of postbellum Southern industry, notably in the transportation, mineral extraction, and iron and steel industries that turned Birmingham, Ala., into the "Pittsburgh of the South." To this end, Blackmon focuses most of his attention on Alabama, using the story of Green Cottenham, a young black man from Shelby County who was convicted of vagrancy in 1908 and sent to work at US Steel's Pratt Mines near Birmingham. Cottenham, like many of his peers in the coal mines, never returned home, dying there of tuberculosis. Drawing on a wide range of government documents, newspaper accounts, and court records, Blackmon uses Cottenham and his family to vividly bring to life black hopes during Reconstruction, the opposition to citizenship, and, ultimately, the collapse of Reconstruction and the establishment of the Jim Crow regime and black political and economic disenfranchisement.

"Slavery by Another Name" is a virtual compendium of the death of Reconstruction and the rise of segregation and black disenfranchisement in what the historian Rayford Logan called the nadir of postbellum US race relations.

It recounts the huge rise in vigilante violence, lynchings, assassinations, race riots (North and South), inflammatory oratory, laws, and court decisions that circumvented the Constitution and severely circumscribed the rights of African-Americans politically and economically. In some respects, this catalogue of the nadir is one of the book's weaknesses, since it sometimes departs from its account of peonage without much transition. Paying more attention to the considerable presence of involuntary servitude in African-American literature and intellectual history, reaching back to Charles Chesnutt and Paul Laurence Dunbar, would have helped - though Blackmon does mention W.E.B. Du Bois's 1911 novel, "The Quest of the Silver Fleece."

Nonetheless, the book vividly and engagingly recalls the horror and sheer magnitude of such neo-slavery and reminds us how long after emancipation such practices persisted. It certainly provides insights on how we might regard the legacy of slavery, reparations, and perhaps even our justice and correctional system, with echoes for our own time.

James Smethurst teaches in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

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