– L. Arthalia Cravin
On February 13, 2012 PBS will air a program entitled, “Slavery By Another Name,” based on the 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Douglas Blackmon. Blackmon is a former Atlanta Bureau Chief for the Wall Street Journal. Blackmon’s “Slavery By Another Name,” is a compelling account that slavery lasted longer than the Emancipation Proclamation—just in a different form.
Blackmon begins his book in a chapter entitled, “The Bricks We Stand On,” with the story of the 1908 Shelby County, Alabama arrest of Green Cottenham for “vagrancy.” At that time a charge of vagrancy was leveled mostly at African American men for not being able to prove that he was employed. Cottenham who was 22 at the time of his arrest was swiftly found guilty and sentenced to thirty days at hard labor. Unable to pay an array of fees assessed on every prisoner, fees to the sheriff, the deputy, the court clerk, and witnesses, Cottenham’s sentence was extended to a year of hard labor. The next day Cottenham was sold to one of the vast subsidiaries of U. S. Steel Corporation. The corporation in turn paid the county $12 a month for Cottenham. Where Cottenham was sent was into the darkness of a mine called Slope No. 12 in Pratt Mines near the edge of Birmingham. What he and others who were sent there endured was nothing short of “a living hell.” Cottenham never came out of Pratt Mines alive. Nor did hundreds and probably thousands of other black men sent into what became tombs of death after they were literally sold into slavery. What followed this particularly brutal form of “neoslavery” was abuse, torture, maiming, and killing of hundreds of black men. Even in death the torture and humiliation continued as the bodies of the dead were toss aside into holes that simulated graves, or worse, bodies tossed into fiery furnaces.
How could this sort of history exist given the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation? It happened because the Emancipation Proclamation was a mere pronouncement without substance for the protection or survivability of the newly freed slaves. What we now know is that Lincoln used the threat of freeing the slaves as a war strategy to force the rebel secessionist states to return to the union with the threat of a second guerilla fighting force of former slaves. After the Civil War ended, four million slaves were freed—but freed to do what? With what? This is the lasting and sad legacy of emancipation without the means to maintain freedom. And it is against this cruel backdrop that “slavery by another name” came into existence. The Freedmen’s Bureau Bill, which created the Freedmen’s Bureau, was initiated by President Abraham Lincoln but was intended to last for only one year after the end of the Civil War. The Bill was passed on March 3, 1865, by Congress to aid former slaves through legal food and housing, oversight, education, health care, and employment contracts with private landowners. It became a key agency during Reconstruction, assisting freedmen (freed ex-slaves) in the South, but the Bureau was only operational from 1865 to 1871.The Bureau was part of the United Stated Department of War headed by Union Army General Oliver Howard. It was disbanded under President Ulysses S. Grant. Eventually the Southern Wall of Resistance returned the newly freed slaves to conditions that were in essence another from of slavery as Jim Crow laws were enacted all across the South. It was these laws that eventually left the freed slaves at the mercy of the sons and daughters of former slave masters. If the south lost the civil war, they set about to “win the peace” by returning the slaves to a state of abject peonage that persists to this day.
Blackmon’s book contains astonishing pictures showing the extreme cruelty used to subjugate blacks. One descendant of the cruel treatment of blacks recalls a story told to him by his father on his deathbed. The father had grown up in Jasper, Texas, the same place where James Byrd was dragged to death in 1998. On his deathbed the father spoke of life in the 1920s, when he was picking cotton at age 7 and driving a tractor at age 9. He also described the experience for blacks as “a living holocaust,” including his own witnessing of the lynching of his 13-year old boyhood friend. The father also recalled, what is now common knowledge– that blacks were subjected to the harshest of treatment for making eye contact with whites or for laughing on a public street.
Douglas Blackmon writes an incredibly detailed account of the sad history of African Americans forcibly enslaved through questionable legal means long after the Civil War and up through World War II. Using trumped-up charges or minor charges with extreme penalties requiring extended jail or prison terms, blacks were incarcerated and then leased out to mines, farms, logging companies and a variety of industries. Due to the financial rewards gained by arresting sheriffs, judges and justices of the peace, blacks were rounded up many times on loitering or other false charges to merely increase the earnings of those involved. The saddest history is the extreme treatment given to prisoners leased out or whose fines were paid by the owners of industry. After paying fines, blacks became the property of the companies and corporations who kept them imprisoned until their often “extended time” had been served. Blackmon writes about the horrible working conditions, six days a week, poorly fed, poorly housed and often severely beaten. Incarcerated and leased-out blacks died by the scores and were buried in unmarked graves. What is particularly abhorrent was the ease with which murdered individuals could be replaced from an abundant supply of arrested individuals at virtually no cost.
Efforts to break this form of peonage were attempted in Alabama by a weakly supported U.S. Attorney in 1903 who actually obtained convictions for perpetuating slavery, only to have light sentences and pardons issued. In an interview about his book Blackmon says this: “But the reality was, no southern state would ever bring a case or such charges against a white man in the South. And no white jury in the South under almost any circumstances, would convict a white man for that. And so it created this kind of legal limbo in which slavery was unconstitutional, but there was no federal statute which actually made it a crime to hold slaves. So as the years went by, and thousands and thousands of complaints poured into the White House, and into the Department of Justice in Washington describing instances all over the South—there are 30,000 pages of material related to these complaints in the National Archives today—and as these thousands and thousands of complaints poured in as the years went by, the policy of the federal government was that there wasn’t a statute on which a U.S. attorney could bring a case against a person for holding slaves, except in very narrow circumstances. So the policy of the federal government was that it would not involve itself in investigations or prosecutions of individuals who were still holding slaves in the South. That was the policy of the federal government all the way until December 11, 1941.”
“Slavery By Another Name” is a very ugly history, but one that should be told because no matter how repugnant, it happened. On page 402 of Blackmon’s book he says this:
“We should rename this era of America history known as the time of “Jim Crow segregation.” How strange that decades defined in life by abject brutalization came to be indentified in history with the image of a largely forgotten white actor’s minstrel performance—a caricature called “Jim Crow.” Image if the first years of the Holocaust were known by the name of Germany’s most famous anti-Semitic comedian of the 1930s. Let us define this period of American life plainly and comprehensively. It was the Age of Neoslavery. Only by acknowledging the full extent of slavery’s grip on U. S. Society—its intimate connections to present-day wealth and power, the depth of its injury to millions of black Americans, the shocking nearness in time of its true and—can we reconcile the paradoxes of current American life.”
Copyright 2012 – L. Arthalia Cravin. All rights Reserved. No part of this commentary may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.