Slavery by Another Name, The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to WW II by Douglas A. Blackmon. Anchor Books, 2008. Pulitzer Prize winner.
Wow. This book was startling. As I read it, I kept telling my husband about it. After slavery ended, it actually did not end. We all know about the Jim Crow laws that created segregation, but more than that happened. The southern states did a variety of things to keep blacks in their place of so-called inferiority and under control of whites. Really, they practically made it illegal or very difficult for blacks to do much of anything in life by passing laws about employment, not properly funding black schools, etc. But more than that, black men (and some women) became part of a new system of slavery but by another name.
They would arrest black men for silly, inconsequential things and then tell them they owed money for court and paperwork fees, money they did not have. Then a local farmer or coal mining representative would show up and offer to pay their court fees if they agreed to work for them for a certain period of time to pay off the debt. Then the black man was pretty much trapped in this situation! Many were illiterate and had to sign (with an x) a document they could not read. When they completed the months of service agreed upon to repay their debt, the farmer or coal mine would find a reason that they could not be released. For example, if they had gotten sick and a doctor saw them, that incurred a fee, so more months of service would be added in order to re-pay this new debt.
These men were treated like prisoners, guarded, even confined at night with chains. It was hard for them to run away. If they somehow managed to escape, often they were quickly re-arrested for abandoning their contract or for some other silly thing and ended up in the same or another similar situation! Or they ended up dead. Sometimes after an escape attempt, shackles would be put on their ankles in such a way that if they ran it severely damaged their ankles.
Essentially, the whole of southern society worked together in direct and indirect ways to make this system work. Things became more formal – rather than just a farmer needing workers – when the big coal mining operations began contracting with jails for workers. They would let the jail know they wanted a certain number of black workers, and if there weren’t enough black prisoners, the law would go out looking for black men to arrest for something, anything at all, so they could fulfill this request for black workers! Of course, the jails were paid a fee by the coal mines to procure these black workers. It was a tremendous money maker for local towns.
The way these “workers” were treated was horrible, astonishingly bad. While slaves before the Civil War were mistreated, this new system was actually worse. Because these workers were obtained almost free, and new ones could be easily obtained, they were viewed as expendable. There was not much motivation to treat them well, and the coal mines were dangerous places to work. If they died, were beat to death, starved on minimal food rations, overworked – oh well – just get new ones. Let the jail know! Slave owners, on the other hand, who paid significant sums to buy slaves, had more invested in them. That is not to say slaves were well treated (that is not the point at all) but rather as bad as slavery was, this “slavery by another name” was worse. I was horrified beyond words by how some of these workers were treated.
Were no efforts made to expose this injustice? Yes, there was. Attempts were made to bring these things to light and stop them. But to no avail. At times, I felt like throwing the book across the room because I was upset by the total miscarriage of justice. It was so unfair, just maddening. Cries for help went unheard, desperate letters ignored. Extensive survey work by W. E. B. Du Bois was destroyed by the government. Politics, power, money, entrenched ways of life, not wanting to take on the establishment…so many things were involved. The book even brought in Darwinism, and how it fed the idea that blacks were sub-human.
There was a series of very public trials (the peonage trials) in the early 20th century that tried to end this system of peonage, but it failed. The one judge who tried very hard to bring justice, realized it was impossible, in the south of that time, for whites to be convicted of any crime against blacks. It did not matter how badly or illegally a white person had treated a black, a white jury simply would not find them guilty. One time the judge actually TOLD the jury that they HAD to find the white man guilty because it was such a clear cut case (are judges even supposed to do that – influence a jury this way?) but it did not matter, the jury still found him innocent.
The whites involved in the peonage system got fines (which they often didn’t even pay) and the system continued on as usual – but they made changes to protect themselves and to make it harder to be prosecuted in the future! Prior to this, informal and unqualified justices of the peace served as the local law/courts when blacks were rounded up and arrested for silly things, and paperwork was sometimes shoddy. After the peonage trials, they made sure only formal and qualified officials were involved and that all was properly documented. They made it all tidy. (And coincidentally left behind much proof and evidence of these things.)
What finally brought all this to an end? It was WWII, believe it or not. The Axis countries were using the US treatment of blacks against us – a way of weakening the US, one of the allied countries. Apparently enemy agents were reaching out to the black population and telling them they were aware of their mistreatment and that they would liberate them and treat them better. So, finally, US high officials stepped in and put an end to the peonage system. Lawyers carefully studied the situation, and found a way around the laws that had been keeping peonage legal. Plus, new technology was decreasing the need for prisoners to work in the coal industry.
This was a detailed but well-written book. It is 400 pages, plus the note section. At times I thought the author circled back to previous info, but it made sense as history unfolded and points needed to be made. Perhaps my summary of the book leaves you with certain questions or even some doubts? Read the book. It is well documented. It is a Pulitzer Prize winner for a reason.
Okay, now to the second book! If you read the previous book (please do!) this book is an ideal and perfect companion to it. It is:
America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America by Jim Wallis. BrazosPress, 2016.
This book is not about making whites feel guilty about things in the past. Rather, it raises an awareness of things that some of us white people may be unaware of – or we simply need our eyes opened a bit wider. We have been affected by our country’s collective history, especially someone like me whose ancestors came here generations ago. Cultural attitudes are carried down, even if they become more subtle or underlying. We may have biases that we are not quite aware of. We have also benefited from social structures in ways we have never considered.
Ferguson is addressed in the book. After what happened, the justice department investigated the police department of Ferguson, and I was really quite shocked, especially since I just finished reading Slavery by Another Name. There was once again a situation, like 100 plus years ago, where blacks were clearly being targeted for arrest, and arrested sometimes for silly things that whites would never be arrested for! Disturbing déjà vu. Of course, this did not lead to peonage in our day, but nonetheless blacks in Ferguson got unfair fines or jail time.
Another eye opener was about the “war on drugs” that began in the 1970’s and how this ended up targeting black communities and more blacks end up with prison time — Even though problems with drug abuse cuts across all lines. Statistics show that drugs are pretty much equally a problem among all skin colors and income levels.
The book is practical, as Wallis shares personally from his lifetime of experiences, and also shares practical ways for police departments, communities, and churches to bring change. If you don’t know of Wallis, he is a known Christian activist – as well as an author, preacher, and pastor. While the book is more for Christians, I think others can appreciate it as well.
Prolific book reviewer Bob, over at Bob on Books, has reviewed the book, and I will direct you to him for a more thorough review: Review: America’s Original Sin.
I highly recommend reading both of these books.
Of interest, a CNN article from July 2018: Nearly 100 bodies found at a Texas construction site were probably black people forced into labor — after slavery ended.
Another article of interest: How 911 calls on blacks are a new twist on something old: white flight