Slavery by Another Name doesn’t masquerade as a novel but the story is well-told and the characters drawn from history help us consider the realities of a black person’s fearful existence in the era of post-emancipation neoslavery.
“Where mob violence or the Ku Klux Klan terrorized black citizens periodically, the return of forced labor as a fixture in black life ground pervasively into the daily lives of far more African Americans.”
In Slavery by Another Name, Doug Blackmon chronicles the shocking details of a turn-of-the-century secret service investigation into post-emancipation slavery that led to large-scale indictments of white southern convict leaseholders and their conspirators and the judicial decisions that amounted to little more than slaps on the wrist and enabled atrocities to continue into the 1940s. Notorious and powerful perpetrators were acquitted or merely fined (at affordable costs that their profitable industries made back using forced labor), despite almost ritual abuse of men, women, and children held in slavery on dubious, trumped-up criminal charges or in debt peonage, which had been made a federal crime in the late 1860s. Many southern lawyers succeeded at arguing that slavery had not actually been made a crime since no statutes had yet been made despite the emancipation proclamation and the thirteenth amendment.
Indeed, where federal investigators initially stirred near panic among slaveholding farmers when they first arrived in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, the impotence of the investigations was becoming richly obvious.
Blackmon’s research reveals the incomprehensible, that a federal grand jury (made up of mostly white but a also a few black jurors) and a federal judge, hoping to deter others and who convicted some of the slaveholders in 1903, actually failed to champion the cause of protecting Americans from being enslaved, laying a merely symbolic sentence on the men who went right out and did their dirty work again up until World War II! President Teddy Roosevelt, his administration, and many northern critics even dropped the cause as it eventually became overwelmingly difficult to pursue, especially considering the intimidation factor brought on by prominent white citizens threatening anyone who spoke up, accusing them of being “nigger lovers.” There were a few heroes that Blackmon depicts, such as Alabama’s U.S. Attorney Warren S. Reese, who seemed to stick with the project longer than most despite severe backlash from his southern peers.
Admittedly, I was inclined to believe that pre-war slaveholders treated slaves in a manner that guarded their health and strength as a valuable investment. After emancipation, however, this book depicts a different mindset; gone was the sense of preserving a valuable possession that provides a lifetime of hard work, replaced by the expendable convict that any white man could produce simply by nabbing another black man off the street and falsely accusing him of a petty crime.
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 end–can we reconcile the paradoxes of current American life.
This Pulitzer-prizewinning book reveals facts that should be incorporated into every American child’s history curriculum. Many of us were never made aware of slavery that went on after the Civil War and halfway through the 20th century. Regardless of our collective moral conscience, those in positions of political or fiscal power over human beings, regardless of either’s race or ethnicity, have always and will continue to exploit humans for forced labor. According to news stories in National Geographic, NPR, and Time, slavery is by no means an artifact of the past; it’s alive and well in the 21st century, in democracies such as our nation and throughout the world.
Check the WRL catalog for Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II
A PBS documentary film based upon the book and Blackmon’s research was aired in February, 2012, and has been made available for streaming from pbs.org.