Students are taught in most schools that slavery ended with President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. However after reading Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name I am clearly convinced that slavery continued for many years afterward. It is shown throughout this book that slavery did not end until 1942, this is when the condition of what Blackmon refers to as “neoslavery” began.
Neoslavery was practiced after the Emancipation Proclamation and until the beginning of World War II. Neoslavery was the practice of abducting African Americans, and/or imprisoning them based on exaggerated or false criminal charges, and forcing them into servitude long after the days of the Civil War. This practice was maintained mostly throughout Alabama, Florida, and Georgia.
The arbitrary use of ill defined “vagrancy” charges, such as obscene language in front of a female, changing jobs without the permission of a person’s former employer, and having no proof of having a job or work (which at the time was impossible for anyone because there was no use of pay stubs) were used to lock up millions of African-Americans who were compelled into or lived under the shadow of the South’s new forms of coerced labor.
Under the laws enacted specifically to intimidate blacks, tens of thousands were detained, hit with high fines and charged with the costs of their arrests. With no means to pay such debts, prisoners were sold into coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroad construction crews, and plantations. The book begins by describing a typical family immediately after the Civil War and the first fruits of freedom. Throughout the book, we follow the life of one Green Cottenham as he tries to raise a family in the Deep South during the 1900’s.
As the beginning of the 20th century, he is arrested in Columbiana, Alabama, outside the train depot in a completely spurious situation where initially it’s claimed that he broke one minor law, and then later it’s claimed that he broke a different minor law, and so finally he was brought before the county judge three days later. The judge, to settle the confusion, simply declares him guilty of yet another offense, of vagrancy.
He’s fined $10 and then on top of that, he’s charged a whole series of fees associated with his arrest: a fee to the sheriff, a fee to the deputy who actually arrested him, some of the costs of him being jailed for three days, and fees for the witnesses who testified against him, even though as far as I could tell there were no witnesses. All of these things added up to effectively about a year’s wages for an African American farm laborer at the time, and an amount that obviously somebody like Green Cottenham, an impoverished, largely illiterate African American man in 1908, could not have paid.
So in order to pay those fines off as part of the system, he is leased to U. S. Steel Corporation, a company that still exists today, and forced to go to work in a coal mine on the outskirts of Alabama, with about a thousand other Black forced laborers. And those men lived under almost unspeakable conditions. They worked much of the time deep in the mines in standing water, which was the seepage, under the earth.
They were forced to stay in that water and consume that water for lack of any other fresh water, even though it was putrid and polluted by their own waste. Any man who failed to extract at least eight tons of coal from the mine every day would be whipped at the end of the day, and if he repeatedly failed to get his quota of coal out, he would be whipped at the beginning of the day as well. The men entered the mine before daylight and exited the mine after sunset. They lived in an endless period of darkness under these horrifying circumstances.
Due to the lack of medical attention, they were subject to waves of dysentery and tuberculosis and other illnesses, and it was ultimately one of those epidemics of disease, which caused Green Cottenham to die five months after he arrived at the jail, in August of 1908. Alabama was the place where the system lasted the longest in its most explicit form, and was the most evolved in terms of how every county government was involved and the enormity of the numbers of African American men who were leased by the state.
And in the cases of Alabama, there were at least 100,000 African American men between the 1890s and the 1930s were leased or sold by the state of Alabama to coal mines, iron ore mines, sawmills, timber harvesting camps, cotton plantations, turpentine stills, all across the state. And so at least 200,000 African Americans, just in Alabama, were forced into the system, just in the most informal ways. And there are very well documented records of thousands of Black men who died nder these circumstances during that period of time. Stories of men like Jonathan Davis, who in the fall of 1901, left his cotton field trying to reach the home of his wife’s parents, where she was being cared for and would soon die of an illness. He was trying to reach her before she died. And on his way to the town, which was 15 or 20 miles away where she was being taken care of, he was accosted on the road by a constable, and essentially is kidnapped from the roadway and sold to a white farmer a few days later for $45.
This is something that is named in the book to dozens of people that happened to. It’s clear some version of that sort of kidnapping happened to hundreds and hundreds of other African Americans. And again, all of that is just in Alabama, and there were versions of this going on in all of the southern states. So in reality, there’s no doubt that hundreds of thousands of African Americans had these events occur to them, and millions of African Americans lived in a form of terror of this happening either to them or to their family members.
At the end of the nineteenth century, there was this enormous brick-making concern on the outskirts of Atlanta. It was owned by one of the most prominent men in the city, James English . He was once the mayor of Atlanta in the 1880’s, a famous Confederate war veteran, and was politically the most powerful man in the city. By the beginning of the twentieth century, he probably was the wealthiest man in the Southern United States and one of the wealthiest men in America.
He had many business concerns, but at the base of his wealth and the base of his enterprises was this brick-making factory, which was worked entirely with these forced laborers who had been acquired from jails and also simply purchased from men who had kidnapped black men from the roadways of the South, which became an incredibly common phenomenon as this new market for black labor developed. And the Chattahoochee brickyard, as it was called, was a place that generated millions and millions of bricks. Millions of these bricks were used to make the sidewalks and streets of Atlanta’s oldest neighborhoods, many of them still in use today.
A string of witnesses told the legislative committee that prisoners at the plant were fed rotting and rancid food, housed in barracks rife with insects, driven with whips into the hottest and most-intolerable areas of the plant, and continually required to work at a constant run in the heat of the ovens. They didn’t receive medical care and because of this huge numbers of them died. A rare former convict who was white testified that after a black prisoner named Peter Harris said he couldn’t work because of a grossly infected hand, the camp doctor carved off the affected skin tissue with a surgeon’s knife and then ordered him back to work.
Instead, Mr. Harris, his hand mangled and bleeding, collapsed after the procedure. The camp’s boss ordered him dragged into the brickyard and whipped 25 times. “If you ain’t dead, I will make you dead if you don’t go to work,” shouted a guard. Mr. Harris was carried to a cotton field. He died lying between the rows of cotton. On Sundays, white men came to the Chattahoochee brickyard to buy, sell, and trade black men as they had livestock and, a generation earlier, slaves on the block. “They had them stood up in a row and walked around them and judged of them like you would a mule,” testified one former guard at the camp.
At the beginning of World War II, President Roosevelt was mobilizing the national war effort, one of the issues that was being discussed at the Cabinet level in Washington was what would be the issues that the enemies of America would raise to try to undercut morale in the United States? Immediately, one of President Roosevelt’s aides points out that particularly the Japanese would argue that America was not the country fighting for freedom and that the proof of that was the treatment of African Americans in the Deep South.
Realizing what a vulnerability that was, he ordered that there be legislation against lynchings, making it a federal crime. The attorney general at this time, Francis Biddle, went back to his own office, asked the same questions of his immediate deputies, and one of his deputies says, lynching is a big issue, but there’s also another problem, here are places in the South where slaves are still being held, and it has been the policy of our department not to prosecute cases against those people. The attorney general is shocked initially, but then asks for a memo on how to prosecute such cases under laws which did exist.
Four days later, on December 11, he distributes a memo to all U. S. attorneys essentially saying that this has come to his attention and instructing them that from that day forward they should prosecute these cases. In 1942, just a few months later, a family near Corpus Christi, Texas, a man and his adult daughter, are arrested and charged under the new policy of prosecuting these cases, and they’re trialed later in 1942, and convicted. In 1943, they’re sentenced to prison for having held a man named Alfred Irving as a slave for more than five years.