If you’re like me, you grew up with the belief that the Civil War ended slavery. Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans From the Civil War to World War II, by Douglas A. Blackmon puts that lie to rest by telling the story of the period of neo-slavery in America – a 75-year sweep of history, starting at the end of the Civil War up to the mid-20th century.
Slavery By Another Name is an accessible and highly informative read. You should check it out. I promise, it’s easy on the noggin, even if hard on the heart. And through the lens of the current war on drugs, the story is also relevant to our contemporary condition.
In the pages of this book we are assured that white resistance to racial equity is rooted in more than stereotypes and simple bigotry. The emancipation of slaves left Southern plantations “not just financially but intellectually bereft” because whites lacked the knowledge and skills necessary to keep agricultural enterprises profitable, and to bring the economically bankrupt post-war South into the industrial age. In order to accomplish that, African American know-how and labor was necessary.
This situation is a parallel of the condition of the early colonists whose settlements could not have survived without the intellectual contributions and labor of African slaves. Both these justifications for slavery speak to the economic incentives that drive the political system of racism.
Having made enemies of African Americans, how were whites to continue exploiting African Americans if not through coercion? Hence the establishment of criminal codes throughout the South specifically targeting African Americans. Through these laws, thousands were arrested for petty offenses like “selling cotton after sunset,” or changing employers without permission. Many were simply arrested because they were not protected by a white employer.
The incarcerated were consigned to forced labor camps where they worked on chain gangs. Many were leased to private enterprises such as U.S. Steel Corporation, the first billion dollar business and once the largest corporation in the world. U.S. Steel used convicts in coal mines under horrific conditions.
I guess that’s why we call them job creators, right?
And the system didn’t only result in the exploitation of those in labor camps. In Georgia in 1930, “In excess of 8,000 men – nearly all of them Black – worked in chain gangs in 116 counties. Of 1.1 million African Americans in the state that year, approximately half lived under the direct control and force of whites – unable to move or seek employment elsewhere under threat that doing so would lead to the dreaded chain gang.”
And what of the fortunes made through convict leasing? Many of the heirs of those who profited from neo-slavery are captains of industry today. Their fortunes remain intact. No one was ever held financially accountable.
In fact, the primary reason convict leasing was brought to an end was not concern for human rights. The system ended mainly because addressing the most extreme examples of American racism was necessary to building a successful WWII alliance against European fascism (not to mention a military industrial complex through which companies like U.S. Steel got even richer).
Check it out. Read it. Tell me what you think.