Part of what has been important for me to recognize as I read history is earlier examples of current problems. There may not be a direct connection with those similar issues, but we need to acknowledge that there may be connection. For example, one of the issues brought up in this book is local control of school funding. Many small government advocates today advocate local school control, which in itself is not bad. But local control was used to get around rules for disproportionate funding of White and Black schools during Jim Crow era and beyond. And today, local control is the root of school funding and quality disparities.
Another example is different sentencing levels of Whites and Blacks (including higher likelihood of being arrested and charged, more severe charges when charged, and more severe sentences for the same charges when sentenced). And then there is the example of Ferguson, Missouri using fees, largely enforced against Black residents for funding of city services to keep tax rates lower.
It is not that there are direction connections between today and earlier in the three examples above, but when there are similar examples, we should investigate whether the issues that gave rise to those similar examples really are similar.
Slavery By Another Name is primarily about the system of convict leasing. Convict leasing was the practice of leasing convicts to private businesses or individuals as laborers. The local or state government then was relieved of the requirements for housing and feeding convicts, made money from those convicts and was able privately fund much of the salaries of law enforcement and the courts through fees instead of taxes.
Much of the work done by convict leasing was dangerous or excessive work. Records were often poor, but in some cases there was as much as a 30% annual death rate among convicts. Convicts were purchased for $30 to $75, roughly $1000 today, compared to the approximately $1000 purchase cost of slaves a generation earlier (what would be today roughly $30,000). There was little interest in moderating the effects of work or punishment because of the low cost of investment. Working convicts for 20 hours a day 7 days a week with low rations and high rates of punishment with lash or waterboarding or hanging by thumbs was common.
The crimes were often minor, swearing in front of a woman, disrespect, leaving an employer without permission, selling goods at night, etc. It was commonly thought at the time that African Americans would only work with the threat and reality of lash and other beating. (The idea of the lazy Black worker continues today, but is a derivative of this earlier era.) The descriptions of beatings throughout the book is one of the hardest parts of reading/listening to the book.
In many cases, there was no record of a crime at all. African Americans that looked like good workers, or were local leaders, were arrested and sent to convict lease (slave) camps without any charges, or with only the flimsiest veneer of legal niceties.
Blackmon is clear that it was not only Blacks that that were held in virtual slavery. There were some White men that also occasionally fell into this convict leasing system, but it was much more unusual. As Reconstruction era rules fell and Plessy vs Ferguson and other court rulings supported Jim Crow disenfranchisement, there was no judicial or legislative means for African Americans to fight back against these types of systematic abuse. White citizens of the era had legal means to fight back, and were not the subjects of explicit racism, and were therefore less likely to be involved in convict leasing.
Slavery in this post-Civil War era was not of the scale of the pre-Civil War era. Prior to the Civil War there were millions held in slavery. In the post-Civil War era at any one time it was usually in the 10s of thousands. But it was also not insignificant in either number of slaves or economic output. In Alabama, slaves were a significant role in mining, coal and steel production. And in 1903, when Federal investigations into slavery were started, Alabama was the largest producer of steel and coal in the country. Steel and coal, when combined were a larger economic driver than cotton for Alabama, which at the time was also at record high production.
Part of what is so important about the 1903 investigations into slavery, was that the Judge overseeing one of the investigations ruled that the very root of southern employment laws, that African Americans could be held criminally liable for leaving an employer, was a form of illegal slavery. (That ruling was later overturned by a higher court and the legacy of the initial ruling was only to detail of how to make sure the system could continue.)
Despite the ruling being overturned and the pressure for the Federal investigations to end and the problems obtaining convictions during that initial attention, it is difficult to reconcile the fact that Federal officials were aware of actual slavery being practiced on a wide scale. For the nearly 40 years after this initial investigation federal officials largely ignored the continued existence of slavery.
The initial concerns in 1903 led to a widespread federal investigation of Black working conditions in the South led by WEB DuBois. His handwritten report was submitted to the President for printing, but the report was repressed and eventually destroyed. DuBois said it was the best sociological study he had ever written. Part of the repression of the study seems to be a lack of willingness to push back against the growing the mythology that had grown up around the Civil War and financial interests that slavery encouraged.
After the 1903 investigation many of those that were charged, including those that had pled guilty returned quickly to holding slaves in much the same way they had before. And the practice expanded to major corporations, which also used the practices to prevent the development of unions in the South. Working class Whites at least in part blamed African Americans for the loss of union protections. In reality, it was the judicial system and the abuse of that judicial system by corporate interests that were the actual problem in reducing the growth of unions that in other areas of the country were increasing wages and improving working conditions.
Within just a few years, for a variety of reasons, much of them economic, the practice of convict leasing started to be outlawed in some states. Federal officials still received, and mostly ignored, reports of slavery. Because there was no meaningful instance of any White citizen being held responsible for peonage or holding slaves (approximately $300 in fines were levied against a few who pled guilty, but jury trials were virtually always either unable to reach a decision or decided non-guilty and in other cases judges dismissed charges), those federal officials that were attempting to respond were reluctant to bring yet another case to court that would lose.
In the 1920s, A Florida case involving a White South Dakota man arrested for jumping a freight car. He was sold to a turpentine producer and within a month was beaten to death in front of 80 other slaves. The parents started an investigation, the story was picked up, winning a Pulitzer and brought more negative publicity. But the still there was not a conviction for either murder or slavery.
One side note, during one investigation by the precursor to the FBI, federal agents explained the law to a Georgia farmer. They knew that the case was not bad enough to take to court, but instructed him to not take on additional slaves. The farmer, John Williams, and his son killed the 11 slaves that they were currently holding so that none of them would be able to testify against him. After several of the bodies were found, the FBI connected the bodies to the farm and John Williams was the only White man convicted of murdering a Black man in Georgia between 1877 and 1967.
There was a shift in the 1930s in who held slaves. But the number of slaves held continued to increase in a number of areas. It is estimated by Blackmon that during the 1930s, 1 in 19 African Americans in Alabama was held at least for a while in slavery, more if you include share-croppers that were legally prevented from working for any other employer or leaving the land that they were required to work.
The true end of slavery in the US was the result of World War II. Workforce needs was part of it, but the larger part was a new US Attorney General. Because of actual Axis propaganda about slavery, the Attorney General instructed aggressive prosecution and clearly laid out the laws that were already on the books that made slavery illegal and reinterpreted the federal role in prosecuting slavery and peonage. He instructed prosecutors to use the words ‘slavery’ or ‘forced servitude’ and not ‘peonage’ to describe what was going on and redirected the FBI to actively investigate. He moved the cases from state and local courts to federal courts.
While there were still some cases of slavery that were reported into the 1950s, further changes in the law stiffened penalties. Culturally, contact with Nazi antisemitism helped to change attitudes about human rights abuses inside the US and the Civil Rights movement started to break the power of hostile government systems in the South.
Post Civil War slavery is not well known. I knew of the basic idea of Slavery by Another Name but had no idea the extent of the practice. Part of the end of the book is a discussion about the implications for the descendants of slave holders, and especially the corporations that grew out of the original slave holding corporations. Large companies like US Steel, Coca-cola, Sun Trust, Southern Company all were either started by active owners of slaves or now own subsidiaries that were active owners of slave. There is a positive story at the end of the section about Wachovia Bank, which no longer independently exists, investigating its own history of holding slaves in an earlier era. But that is the rare case. Most others corporations do not want to understand.
Slavery by Another Name cites US law about corporate responsibility for environmental waste, even for companies that they purchased later, as an example of how corporate responsibility works in another area of corporate law. Like many other areas of history, I am not sure what restitution for practices like this looks like. But the first step is surely acknowledgement of the reality of the practice.
The final section, about how we as individuals and society reckon with our history is excellent. The author’s own family was connected with some of the characters of the book. Other descendants were interviewed for the book, sometimes giving Blackmon information about their history, sometimes it was Blackmon giving them information about their history.
As I have pondered many others times, Blackmon suggests that we need to reconsider how distant slavery really is from our current lives. He suggests that the Jim Crow era (which I did not know was named for a minstrel character) should be renamed the New-Slavery Era. There are people that are now in early retirement that were born when slaves still we being held in the United States. We are not long separated from the history of White Supremacy, slavery and legal and systemic oppression. An NPR interview I listened to yesterday highlighted a study in Philadelphia about how redlining, illegal since the 1960s, still has impact on today’s neighborhoods and housing values. Many historical episodes still have impact long after the memory of the events have faded.