‘Slavery by Another Name’ Relays the Forgotten Stories of Post-Civil War Slavery

‘Slavery by Another Name’ Relays the Forgotten Stories of Post-Civil War Slavery


bjbjLULU GWEN IFILL: Now, a history of forced
labor after the Civil War. A new document that airs tonight on PBS tells the story of
how American citizens freed by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution remained under lock and
key for decades afterward. “Slavery by Another Name,” based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning
book of the same name, tells the story of the thousands of African-Americans who were
arrested on trumped-up charges and forced to work as convict labor. In many cases, they
were sent to the South coal mines, including some owned by businessman and former slave
owner John Milner. Historians and actors describe it in this excerpt. NARRATOR: After emancipation,
industrialists replaced slaves with convicts, acquiring thousands from state and county
governments. MARY ELLEN CURTIN, historian: You can’t drive free labor the same way that
you can force prisoners to mine five tons of coal a day. And this is why people like
Milner wanted prisoners in his coal mines. He saw them as a great source of profit. And
he didn’t have to worry about labor disputes. MAN: We would leave the cells around 3:00
a.m. and return at 8:00 p.m., going the distance of three miles through rain or snow. MARY
ELLEN CURTIN: To describe the conditions in a coal mine at this time, to say that they’re
primitive, you can’t even imagine it. DOUGLAS A. BLACKMON, author, “Slavery by Another Name”:
This is a place where for weeks or months at a time, men might never see daylight. The
mine was often filled with standing water around their ankles and their feet. They had
to drink from that water. Disease ran rampant through these mines. KHALIL MUHAMMAD, historian:
They were incredibly dangerous places to work, being subjected to violent explosions, poisonous
gases that were released as coal fell from the walls, in addition to the falling coal
itself. MARY ELLEN CURTIN: Whipping, keeping people chained up, brutal kinds of physical
torture and mental abuse are the norm. A lot of the things that kept people in control
under slavery are amplified under this convict system. GWEN IFILL: Douglas Blackmon is author
of the book “Slavery by Another Name” and co-executive producer of tonight’s film. A
former reporter for The Wall Street Journal, he’s now the chair of the Miller Center Forum
at the University of Virginia. Welcome. DOUGLAS A. BLACKMON: Thanks for having me. GWEN IFILL:
You make the argument that slavery didn’t end in 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation
was signed, not in 1865, when the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, but 1942.
DOUGLAS A. BLACKMON: Slavery didn’t end when we all have been taught that it did. It receded
for a time. And in the first years after the Civil War, African-Americans, the formerly
enslaved African- Americans, did experience a period of authentic freedom and citizenship.
But beginning 20, 25 years, depending on the place, after the Civil War, a whole new regime
of involuntary servitude began to be put in place all across the South, and hundreds of
thousands of people were catastrophically affected. GWEN IFILL: Why didn’t we know these
stories? DOUGLAS A. BLACKMON: Well, we did know it at the time. Americans were very aware
of it. Certainly, white Southerners were. And by the beginning of the 20th century,
whites all over the country had seen stories written about some of the — particularly
the worst atrocities and some of the brutalities. But the truth is that, by the early 20th century,
most of America didn’t really care anymore. The country had been fighting over the role
of African-Americans for almost a generation at that point. They were worn out with the
political fight. And by the early 20th century, the North had largely decided to let the South
do what it wanted to with black people. GWEN IFILL: So, help us understand how this could
happen. Tell us the story of this one person you mentioned in the documentary, Green Cottenham.
Tell us his story. DOUGLAS A. BLACKMON: Green Cottenham was the son of two former slaves
in Alabama. He was born in freedom. He experienced some of the — some of that period of time
in which you had huge numbers of black people who voted. Some were elected to office. They
had a certain amount of economic freedom. They were largely still impoverished, but
authentic freedom, separating themselves from the white families that had controlled their
lives. But by the time Green Cottenham grew to adulthood in the first years of the 20th
century, this whole new regime of laws had been put in place that essentially turned
the American justice system on its head. And it became an instrument of injustice, instead
of a system of justice. And there were rafts of laws that effectively criminalized black
life. It was almost impossible for a black man in the South, in the rural South, in the
early 20th century not to be at risk of arrest at almost any time. And the consequences of
even the most trivial of offenses were enormous. And . . . GWEN IFILL: Well, you make an interesting
point in the book and in the documentary that, economically, it made more sense to protect
slaves than it did to protect the lives of people who were convict laborers or people
who were under peonage, it was called? DOUGLAS A. BLACKMON: Peonage, which is essentially
debt slavery, where a person is held against their will to work off an alleged debt to
a landowner or to someone who has purchased them, essentially. And that’s the language
that was used, buying and selling, someone who has been purchased from a county jail
or purchased from a state prison system. And that’s what had happened to Green Cottenham.
He was arrested on a charge of vagrancy. He couldn’t prove that he had a job in 1908.
He couldn’t pay the enormous fines. It was essentially two years’ labor was the fine
for vagrancy. He was immediately sold to a coal mine on the outskirts of Birmingham to
a company that was then going to pay his fines off one month at a time. But, instead, five
months later, he died under horrible conditions in a coal mine outside of Birmingham owned
by U.S. Steel Corporation. GWEN IFILL: And there are long-term consequences for this
— these practices, which link — which over the years have linked criminality and race.
DOUGLAS A. BLACKMON: This is how our country got in the habit of finding it normal to see
such a huge population of African-American men in particular incarcerated all the time.
It also is, I think, really the missing link in understanding the persistence of the economic
and educational gaps between African-Americans and whites in modern society today. Slavery
didn’t go away 150 years ago. African-Americans haven’t had that long opportunity to recover
from all the terrible damage of slavery. Instead, slavery began to recede meaningfully more
like 50 or 60 years ago. And that s all the difference in the world. GWEN IFILL: Were
there white convicts who were leased in this manner, too? DOUGLAS A. BLACKMON: There were
whites who were sucked into the system, no doubt about it. And, in fact, when there was
outrage or concern about this system back in the early 20th century, it was typically
when a white person — there’s a story in the film of a young man Martin Tabert, who
was a traveler from the Pacific Northwest, who ends up sucked into a forced labor camp
in Florida and eventually whipped to death under horrifying conditions. And that led
to a scandal. That led to some reforms. But, overwhelmingly, this was something that happened
to black people. And through most of the period of time that this was happening, these forced
labor camps tended to be 80 or 90 percent African-Americans. And the mortality rates
in them were often as high as 30 or 40 percent. GWEN IFILL: So, whether it was the sharecropping,
in which people were tied to the land by debt, or whether it was peonage, or whether it was
convict leasing, this had a long-term effect that affected the entire American economy,
or just African-Americans? DOUGLAS A. BLACKMON: No, this is a huge drag on all of American
life. That’s one of the things we forget sometimes when we talk about the atrocities really that
were committed against African-Americans. It didn’t just injure black people. It injured
the whole country, because we deprived ourselves of the talent, and energy, and ambition, and
abilities of this huge population of people that was getting bigger and bigger all the
time. And the proof of that is that, once you get to the truly modern time, to 1970,
and this really that s really the first point in time that we can really say African-Americans
on a large scale begin to have real access to the mechanisms of achievement in America.
Since 1940, even with all the problems that persist, since that time — since 1970, even
with all the problems that persist, African-Americans have achieved on a level economically and
educationally, I think, that’s unrivaled by any group of people in human history. GWEN
IFILL: Not just a black history story, but an American history story. DOUGLAS A. BLACKMON:
It’s a story of American history. It’s a story of terrible things done by Americans to other
Americans. And if we want to appreciate the triumphal parts of our past, we really have
to be willing to confront these parts as well. GWEN IFILL: Doug Blackmon, author and co-executive
producer of “Slavery by Another Name” on PBS tonight, thanks so much. DOUGLAS A. BLACKMON:
Thanks for having me. urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags State urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags
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