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FDL Book Salon Welcomes Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery By Another Name

[Welcome Douglas A. Blackmon, Pulitzer Prize Winner, and Host, Thomas Sugrue – bev]

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Two years later, the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery and prohibited involuntary servitude. But as Douglas Blackmon shows in his powerful book, Slavery by Another Name, unfree labor did not disappear at the end of the Civil War. Instead, it took on a new, pernicious form.  

Slavery by Another Name is a harrowing journey through the world of chain gangs, prisons, and forced labor in the South between the Civil War and the mid-twentieth century. Through painstaking research in obscure local archives and in court and company records, Blackmon uncovers an eye-opening story of collusion between public officials and business leaders who built their fortunes on the backs of unfree black laborers. 

The system was simple—and pernicious. Blacks—mostly men—were arrested and convicted of minor crimes, on trumped up or even false charges. They were charged with “vagrancy,” which in the post-Civil War South, often meant moving from one place to another in search of work. They faced “bastardy” charges, for having a child out of wedlock. Or they were slapped with punitive fines and prison terms that were grossly out of proportion to the infractions they had committed. Once in jail, they were leased to lumber companies, mines and mills, turpentine farms and plantations. Some judges even let wealthy whites rent prisoners to do routine household chores.

Their work conditions were usually appalling, and re-enslaved workers regularly suffered serious injuries or died on the job. They were often denied medical care, starved, and beaten. Blackmon’s narrative is especially powerful because he personalizes it in dozens of individual stories, most notably that of Green Cottenham, a black man born to freedom in the 1880s, who was caught up in the system of convict leasing and who died in 1908 having worked for five months in an Alabama coal mine. Blackmon’s accounts of disease, violence, brutality and torture will shock all but the most jaded readers.  

Blackmon, the Wall Street Journal Atlanta bureau chief, also has a keen eye for the business side of things. Just as eye-opening as his stories of neo-slavery is his indictment of the corporations that profited mightily from the practice, many of them still in existence today, including U.S. Steel, Sloss Industries, and its subsidiary, Jim Walter Homes, a major producer of prefabricated housing.  

Blackmon names names and is unsparing in his criticism. In one of the book’s most pointed lines, he writes that “it was business that policed adherence to America’s racial customs more than any other actor in U.S. society.” Today, we often look romantically back on the “golden age of industry” and celebrate free enterprise and entrepreneurship, blissfully ignorant of the fact that racial inequality persisted in America because it was profitable. The blood and toil of re-enslaved workers made the fortunes of generations of Southerners and underwrote now global enterprises like Coca Cola. Those who created the system of neo-slavery might be long gone, but the wealth that their enslaved workers created lives on.

The use of prison labor is not just the Southern story that Blackmon tells. It’s an American story, one that challenges our cherished myths about liberty and equality. During the colonial period, large portions of the workforce, South and North, were unfree—either indentured servants or chattel slaves. And the use of penal labor was not unique to the South, even if it took a distinctive, racialized form there. In the North and West too, prisons provided cheap labor for factories, mines, and railroads. Just as in the South, working conditions were abysmal. Prisoners were dehumanized and treated as disposable. Many were injured and died. Prison wardens were rewarded with bonuses for keeping the bodies coming. And a lot of men grew rich as a result.  

Today, the gross abuses that Blackmon describes are mostly a thing of the past, but prisons continue to provide cheap labor, under Third World conditions, to all sorts of businesses. And, because of the disparities in sentencing, today’s unfree prison laborers are still disproportionately people of color. Prisoners make everything from circuit boards to military helmets. The prison-industrial complex is big business in America. And, like its predecessors in the post-Civil War South, it offers big profits by exploiting the most disadvantaged Americans. Sadly, Blackmon’s story is not over.  

There is never a bright line between history and the present. Blackmon forces us to grapple with the implications of our troubled past on the present. In the last year, especially, we have celebrated the rise of a supposedly “post-racial” society. And indeed a lot has changed for the better. But the enormous economic gaps between blacks and whites that persist today, nearly a century and a half after Emancipation, are the direct legacy of the history that Blackmon recounts.  

Blackmon ends his book with some provocative conclusions. “We are formed in molds twisted by the gifts we received at the expense of others.” We are beneficiaries or victims of the crimes of the past, whether they were our fault or not. So how do we come to grips with that? Blackmon deliberately leaves the question unanswered. Perhaps it is in remembering the past and telling our history correctly. Surely it is more than issuing trite apologies well after the fact. Perhaps those companies—the heirs and assigns of those responsible for the crimes of the past—should recompense the families of those who suffered re-enslavement. Blackmon comes close to calling for reparations, though he tiptoes around this most controversial of recommendations and ultimately backs away from what many observers consider a political third rail.  

But even if he ultimately leaves it to us to come up with answers, Douglas Blackmon deserves credit for asking the right questions. This is a powerful book that, by revising our understanding of the past, pushes us to new ways of thinking about where we are today.

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Tom Sugrue

Tom Sugrue