Film Reveals 'Slavery' Persisted After Civil War

Most history books teach that slavery in the U.S. ended with the Civil War, but a new documentary airing on PBS challenges that. The film, Slavery By Another Name, explores a system of forced labor that brutalized many black Southerners up to World War II. Host Michel Martin speaks with the film's director and co-executive producer.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we'll remember Whitney Houston with two people who knew her well. Music writer Steven Ivory and the president of BET, Debra Lee. That's coming up later.

But first, as most people know, this is Black History Month and this is a time when many people reacquaint themselves with the history of people of African descent in America, history which is often presented as a clear narrative line which starts in slavery and ends in freedom. Our freedom, which was largely achieved with the Civil War and perfected, let's say, through the Civil Rights Movement.

But now, there's a new film that adds significant complication to that smooth arch of a story. The film is called "Slavery by Another Name." It premiers tonight on PBS, although you might want to check your local listings for exact times. It's based on the Pulitzer Prize winning book of the same title and it explores exactly what it says, how countless black southerners fell victim to a brutal system of forced labor long past the Emancipation Proclamation.

It also describes how that system sought to justify itself in part through the constitution.

ADAM GREEN: When you go to the 13th amendment, one of the fascinating things about the text of that amendment is that it says that slavery is abolished, except in the case of a punishment for a crime. And within that wiggle room, there's still the possibility of extending slavery, as it were, by another name.

MARTIN: That was Adam Green, one of the historians featured in the film, "Slavery by Another Name," and joining us now is the director of the film, Emmy Award winner Sam Pollard. Also with us, Douglas Blackman, the author of the book and co-executive producer of the film.

Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

SAM POLLARD: Thank you.

DOUGLAS BLACKMAN: Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: Doug Blackman, I'm going to start with you because you talk about growing up in Mississippi. I've seen you talk about this in previous interviews, and the history that you were taught did not include this. Tell us a little bit about that, if you would.

BLACKMAN: I grew up in a cotton town in which there were more black people than white, and I attended public schools there during the desegregation time when the schools became overwhelmingly black. I was interested in and motivated around why were things as crazy as they were in those early years of my childhood.

There was this story, always, that after the Civil War, the freed slaves had been sort of ill-equipped for freedom and had been inclined to lawlessness and that that was the justification for why the white south had moved so aggressively to re-subjugate African-Americans. And in the course of the research for the book and the film, I really came to realize that that's just fundamentally a false story.

MARTIN: I like that the word crazy that you use - the crazy things that were happening. Could you just give us an example? I'm speaking, specifically, just some of these laws that essentially criminalized black life.

BLACKMAN: The intention of the white South in the late 19th century and the early 20th century was to pass laws which effectively criminalized black life. And so it was illegal in the South for a black man to walk beside a railroad, to speak loudly in the company of a white woman. But the most insidious laws - and there were all sorts of these things - was that, number one, it was a crime if you couldn't prove you were employed at any given moment. You could be declared a vagrant and, once declared a vagrant, you had tremendous legal vulnerability and could easily end up being sold into a form of forced labor.

And the other terribly, terribly damaging law was that it was a crime in the south for any farm worker - though the law was really only ever applied to black people - to seek employment from a new employer without permission from the person you worked for at the time. And so it was a crime to look for a job in the south, no matter how badly abused you were at the hands of whoever employed you at the time.

And those laws resulted in thousands and thousands and thousands of arrests of African-Americans on the most specious ground.

MARTIN: Sam Pollard, I'm going to ask you this now. You've done, as an adult, many films about the story of African-Americans in the U.S. and I was curious to know whether this was something that you knew about growing up.

POLLARD: Growing up in East Harlem, but having parents who both came from the south, Mississippi and Georgia. You know, we heard lots of stories, growing up, from my father and my mother and my uncles and my aunts and my grandfather, but we never heard that story.

So when I heard about Doug's book, which was in galleys, originally, was, like, really surprising.

MARTIN: Sam Pollard, you drew on the letters that Mr. Blackman found to write his book to create reenactments for the film. I just want to listen to one of them. This is an actor. He's playing Ezekiel Archey. He was a convict. He sent letters from a coal mine in Alabama and, in this one, he's describing his life in the mine and how workers were treated by their boss, somebody named J.W. Comber(ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Worked hungry, thirsty, half clothed and sore. That Comber's a hard man. I seen him hit men 100 and 160 times with a ten-pronged strap.

MARTIN: Sam Pollard, the film makes use, not of the letters, but there are still photographs of people in just horrific circumstances. There's one I cannot get out of my head, which is - it looks like it could be a teenager or a young boy who's literally staked to the ground. It's fairly shocking. I mean, it's very shocking stuff here and I wanted to ask how you decided what to include and what to leave out. I mean, some of this is very graphic material and going to be very hard for some people to take.

POLLARD: Yeah. We know that, but you know, when we were doing the research - and Doug had done a lot of research when he was putting together the book, so we were able to cull from his archive, some of these stills and then we had an archivist who also dug deeper.

We know they're going to be tough, but I think it's important for people to understand the horrors of what people had to suffer through during that period of time.

MARTIN: Doug Blackman, could you talk a little bit more about that? What were some of the ways that people were kept in these conditions?

BLACKMAN: Well, once a person had been sold into these forced labor camps or the forced labor coal mines, there was almost no protection of any kind in terms of government supervision, to be certain that they were properly fed or that they received any sort of health care and so what happened again and again is that people were worked to the very limits of human endurance.

In many of these camps, the people who ran them, or the sheriffs who would arrest them originally - would be paid a fee that would be taken from the prisoner. The prisoner had to end up paying the sheriff who had arrested them for the cost of their arrest. The sheriffs would be provided with a certain amount of money from the state to feed prisoners, but the incentive to them was to feed them as little as possible and keep as much of the feeding money as possible.

And the mortality rates from some of these work camps were as much as 30 and 40 percent a year.

MARTIN: We're talking about the new documentary, "Slavery by Another Name." It's based on the Pulitzer Prize winning book of the same title. The film premiers on PBS tonight, although you'll want to check your local listings for exact times.

We're joined by director Sam Pollard and the author and co-executive producer, Douglas Blackman.

We hear in the film, Sam Pollard, from descendents of people on both sides, those who worked in the forced labor system and people who ran the system, including Georgia farmer, John Williams. He had several black men working on his farm under horrible conditions. And then when he came under legal suspicion in 1921, he decided that the only way to escape prosecution was to, quote, "do away with these boys," unquote, and he and an accomplice killed 11 of them.

And there's an interview with his great granddaughter, Susan Burnore, talking about discovering that history. I'll just play that short clip. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME")

SUSAN BURNORE: They did it in the most horrific ways that you can imagine, that I really can't talk about. I just get so emotional when I think about, not just the fact that these men were murdered, but the cruelty with which it was carried out. That's what's hardest for me to imagine and hardest to accept.

MARTIN: This can't be the only person who knows about this and yet this history seems to have been - well, it can't have been all but obliterated. I mean, clearly, these documents existed. The fact is, Mr. Blackman, you were able to reconstruct this.

But I'm just wondering why each of you thinks this isn't better known. Mr. Blackman, I'll start with you.

BLACKMAN: For white Americans, there was no shame in any of this. At the time, people knew about it and they talked about it. The next generations of white Americans didn't particularly want to talk about this, recognize that there was something problematic about it and it slipped beyond living memory.

For African-Americans, there was an awareness decades ago that it might be dangerous to pass on certain stories about certain injuries to your children or your grandsons, that encouraging anger on their part could be a risky thing, as we saw happen to many African-Americans.

And so there really was this kind of inadvertent conspiracy of silence that occurred on both sides of the racial divide.

MARTIN: Sam Pollard, what's your thought about that?

POLLARD: Many of these men were considered criminals and, sometimes, when you're a criminal, you're kind of like pushed out of the limelight. Then, sometimes, as black people, you know, your parents and your great grandparents or your uncles and aunts didn't want to talk about the things that were hard, in a way, to protect us from what we might have to deal with, you know, particularly when I went down south to visit aunts and uncles.

MARTIN: Douglas Blackman, why did the system persist as long as it did?

BLACKMAN: It continued because it was economically imperative to the South and to America. After the Civil War, the white South simply could not resurrect the cotton economy and the only way that the south was ultimately able to do that was to find a way to re-subjugate an enormous population of people. And it only began to break down in the 1940s when a combination of two things - the Federal Department of Justice takes a committed position to say, when we learn of cases of involuntary servitude in the South, we're going to investigate and prosecute.

It made a big difference and, at the same time, the mechanical cotton picker was invented in the 1940s, chemicals that could kill weeds instead of having to chop them by hoe, with a hand. And so the need for these armies of laborers began to diminish and those two factors are what led to the authentic end of the system, ultimately.

MARTIN: Sam Pollard, a final question of you. Why do you think it is important to pass on these stories now?

POLLARD: It's really vital to understand this aspect of history that people don't know about. Because if you understand that, then maybe you'll look at things differently. And one of the things that I think is courageous about this film that we've done is the two white women whose families were involved in this involuntary servitude, who have the courage to sit down in front of us on camera and open up about their reactions to what they had read in Doug's book and what it means to them to understand the truth, now, about their ancestors. That, to me, was one of the most important things I think I've ever done as a filmmaker.

MARTIN: Sam Pollard is the award winning director of the film, "Slavery by Another Name." He joined us from our bureau in New York. Douglas Blackman is the co-executive producer of the documentary. It's based on his book of the same title and he joined us from Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul.

The film premiers on PBS tonight. You'll want to check your local listings for exact times. Gentlemen, I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

POLLARD: Thank you.

BLACKMAN: Thanks for having us.

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