The Untold History of Post-Civil War 'Neoslavery' In Slavery by Another Name, Douglas Blackmon of the Wall Street Journal argues that slavery did not end in the United States with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862. He writes that it continued for another 80 years, in what he calls an "Age of Neoslavery."
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The Untold History of Post-Civil War 'Neoslavery'

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Everybody knows that Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 and that after the Civil War ended, slavery was outlawed forever by constitutional amendment. Now, we need to rethink all that history. A new book argues that slavery continued in slightly different forms for another 80 years, that hundreds of thousands of men convicted of petty or non-existent crimes found themselves leased to white farmers to pick cotton or sold to companies to mine coal and smelt iron.

Writer Douglas Blackmon believes that this extension of slavery helps to explain why black Americans made so little economic progress between emancipation and the civil rights movement, and why suspicion and hostility to the justice system remains so deeply ingrained in African-American communities to this day. Douglas Blackmon joins us in just a moment.

Later in the hour, how young women rationalize girls gone wild behavior on spring break and your letters. But first, slavery by another name. If you have questions about where, when and how this happened and what it means for us today, our number is 800-989-8255. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Douglas Blackmon is Atlanta bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal. His new book is called "Slavery by Another Name." And he joins us now from the studios of Georgia Public Radio in Atlanta.

Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. DOUGLAS A. BLACKMON (Atlanta Bureau Chief, The Wall Street Journal; Author, "Slavery by Another Name"): Thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And tell us, who was Green Cottenham and why is he important?

Mr. BLACKMON: Green Cottenham was a man whose parents were slaves on two different farms in the middle of Alabama before the Civil War. They were slaves of the kind that we think of as slaves. He was born in the 1880s in - after emancipation and what was supposed to be a time of freedom but as he became an adult, he was drawn back into what I call this age of neo-slavery between the Civil War and World War II and forced to work in a coal mine in Alabama that by then was owned by U.S. Steel Corporation and he died there in 1908 under terrible circumstances. In fact, this week, as of this week, it's exactly a hundred years since the day that he was arrested on a trumped-up charge in Alabama and the saga began that led to his death.

CONAN: In his case, the charge, I think, was vagrancy but that was just one of what you described as a number of laws passed in many states in the South. It's a basically outlawed black - white style.

Mr. BLACKMON: Exactly, the - by the turn of the 20th century, by about 1901, the entire criminal justice system of the South had been retooled in such a way where essentially it was criminal to be black. It was virtually impossible for an African-American person to avoid breaking the law in one way or another. Every person was required to be able to prove at any time that they were employed. That was the vagrancy statute but it was only enforced against blacks for the most part. No person could legally change jobs without the permission of their past employer. That was enforced only on blacks as a way of preventing a black man from leaving the farm of one white landowner and moving to the farm of another. And so there were myriad of ways like this where it was nearly impossible for a young black man to avoid being dubbed a criminal if someone wanted to do that.

CONAN: Yeah, there's a story you tell in the book about a black man by the name of, well, his - excuse me - his name was Jonathan Davis(ph). He was a black man, ostensibly, a free black man, worked his - sharecropped a farm and had to go to see his ill wife, hopped to a train to do that. As he got of the train in a community in Alabama called Goodwater, he was confronted by a man named Robert Franklin(ph), one of the town's appointed constables who asked him, do you have any money?

Mr. BLACKMON: That's right. And the story of Jonathan Davis and there are many, many stories in the book and thousands of others that I couldn't get in the book, but the story of Jonathan Davis is for me one of the most poignant ones. He was a man who, as you said, his wife was dying, in fact, in the fall of 1901. And he left his field full of cotton ready to be picked. He abandoned his fields to try to make it to his in-laws' home in time to see her before she died. And on the way, he's confronted by this constable in the town of Goodwater.

But what Davis fell into was not just one confrontation with one evil man, he was snared in what I, over the course of many years of research, I realized was an enormous and elaborate slave-trafficking network. And this was something that was far beyond even the sort of formalized system of leasing prisoners out to businesses. This is where there was a man named John W. Pace who controlled several thousand acres of farmland and timberland in Alabama. And over the course of the two years that I studied Pace through a network of men like Robert Franklin, seized 40, 50, maybe as many as a hundred black men where they were simply seized from the roads as they walked from one place to another and were sold into the slavery, and many of whom - many didn't survive, many ended up as slaves for years and years. I believe some even decades.

CONAN: Indeed, your search for their voices - the voice, indeed, of the man we talked about just at the beginning of the program, of Green Cottenham, your search for his testimony, what happened to him, his voice? You're never able to find it?

Mr. BLACKMON: No, I finally found that a relative of his who, in my heart, as I talked to him, I had the sense that I was hearing the voice of Green Cottenham. But that's one of the most important things about this book is that the apocalyptic events that occurred in black life in America at the end of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century, one of the reasons that we have minimized them in modern times, and frankly, that many conventional historians have tended to minimize, one of the reasons that's happened is because these were people who were impoverished, they were largely illiterate. There are not thousands of letters or diaries or the, you know, the recorded memories of these millions of African-Americans who lived in a kind of terror state in that time, and so we've lost those voices. And I spent much of my time on this book trying to reconstruct from the fragments that remain of the proof that these events occurred and that these people lived, some sense of who they were because our history has tended to focus on the people on the other side of the equation whose lives were very well documented, and that's a record that minimizes the scale of the tragedy and the evil that was perpetrated.

CONAN: And how big a deal was this in terms of scale?

Mr. BLACKMON: It was enormous. And some people, some historians will want to dispute me on this but I think that the reality is that the record is obvious particularly if you do what I did over the course of a very long period of time, which is to go from courthouse to courthouse across Alabama and Georgia and Florida and Mississippi and North Carolina and South Carolina. Many people assume that the records of this era don't exist anymore, and in some places they don't, but in many, many places, there are hundreds of thousands of pages of arrest records and agreements between sheriffs and companies and local politicians and landowners. There's an enormous record of a forced labor system that was monotonously huge. And by that what I mean is that there were thousands and then tens of thousands of men who were directly forced into some kind of involuntary servitude through this cynically perverted judicial system.

But in addition to that, that was the hammer that was hanging over the lives of every black man in the South. And so out of a fear of having those things happen, millions of black men and their families abided all of the other degradations that the white South perpetrated against blacks in the first half of the 20th century, much of which amounted to coerced labor in another form.

CONAN: Our guest is Douglas Blackmon. His book is "Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II." If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255. E-mail us talk@npr.org. We'll begin with Ben(ph). And Ben's calling us from Mocksville in North Carolina.

BEN (Caller): Hi, Neal. Yeah, I have a quick question or a statement, really. My great grandfather was a Yugoslav immigrant and he came to the South, West Virginia, and of course, right around the Depression time. So he worked in the coal mines and anyone will know, especially, and back in those days, a coal mine was just especially horrible condition. My grandfather was only given, you know, as any other coal miner or a company, strictly had to buy from the company, the company probably overcharged in what the regular people.

You know, and then I was thinking about this, you know, which is mother and I have talked about it substantially, it's like wow. In his own way, these coal miners, especially these immigrants who spoke no English, yeah, were in the type of slavery. And you know, I really think, you know, whites and blacks have far more parity than many would think especially the lower-class folks and immigrant folks because, you know, I feel more in common especially as a grandson of a Yugoslav immigrant who died basically in the coal mines from black lung, you know, then what's (unintelligible) with my rich white counterparts. And I'll take my statement/answer off the line.

CONAN: Okay, Ben, thanks very much for the call.

And Douglas Blackmon, you do point out the vast majority of the people you'd write about in this system of leasing labor and various other forms of slavery by another name were African-Americans but by no means all.

Mr. BLACKMON: That's right. There were whites who were sucked into this. By and large, I think that it was much more likely that a white man who was forced into particularly through the prison system who was forced into this kind of involuntary servitude. Those generally were men who had committed crimes and - but the were a microscopic number compared to the black workers.

And one thing, along the lines of what your caller was describing, there was a practice that echoed some of this in terms of immigrant laborers who were induced to move from the northeast from the immigrants' arrival points in the northeast and to work on building railroads in the Florida Keys, coal mining in West Virginia as he describes. I think what his grandfather experienced was actually more toward the end of the period of time that I write about. And so there were whites and there were some immigrants who were pulled into this but the fact of the matter is that the scale of what happened to African-Americans was vastly greater than everything else that happened to others.

CONAN: And how profitable was this?

Mr. BLACKMON: It was tremendously profitable. It was profitable both for the business enterprises that were involved in this and it was incredibly lucrative for the Southern states particularly in places like Alabama where there was a - where the coal-mining industry and the steel-making industry was booming at the end of the 19th century. This particular form of labor - this labor practice works really well in these coal mines. The type of work that was required was the sort of thing that these coerced workers could do and these companies poured tens of millions of dollars into the coffers of state governments like Alabama's.

CONAN: Our guest is Douglas Blackmon. If you'd like to join our conversation about slavery by another name, the phone number is 800-989-8255. E-mail talk@npr.org. Stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking about the long tale of slavery under other names. It persisted for another 80 years after being outlawed by constitutional amendments. We're talking about Green Cottenham's enslavement in the coal mines in 1908, but his story is one of hundreds of thousands. You can read the stories of other re-enslaved black Americans in an excerpt at our Web site, npr.org/talk.

Our guest is Douglas A. Blackmon. His book is called "Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II."

And we want to hear from you, if you have questions of stories about this period of history, give us a call, 800-989-8255. E-mail us talk@npr.org. And check out our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

And Douglas Blackmon, there is a peculiarly horrible perversity about this post-slavery system that in many ways was worse than slavery for those caught up in it.

Mr. BLACKMON: That's right, Neal. One of the bitter ironies of this is that before the Civil War in the antebellum slavery we're all more familiar with, slaves had great value to their owners. They were extremely expensive and it was important to the landowners to maintain their health over a long period of time and for them to procreate and give birth to more slaves because there was value to that. And so while there were terrible abuses in antebellum slavery, there was a strong economic incentive to at least ensure that slaves survived.

In the system that I'm talking about, the neo-slavery practices after the Civil War, what emerged was a kind of brutally efficient, economic rationale which viewed these workers more as equipment than as humans and the value that the cost of acquiring them was so small, that it was much more - the economic incentive for these companies and landowners was to work them as hard as possible even if that meant working them to death because they were easily replaced and inexpensively replaced.

CONAN: And like Green Cottenham, once they died, they vanished, never to be heard from again.

Mr. BLACKMON: Green Cottenham died in 1908, a diseased man, malnourished and sick in a crude hospital at a mine owned by U.S. Steel Corp. at the time. I searched for a very long time to try to find where he was buried. At the very beginning of my work on this, I was led to a graveyard near the mine location where he had worked, that was a great burial field where clearly hundreds and hundreds of these workers had been dumped unceremoniously in graves now overgrown. Eventually I figured out that the gravesite were he would have been buried was a short distance away. And actually just a few months ago, I went there still trying to locate where he was buried and by then the - but all signs of any kind of human activity there had been obliterated along with the old mine.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Ouzel(ph). Ouzel with us from Boston.

Go ahead.

OUZEL (Caller): First of all, I have a comment then I have a question. In terms of slavery, I wanted to point out that a federal judge on August 15th, 1984, in Burt County, Georgia ruled in a class-action order that the Burt County sheriff and the commissioners, operation of the county jail violated the 13th Amendment, prohibition against slavery, so I wanted to make sure that you understand this that a federal court ruled as late as 1984 that there was a violation of the 13th Amendment by the county sheriff and the county commissioners in Burt County, Georgia. And you have to read a case called Rogers versus Lodge which is the case rule that met the requirement approving a violation of the Voters Rights Act by intentional discrimination before it was an amendment to the Voting Right Act in the early '80s.

Now my next - my comment, though, is…

CONAN: That was a question?

OUZEL: Well, that was a…

CONAN: That was a comment. Now, go ahead.

OUZEL: …just a document that slavery as document about federal court as a…

CONAN: I understand. Please go ahead.

OUZEL: Okay, my comment is, what is the difference between the subject matter of Mr. Blackmon's book, "Slavery by Another Name" system of leasing and that of peonage which was documented in a book by Pete Daniels, "Shadow of Slavery" based upon research of, I guess, hundreds or thousands of United States Justice Department files of the unlawful system of peonage for which there are federal laws that were enacted after slavery.

CONAN: Douglas Blackmon?

Mr. BLACKMON: That's a great question and you're obviously a serious student of these things. Pete Daniels' book which came out in the mid-1960s was a brilliant work on peonage. And what peonage is, is the practice of a person being held in a form of slavery specifically to pay off a debt or an alleged debt. And what that book wrote about and which is also a part of my book, is this practice that became commonplace all across the South particularly for sharecroppers that the - if you worked on the land of a white farmer, the farmer would advance you the money to get through the season and for your seed and your tools and such, and at the end of the season when the crop was sold, the idea was that the money would be divided up and it would pay back your debt to the landowner and then you would end up with some cash for yourself. The reality for millions of sharecroppers who got sucked into the system of peonage was that in reality the landowner always came up with a list of debts that was greater than whatever had been received from the crop.

But that's a part of this, and I talk about Pete Daniels' book in my book. The thing that I would say is that what many historians in the past have not fully recognized is that - there's been a tendency to look at this period of time as many separate things, that peonage was happening over here, racial violence was happening over here, the prison leasing system was happening in another place, the intimidation of blacks from voting is happening in another place. Much of the point in my book is that those were not separate phenomenons. Those were all part of a very complicated system that was designed to intimidate the millions of black people living in the South right up until the verge of World War II.

CONAN: And what about Ouzel's other point that this was seemingly persistent into the 1980s?

Mr. BLACKMON: Well, that's right, and there were - and there had been prosecutions on the statute that outlaws peonage and, you know, scattered prosecutions into the '50s and the '60s and right up to the case that he talks about in the 1980s. But the point I would make though is that what I write about was a phenomenon that oppressed a vast, vast population, really the majority of African-Americans who live in the Untied States up until World War II were affected by this in some explicit way.

What came after World War II, for many reasons, including - and I talk about this in the book - that in 1942, partly in response to fears of Japanese propaganda, President Roosevelt ordered that the Department of Justice, for the first time, take seriously the reality that slaves were still being held in the South. And the Department of Justice mounted a serious criminal prosecution against a family in Texas for holding a man named Alfred Irving(ph) as a slave for many years, and that the father and the daughter and that family were convicted and sent into prison. That was the first serious effort, for 50 years really, to prosecute someone for holding slaves and that was the beginning of the end of this massive system but it certainly the case that there were incidents - terrible incidents like the one the caller describes, they continued for many decades after that.

CONAN: Ouzel, thanks very much.

OUZEL: Well, thank you all very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Let's see if we can go to Valerie(ph). Valerie is on the line with us from San Francisco in California.

VALERIE (Caller): Oh, hi.

CONAN: Hi there.

VALERIE: I actually took the opportunity to read one of his two books on slavery that I'm reading right now. And I really enjoy your book, sir.

Mr. BLACKMON: Thank you.

VALERIE: I just have a couple of questions. How surprised were you to learn that women were part of this slavery network as well? And that comes up in the book. And we don't hear very much about women convicts and used as slaves.

Mr. BLACKMON: That's true, there were women in the system and I write about that periodically. It's a horrifying aspect, frankly, of all these. Women were a tiny minority among those who were sucked into this system but when they were, the part of what was happening was that there were what we taught of it at the time, women's roles which were needed in these industrial settings as washer women and cooks and various other roles that were needed to help provide the food and the other necessities of these prison mines and prison camps, slave camps. And so there was a need for women in the system and so there women ended up in the system. Sadly, there were also terrible sexual predations that were perpetrated against many, many women.

VALERIE: And you mentioned that some of these companies that the slaves work for were actually the precursor to some of the Fortune 5,000 companies that we're familiar with now.

Mr. BLACKMON: That's right, the - and I'm glad you brought that up because I hope that one of the things that readers will take away from this book is that this isn't just a sort of arcane history about things that happened a long time ago. The reason that I was moved by the things that I found to write the book was that I think that these events tell us much more about why things are the way they are in America today than the slavery that preceded the Civil War. And I mean that in two ways. One is that the reality is that slavery - honest to God slavery in which black Americans were unable to begin the activities of freedom that would allow them to build wealth and over generations move into the kind of middle-class status that most white families have today. That process couldn't begin until 80 years later than most of us have generally believed.

But the other side of that is that many of the biggest corporations in the South and some of the wealthiest families in America, the source of their wealth and the origins of some of these companies relates back to these events at the beginning of the 20th century.

And one other thought on that is that, in the book, I - that goes to some length to say none of this is intended to reflect poorly on the descendents of those people today or even on companies that have some connection back to these events. But my point is that there are tangible connections between these events and today including that the bricks that line the sidewalks in my neighborhood in Grant Park were made by slave laborers at a place called Chattahoochee Brick Company on the outskirts of Atlanta in the early 1900s. There's a real connection between our lives today and these events and we need to come to terms with those connections.

CONAN: The other connection you make is the hostility that so many African-Americans feel toward the justice system in this country based, you believe at least in part, on this history of trumped-up, non-existent charges that could take people away into forced labor for years.

Mr. BLACKMON: Well, that's right. One thing that became clear to me in the course of working on this book and in conversations with living people who connect back to some of these events is, number one, almost no one understands that these events occurred whether they were black or white. And in fact, it's obvious why whites generally have tended to minimize these events. It's less obvious why African-Americans would but the truth is that many, many African-Americans for a very long time tried hard to forget the humiliations and the tragedies of many of these years. At the same time, one cannot read this book and have any question as to why an ingrained sense of suspicion and hostility toward the judicial system became a fundamental element of African-American perspectives.

CONAN: Valerie, thanks very much.

VALERIE: Thank you very much.

CONAN: We're talking with Douglas Blackmon about "Slavery by Another Name." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go to Steve(ph). Steve joins us from Oakland, California.

STEVE (Caller): Hi. Yes, excellent book. The recentness of all this I think is a premise why as to why the business of the Civil War isn't accomplished to this very day. There was an earlier comment about how the laws were available to be used and were used against white labor as well including immigrant labor, which strikes me as a little besides the point because this system that - of slavery by another name that's being described together worked hand in hand with extralegal terror to prevent labor organizations, black and white. You know, blacks were supposed to be free laborers after the Civil War. And as you know, this obviously didn't happen. As far as I know only the IWW tried to organize integrated organizations, the CIO paid some lip service and did a little bit, but I don't think made any serious attempt and…

CONAN: Douglas Blackmon…

STEVE: …and there wasn't a lot of it because of this legal system that worked hand in hand with extralegal terror.

CONAN: And, Douglas Blackmon, you do write indeed about that but also about the experiences of a black organizer, I think, his name was Henry - I'm losing the last name - but he came to this area of Alabama, I think, in the 1940s and talked to people who were describing this system and how it worked and the abuses they suffered and he simply didn't believe it.

Mr. BLACKMON: That's right. In the epilogue of the book, there's a dialog with an African-American man who worked in the coal mines of Alabama beginning in the 1930s or the 1940s and spent all of his adult life there. And there are very few people alive today who have any kind of living memory of anyone associated with these events. But this was one person who, coal miners who were very young men in Alabama in the 1930s worked in coal mines with old men who had been forced into the coal mines in an earlier time under these circumstances. And so some of those men have some recollections of the stories they would hear. And there was this figure that you - who you mentioned - who I questioned in some length about whether he had heard accounts of this work that I was beginning to resurface. And after a long time, he finally said, yes, I heard stories like that but I never gave it any credence, and that was coming from an African-American man. And I guess to the point that I was making a moment ago, which is that for many, many people, these events are so horrifying, so terrorizing that both whites and blacks preferred not to remember them.

But a point in this book is that I think we really can't have a shared vision for the future in our country unless we're willing to be honest about them and dredge them back up even if that maybe uncomfortable to do.

CONAN: And connections not only to companies that me might own stock in or memories of our ancestors who may have fought on one side or the other in the Civil War but memories that - well, you're personally involved in this too not just the bricks around the corner from your house?

Mr. BLACKMON: Well, that's true. That isn't why I - that's the reason why I began on the book but I was surprised to find myself connected to the book in ways that I hadn't expected. But to back up a little bit, I was born in the Mississippi Delta in the fall of 1964 just after Freedom Summer, when Schwerner, Goodman and Cheney were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan and there were churches burning all over Mississippi and the Deep South was, you know, the darkest years of the Civil Rights era were beginning. And then when I began first grade in a little cotton town, I was in the first class of children in Mississippi where blacks and whites began school together and went through 12 years of education together. And so as long as I can remember, I've been digging around trying to understand these things. And as I dug into the book, I also eventually found my own family tying back to the place and some of the people in this book back in Alabama.

CONAN: Douglas Blackmon, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. BLACKMON: Thank you.

CONAN: Douglas Blackmon's book is "Slavery by Another Name." He joined us from the studios of Georgia Public Radio in Atlanta.

Coming up, we'll hear from you, your letters and columnist Meghan Daum examines the connection between body shots in Cancun and confidence for young women. That's next on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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