A few nights ago, PBS showed a documentary that chilled me to the bone.
Slavery by Another Name is a documentary based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon. It details an often-overlooked chapter in African American history: the “convict lease” system that placed thousands of Southern Blacks in a state of virtual slavery after the Civil War.
When the Reconstruction occupation forces left the South in 1877, Southern whites retook state governments and forced Blacks into a secondary status. Part of this process was a series of laws that entrapped Black men under seemingly innocent conditions, such as looking at a white woman, walking on a railroad, etc.
Once in custody, these men faced exhorbitant fines and were forced to pay for the cost of their arrest. Unable to pay such “debts”, these prisoners are leased out to plantations, mines, brickyards, railroads, quarries, steel mills and road building contractors. State governments made millions in revenue leasing prison inmates to private companies as a source of cheap labor.
These men endured brutal conditions and backbreaking labor in a state of bondage thanks to a loophole in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which does not bar slavery in the case of punishment for a crime.
It was a system that persisted until World War II.
The video is a conversation that takes place at the National Museum of American History between Blackmon and Bernard and Shirley Kinsey about the book. For those unfamiliar with the period, the conversation is a real eye-opener to Blackmon’s award-winning research.
Also, read his book and watch the documentary. You’ll be just as shocked as I was.