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

February 13, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
A new PBS documentary called "Slavery by Another Name" tells the story of the adapted forced labor practices that helped extend slavery long after the end of the Civil War. Gwen Ifill speaks with Douglas Blackmon, the film's co-executive producer, about this largely forgotten piece of history and the forces that propelled it.

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.


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.