In conversations with other white people, I often hear them say, “Slavery was so long ago. When are black people going to let the past be the past?” I used to respond by reminding them that the oppression of black people continued long after their emancipation in 1865. While that is certainly true, my response inadvertently reinforced a common white myth – that slavery was the worst of the black experience in America and things have progressively improved in the years since. Sadly, my recent studies of the black experience have taught me that there were things worse than slavery.
In recent weeks, I’ve been reading Douglas Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, Slavery by Another Name. Like many other books I’ve read this year, it deconstructs much of what I thought I knew about the black experience. Blackmon focuses his research and writing on the years following the end of the Reconstruction, when Southern whites systematically created a culture where blacks were returned to lives of servitude, violence and death.
In the 1870s, across the southern states, legislatures passed legal codes with the undisguised intention of returning people of color to a status as close to slavery as possible. Blacks were legally required to be employed, yet stripped of the right to quit a job. Those considered vagrant, which was a nearly impossible accusation for a black person to dispute, were arrested, charged fines they could not possibly pay and contracted by the state to farms, mines and factories. Thousands and thousands of black men, women and teens were caught in this trap. Indeed, eventually, white company agents would tour black communities, identify the strongest black men and hand that list to white sheriffs who would trump up charges. Since even speaking loudly around a white person was against the law, it wasn’t difficult to find an excuse to arrest someone. Eventually, even this artifice was abandoned. Blacks were simply arrested without any charge and sent off to prison.
All of this was possible because of an unfortunate loophole in the 13th Amendment, which forbid “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Essentially, white southerners made it nearly impossible for black people to avoid committing a crime. Once a crime of any type was charged, slavery and involuntary servitude was once again permissible.
Blackmon documents countless instances where black men and women received what essentially became life sentences for the most minor crimes. The companies that “contracted” to use these “criminals” in their farms, mines and factories were allowed to charge them for their food, clothing, lodging and medical care. The contracts allowed the companies to “extend the contracts until the criminal had paid their full debt.” For many black people, this meant never leaving those farms, mines or factories. Of course, for most of these “criminals,” a life sentence wasn’t very long. The conditions in these farms, mines and factories were so horrible that Alabama state inspectors found the mortality rate to be nearly 50% a year. This was something they reported, but saw no need to rectify.
In many ways, this system of oppression was even worse than slavery. It stripped a black person of something they had come to treasure – freedom. It actually treated black people with less respect that slavery. Since they were no longer seen as the property of a white person, they even lost those legal protections. During slavery, slaves had considerable economic value and losing a slave to illness, injury or death was a loss to a white person. Since a white person were financially compensated when this loss was caused by another white person, there was a certain macabre protection is being owned by a white person. In this new system of oppression, those who were arrested and sent to farms, mines and factories had no such protection. They were expendable, easily replaced by the next “criminal.” Complete devaluation was added to the abuse, torture and rape that had epitomized the slavery system.
This system existed unchecked in the southern United States until 1902 when President Theodore Roosevelt ordered the Secret Service to begin investigating rumors of “slavery and involuntary servitude” in the southern states. In the course of the investigation, President Roosevelt invited the prominent black spokesperson Booker T. Washington and his family to the White House for dinner. In his book, Blackmon chronicles the response of southern politicians. Senator Tillman of South Carolina said, “Now that Roosevelt has eaten with the nigger Washington, we shall have to kill a thousand niggers to keep them in their place.” The Governor the Georgia said, “No southerner can respect any white man who would eat with a negro.” The Memphis Press Scimitar called the meal, “the most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States.” This was the response of southern whites while Roosevelt’s investigators were uncovering the horror chambers that were southern farms, mines and factories.
In the ten years following Roosevelt’s first investigations, countless incidents of “slavery and involuntary servitude” were exposed across the south. Many white people were indicted. Most were found not guilty by all white juries. Several of the blacks who gave witness to their slavery and torture were murdered and lynched. Not a single white person was punished for these deaths. Southern state governors and legislatures resisted the courts at every step. Only the dogged determination of federal prosecutors challenged the status quo. Gradually, through one case after another, the underpinnings of contract slavery were slowly dismantled. By 1912, the practice of contracting black “criminals” to farms, mines and factories was reluctantly abandoned across the south.
This is not to suggest the criminalization of being black ended in America. Nor does this mean that black prisoners were not used by the state to do labor. However, what did end was a system that made the lives of many black people worse than slavery. No longer could a minor crime be used as justification for a lifetime of slavery and eventual death.
This history is important because we, as white people, need to understand that 1865 was not the low point in the black experience in America. It can easily be argued that the very worst time to be black in America was in about 1903. White people often say, “Slavery was so long ago,” without any understanding of when slavery ended. White people often ask, “When are black people going to let the past be the past?” without any understanding of the horrors of that past.
One of my deepest shocks in reading Blackmon’s book was how many names of famous families, companies and politicians I recognized. The cream of southern white culture was intricately involved in the system of industrial slavery. These family names adorn southern cities and streets. These companies remain southern mainstays. There are statues honoring many of these politicians across the south.
This white complicity in horror is what makes it so difficult for us to move on as a nation when it comes to issues of racism. We cannot, as a nation, both regret and celebrate the horrors of our past. We, as white people, must choose our heroes. Will they be those who resisted the emancipation and civil rights of people of color at every step or those who fought for them?
We who are white should not expect the black citizens of this country to forget the past until the white citizens of this country are finally ready to honestly acknowledge that past.