Douglas A. Blackmon won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in General Non-fiction for Slavery by Another Name – The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. In a brief interview yesterday with the AJC’s Jennifer Brett, Blackmon said:
I hope that the real relevance of the book is to advance the idea that if we really want to understand America in terms of race, we have to be much more honest about the terrible things that were happening in the early 20th century. There are some people out there who are saying now that we have a black president, we don’t need to argue over the grievances of the past again and again. I don’t think that argument holds much water. Maybe the election of a black president signals we’re in a time now that people are capable of talking about the past.
“Slavery By Another Name” recounts the little-known story of how in the decades after President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation to free slaves, hundreds of thousands of black Americans were re-enslaved as convict laborers.
Author Douglas Blackmon said on Tuesday the story was “absolutely essential” to understanding why a U.S. racial divide still exists and why the country’s black minority lags behind the rest of the population in terms of economic and social health.
When the book was released, Blackmon told Michael Slate on KPFK, Los Angeles, why he calls the Jim Crow era “the age of neo-slavery:
[B]eginning at the end of the 19th century and continuing up into World War 2, as a country we have shared in a national instinct to have a sort of collective amnesia, or at a minimum, a minimization of the reality of the things that really happened to African Americans all across the South in that period of time. And one aspect of that minimizing the offenses of this period, has been to call it the Jim Crow era. Now I don’t think that’s what people intended when it began to be known as that, but in hindsight, that’s fairly clear to me. Jim Crow was a character that was played, in the beginning, by a particular actor who would perform in blackface and do comedy routines that were meant to denigrate Black Americans. Before the Civil War that became an incredibly popular form of entertainment.
After the Civil War, Jim Crow came to define the entertainment of that era, and the symbolism of Blacks in the South. I liken that to our calling the 1930s in Germany, if we named that period of time after the most popular anti-Semitic comedian of Germany at that time. I think we would all recognize that that was an offensive way to refer to that period in history. The reality, what Slavery by Another Name demonstrates, I think, is that in truth, since the beginning of the 20th century, a new form of forced labor involving hundreds of thousands of people, and terrorizing hundreds of thousands of other people, had emerged in the South, that amounted to what I call “neo-slavery,” and we should call it what it was, the age of neo-slavery.
The Boston Globe review of the book explained how neo-slavery worked:
[It] involved exploiting the portion of the 13th Amendment allowing use of unfree labor “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” This subterfuge involved planters, mine owners, sheriffs, magistrates, legislators, other local officials, and, in time, large corporations, such as the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Co. (eventually a subsidiary of US Steel). Ultimately, thousands of African-Americans were convicted of often minor (and frequently trumped-up) crimes such as vagrancy, riding freight trains, disturbing the peace, petty theft, and nonpayment of an alleged debt.
While the fines imposed by the court for these crimes would frequently be small, much larger court costs far beyond the ability of the accused to pay would be levied. The convict would then be sentenced to hard labor and his or her contract sold to a planter or commercial concern. This system had the multiple utility of providing the states and municipalities (and individuals managing the buying and selling of contracts) with capital, employers with extraordinarily cheap labor, and the proponents of white power with a tool for the social control of African-Americans.
One of Blackmon’s most interesting points is that this sort of peonage was not an atavistic holdover from the antebellum period, but was in many respects a product of the “New South.” While many of these neo-slaves labored in agriculture, Blackmon shows that such coerced labor was a hallmark of the rise of postbellum Southern industry, notably in the transportation, mineral extraction, and iron and steel industries that turned Birmingham, Ala., into the “Pittsburgh of the South.”
On Radio Open Source Blackmon told Christopher Lydon how he came to the subject:
The way that I came to this was as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. And I had written a number of stories in the late 1990s that raise the question of what would happen if American corporations were subjected to an examination through the same lens of historical scrutiny that at that time German corporations and Swiss banks were being examined through in connection to slave labor during the Holocaust and the theft of Jewish fortunes left with Swiss banks. And that started me on a process of curiosity about both how the south – and the United States more generally — how differently it had forced itself to process the past, or not to process its own guilt, frankly, in the past, how differently that it happened in America then we had insisted on it happening in Europe.
And the same time it also made me think that American corporations who plays such a fundamentally integral role in the policing of the Jim Crow segregation laws and practices of American society in the first three quarters of the century, the corporations really had not ever been asked to go back. America never had a truth and reconciliation process to go back and wasn’t really even until 1990s that homicides of civil rights are being investigated and prosecuted. And so that that set me on a path of writing several stories that looked at some of these historical questions related to corporate conduct…
And that northern whites were complicit too:
[F]undamentally the practice that we’re talking about here was one element of a much larger phenomenon that occurred all across White society in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth in which northern Whites abandoned, for the most part, abandoned African Americans in the south. Northern Whites were tired of the long struggle to figure out how to integrate freed slaves and their descendants into American society, they were frustrated by it, it had paralyzed the national political process for decades… In the South, White southerners increasingly were demanding increasingly that they be allowed to settle quote unquote the negro question themselves, the vast majority of African Americans still lived in the South, and even though almost a full generation of African Americans had experienced legitimate, full-blown freedom in the aftermath of the Civil War, for thirty years or more after the Civil War, Blacks in enormous numbers participated in elections, voted as citizens, acquired property… what began to happen at the end of the nineteenth century was this crushing new phenomenon in which Whites in the North gave up on the whole process and made a decision that whites in the south we’re gong to be allowed to do whatever they wished.
In Newsweek we learn of the connection between the end of neoslavery and the beginning of World War II:
The end of neoslavery came as a direct result to the attack on Pearl Harbor. When President Franklin Roosevelt convened his cabinet to discuss retaliation, the main issue was propaganda and the Japanese ability to effectively embarrass America for the treatment of blacks in the South. Immediately President Roosevelt passed a congressional law criminalizing lynching. Four days after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. attorney general ordered a memorandum that instructed all federal prosecutors to aggressively prosecute all cases of involuntary servitude.
From Bill Moyers’ Journal, one legacy of neo-slavery:
There’s no way that anybody can read this book and come away still wondering why there is a sort of fundamental cultural suspicion among African-Americans of the judicial system, for instance. I mean, that suspicion is incredibly well-founded. The judicial system, the law enforcement system of the South became primarily an instrument of coercing people into labor and intimidating blacks away from their civil rights. That was its primary purpose, not the punishment of lawbreakers. And so, yes, these events build an unavoidable and irrefutable case for the kind of anger that still percolates among many, many African-Americans today.
Two other works on race were also awarded Pulitzers. Annette Gordon-Reed won the Pulitzer Prize in History for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, about a slave girl believed to have had an affair with Thomas Jefferson. The Pulitzer Prize for Drama was awarded to Lynn Nottage for the play Ruined, a piece about African women who survived the civil war in Congo.