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Slavery by Another Name

August 28, 2017

When I was asked to be on a panel discussing humanities and the liberal arts at my alma mater, I was excited and a little intimidated to discover that my fellow panelists will be a Pulitzer-prize-winning author and a former dean of the college. And what could a reader like me do except find a copy of the prize-winning book? This is why I recently read Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon.

Slavery by Another Name is a difficult book to read in that it describes all manner of inhumanity, but it is also so well-written that I couldn’t put it down. You know how people are always saying this or that work of history “reads like a novel”? I rarely find this to be true. This book, however, focuses on one historical character all the way through, and that gives it a bit of the suspense of a novel. We know what happens to the character, but we keep reading to find out why and how, as much as those questions can be answered.

The historical character is Green Cottenham, and his life is chosen to illustrate what happened to some of the babies born in freedom to former slaves, immediately after the Civil War ended in 1865:
“His voice, and that of millions of others, is almost entirely absent from the vast record of the era. Unlike the victims of the Jewish Holocaust, who were on the whole literate, comparatively wealthy, and positioned to record for history the horror that enveloped them, Cottenham and his peers had virtually no capacity to preserve their memories or document their destruction. The black population of the United States in 1900 was in the main destitute and illiterate. For the vast majority, no recordings, writings, images, or physical descriptions survive.”

To introduce the circumstances of Green’s life and death, the book’s focus widens a bit to a group of slave owners named Cottingham who lived in Shelby County, Alabama, and the many former slaves who called themselves by some variation of that last name. Blackmon, however, makes it clear that Shelby County is only one example of the many places in the south where black people were, virtually, re-enslaved by being sold (and often re-sold) into a gang of men used for manual labor from after the Civil War until the beginning of WWII.

Blackmon traces the origins of these sales to the Civil War, presenting as an example one of Green’s ancestors, a slave named Scipio whose skilled labor was “lent” by his master to the Shelby Iron Works during the war:
“The extraordinary value of organizing a gang of slave men to quickly accomplish an arduous manual task—such as enlarging a mine and extracting its contents, or constructing railroads through the most inhospitable frontier regions—became obvious during the manpower shortages of wartime.
Critical to the success of this form of slavery was dispensing with any pretense of the mythology of the paternalistic agrarian slave owner Labor here was more akin to a source of fuel than an extension of a slave owner’s familial circle. Even on the harshest of family-operated antebellum farms, slave masters could not help but be at least marginally moved by the births, loves, and human affections that close contact with slave families inevitably manifested.
But in the setting of industrial slavery—where only strong young males and a tiny number of female “washerwomen” and cooks were acquired, and no semblance of family interaction was possible—slaves were assets to be expended like mules and equipment.”

Blackmon counters generalizations about the years immediately following the Civil War with facts. Although “most scholars of American history have accepted that the repressive legal measures and violence of the post-Civil-War era were the result, at least in part, of the lawless behavior of freed slaves,” he points out that “the reality of crime in the era, based on the actual arrest records of many counties in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia, is that true crime was almost trivial in most places.” For example, “In the Bibb County of January 1878, where African Americans still had the legal right to vote, the biggest criminal threat to the peace of the county was a band of Gypsies” and “in neighboring Shelby County, the arrest log of 1878 shows only twenty-one prisoners brought to jail for the year.”

But “all of that transformed as the value of leasing black convicts became more apparent.” By 1881, forty-five prisoners were in the Shelby County jail during the month of November, and it “stayed a busy place from then on. A month rarely passed in which there were fewer than twenty prisoners. Charges such as vagrancy, adultery, using obscene or abusive language, and obtaining goods under false pretenses suddenly became common, and were almost always filed against African Americans.”

The effect of the 1883 ruling by the Supreme Court that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 would be enforced by states, rather than the Federal government, “was to open the floodgates for laws throughout the South specifically aimed at eliminating those new rights for former slaves and their descendants.” This was followed by the defeat of the Federal Election Bill of 1892, designed to protect black voting rights in the south but called by its opponents the “Force Bill” and more laws distributing most of the tax dollars to white schools. “The effect on blacks was catastrophic. Overnight, white schools came to receive the vast majority of all funds for education.” And he shows how in Alabama and Tennessee “as labor strife surged in the early 1890s, company officials privately worked on plans to shift even more of the company’s operations to captive forced laborers.”

By 1901, thanks to restrictive voting laws and rural practices by which “town mayors, justices of the peace, notaries public, and county magistrates had authority to convene trials and convict defendants of misdemeanor offenses,” it was common practice for “the Lease,” as most southerners generically called the new system for seizing and selling African Americans,” to be used to send any black man found simply walking down the street to work in the mines or in timber and turpentine operations. This system worked so well that even the efforts of Federal judges to prosecute some of the worst offenders for “peonage” went nowhere because “tens of thousands of black workers were at labor in Alabama under contracts signed when a white man ‘confessed judgement’ for an arrested black man—paying his ‘fines’ before any prosecution commenced and receiving in return a signed contract for labor” and “thousands more African American laborers were being forced to work in mines and timber camps under similar contracts signed between county governments and the state of Alabama itself.”

One of the most horrifying revelations, for a reader (perhaps especially one who grew up in a town where, in the 1970s, the public library still didn’t have a copy of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin) is how much “a whole new genre of fiction extolling the antebellum South and an idealized view of slavery became immensely popular” at the beginning of the twentieth century. Novels by Joel Chandler Harris and Thomas Nelson Page swayed popular white sentiment, along with what Blackmon calls “mistranslation” of Darwin’s ideas about evolution. By 1903, Blackmon observes, “Southerners particularly reveled at gruesome scenes of racial violence that occurred outside their region, affirming the hypocrisy of those Yankee critics who still criticized racial conditions in the former Confederacy.”

There are a veritable plethora of gruesome descriptions of torture in this book, and it’s disturbing to imagine that people who could do such things—or even watch them–existed (at one point, readers are given an awful hint about how terrible the penalties for an escape attempt from one mine must have been, in that we’re told one of the younger white mine employees committed suicide the next day). My own recent experiences–finding out about the appalling dedication speech for the statue of “Silent Sam” on the UNC campus, seeing the popularity of clickbait articles with video of a cheerleading coach forcing young girls to do “the splits,” and witnessing the presidential pardon of former sheriff Joe Arpaio–add to my fear that there are still people not only capable of but even enthusiastic about watching acts of cruelty.

In 1905, a new novel, The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon fueled Ku Klux Klan violence, especially when it was turned into a stage play and began “an epic, record-breaking run of performances followed in theater halls across the South, Midwest, and Northeast.” The film version of this play, Birth of a Nation (1915) was the first full-length silent movie in America.

By 1911, “the new slavery of Alabama achieved its zenith. Three massive industrial concerns—U.S. Steel’s Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad unit, Sloss- Sheffield, and now Pratt Consolidated—competed mercilessly for forced laborers. Other industrial concerns stood ready to step in if any major player receded. The system arrived at a cynical optimum of economic harmony, knitting together the interests of capitalists, white farmers, local sheriffs and judges, and advocates of the most cruel white supremacy—all joined and served by an unrelenting pyramid of intimidation.”

The thing that makes this book so valuable, even for casual conversation fodder, is that it gives evidence and produces statistics for things that many Americans sort of know and, in some cases, have tried to deny. It points out that “slavery, real slavery, didn’t end until 1945—well into the childhoods of the black Americans who are only now reaching retirement age.”

If you’re an American who has never had to think much about your race–especially if you live in an ivory tower or in a fog (as my friends have sometimes said of me)–then you need to read this book and find out more about how racial issues from the early twentieth century still contribute to the fears and angers of the present day, from the reasons many black Americans don’t trust anyone connected with our judicial system to the controversies over “confederate” monuments erected decades after the end of the Civil War.

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. August 28, 2017 4:25 am

    I also thought this book was excellent and very important for people to read.

    • August 28, 2017 7:47 am

      Still way too timely, for a book published in 2008, isn’t it?

  2. August 28, 2017 7:55 am

    Putting it on the list. Just a couple days ago, I got a bizarre email from a publisher promoting books about how good Civil-War era Southerners were to their black friends and how “history has been written by the winners of wars.” True, in a sense — and yet how warped is this response.

    I think we have a long way to go to truly face, comprehend, and redeem the wrongs of our history and I’m grateful for books like this that can help.

    • August 28, 2017 8:01 am

      Yes.
      Your email offer makes me think (as I often do) of David Sedaris’ line about slavery in “Six to Eight Black Men”: “I think history has proven that something usually comes between slavery and friendship, a period of time marked not by cookies and quiet times beside the fire but by bloodshed and mutual hostility.”

  3. Elizabeth Johnson permalink
    August 28, 2017 1:21 pm

    You might also like–well not like, it’s hard to read–the book The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. My mother gave me the book for my birthday, and it covers the migration of African-Americans from the deep south from 1916 to 1970. Eye-opening, disturbing yet necessary to read IMO.

    • September 1, 2017 9:24 pm

      I may have to check that one out soon. I also have my eye on The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward Baptist.

  4. August 28, 2017 7:01 pm

    Oh wow, I didn’t know this book was set in Shelby County. Jesus, plus ca change, huh? This in the twentieth century, and then the Shelby v. Holder case in the twenty-first. I get tired of listening to people talk nonsense about “the race card” when racial subjugation is so palpably still with us. Thank you for reading this and telling us about it! ❤

    • September 1, 2017 9:26 pm

      I don’t know much about Alabama, so my impressions of it have come mainly from reading To Kill a Mockingbird. Lately those impressions don’t seem as dated as I thought they were.

  5. August 28, 2017 9:54 pm

    Terrific review. I only learned a little bit about this leasing practice last year by reading Yaa Gyasi’s amazing novel Homegoing. One of the chapters deals with this. What I don’t understand is, why did it take me 39 years to learn about this? Why aren’t kids learning this is high school? Think what a difference it might make to have the knowledge of ongoing racial injustice beyond the end of slavery? So many people have an attitude of “Get over it, that was 150 years ago. Well , no – systemic oppression most certainly did not end with slavery. Thanks for writing about this book.

    • September 1, 2017 9:28 pm

      I have Homegoing on my pile of books I mean to read soon.
      I’ve had the same question in the back of my mind about some of this–why didn’t I ever read about this before? But then, as I’ve said, I grew up in a town where you still couldn’t check out certain influential books from the public library.

  6. Jenny permalink
    August 30, 2017 12:26 am

    This sounds so valuable. I am not sure slavery has ended even now, considering what happens with enforced labor in jail.

    • September 1, 2017 9:29 pm

      Yes, the Michelle Alexander book The New Jim Crow is an interesting follow-up to this book, historically. I read it first, though, and its revelations may have prepared me for reading this one.

  7. August 31, 2017 8:17 pm

    Sounds like a good read. I just picked up the 2016 Pulitzer winner, about the rise of ISIS, and feel like I’d say similar things in it reading like a novel. I love nonfiction, but I also don’t find that comment to be accurate too often.

    • September 1, 2017 9:33 pm

      Well, maybe I’ll have to try reading Black Flags soon. I have never loved nonfiction before, but in the past year I’ve started reading more of it. And fewer poems. I want to think more and feel less.
      Thanks for validating my impression that nonfiction really doesn’t read “like a novel” that often!

  8. September 4, 2017 12:20 pm

    Some historians argue that this is the period when the South won the war, They certainly changed the narrative in any case. The very few times I’ve had to teach U.S. history I present General Sherman as the “Liberator of Georgia” which I believe is how we should remember him. Even though the slaves had largely freed themselves by the time his army started marching through.

    Thanks for this informative review.

    • September 4, 2017 2:16 pm

      Wow. “Liberator of Georgia” huh? That is not the way he was presented when I read about him (growing up in southern Missouri and Arkansas). I remember reading Cynthia Bass’ novel Sherman’s March as an adult and reacting to it as a more nuanced view than I’d heard before.

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