DeBlasio on Blackmon’s “Slavery By Another Name”

This review, of a book which seems to deepen our understanding of the themes we explored in Birmingham, appeared in the History News Network:

Donna M. DeBlasio: Review of Douglas A. Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (Anchor Books, 2008)

[Donna M. DeBlasio is an Associate Professor of History and Applied History at Youngstown State University.]

Almost any American will tell you that the Civil War finally brought an end to slavery in the United States. As Douglas A. Blackmon demonstrates in his powerful book Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, slavery, in all its cruelty and inhumanity lasted much longer beyond the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution than is generally believed. In this meticulously detailed account, Blackmon presents the horrifying story of the virtual re-institution of slavery in the post-Civil War South. He uses hundreds of primary sources, including manuscripts and oral histories to document this part of the American past that has been long buried and ignored. While Blackmon focuses on the Black Belt of Alabama, he demonstrates that this phenomenon was widespread in the South.

Blackmon became interested in tracing the history of Green Cottenham, the child of two former slaves, one of whom belonged to the Cottingham family in Bibb County, Alabama. Cottenham was arrested for vagrancy in 1908 in Shelby County, Alabama, and then sold to a subsidiary of U.S. Steel, the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company, for $12 a month, until Cottenham’s fees were paid. The young man was forced to mine coal at Slope #12 near Birmingham; his quota was eight tons per day. If he did not do what was required, he was brutally beaten. Cottenham, and the other African Americans who toiled in the mines under forced labor conditions, had no recourse and little hope of freedom. In trying to find out exactly what happened to Cottenham, Blackmon reveals the histories of the thousands of African American who were forced to work in coal mines, at iron and steel mills, in the turpentine industry and in lumber operations, as well as on cotton plantations. While the abuses of the sharecropping system are well-known, they have rarely been seen as a part of the larger picture of forced labor and the virtual re-enslavement of the South’s African American population.

There was some attempt in the early twentieth century to bring a modicum of justice to African Americans. In 1903, the U.S. Secret Service, at the request of the U.S. Department of Justice, began an investigation into reports about black men being held in a system of peonage in Alabama. Several of the most egregious practitioners of re-enslaving African Americans were indicted in the process, including Robert Franklin, who was accused of holding a man in slavery and John Pace, who ran one of the most notorious slave farms in the region. The sadistic William Eberhart who was accused of holding blacks in a state of peonage used as his defense that no “federal statute specifically made it a crime to hold a person in slavery.” (173) While a number of the defendants received either fines or jail time or both for pleading “guilty” the trials merely fanned the flames of racism and made the forced labor system even more violent and intractable.

While the South engaged in this new system of slavery, the complicity of the North in allowing the region to handle race relations cannot be ignored. Indeed, northern based companies, particularly U.S. Steel, which held subsidiaries in the South, were some of the worst offenders. The official biography of Judge Elbert H. Gary, president of U. S. Steel, indicated that Gary claimed he was “outraged” when he learned that the company’s Alabama mines used slave labor and ordered the head of Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad to end the practice immediately. (335) As Blackmon notes, Gary may have believed this, but in truth “slaves remained at work” in the coal mines (335) In truth, Gary did not end the reliance on slave labor but did institute some minor improvements in the lives of the workers that dropped the annual death toll by 1911 to eighteen. Clearly, the system of collusion where African Americans were arrested almost on site and their services sold to the highest bidder, was extremely profitable for the government entities that sold their labor and the people and companies that purchased these human beings.

With the mechanization of farming and in industries like coal mining, this labor system became less profitable. It was, as Blackmon notes, replaced with the enforced labor of the chain gang system. It was only when the United States became engaged in fighting the Axis powers in World War II that there was a stimulus to finally end the system of slavery. Ironically, it was the fear that our enemies would use the treatment of African Americans as a propaganda tool that was one of the prime reasons for government action. Coupled with the valiant service of African Americans during World War II, the pressure to ensure that this evil would never again be perpetrated resulted in a series of federal laws to do just that. Blackmon, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Non-fiction for Slavery by Another Name, presents a complex history that needs to become a part of the national narrative.

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