I finally decided to read Douglas A. Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. My reluctance was twofold: On the one hand I already have a short stack of books to read on slavery and race and didn’t feel a need to add to it. More to the point, however, I am usually quite skeptical about reading history books by journalists. They are typically good writers, but tend to gloss over important analytical points that can only be discerned by reading through a selection of the secondary literature. Well, the other day my wife shared a review of the book that was published in a German newspaper and my interest was piqued. After three days of reading this book I have to say that I am emotionally drained. Blackmon examines the steps taken after the war in the South to control the black population, maintain white supremacy, and provide an economic boost to lumber camps, coal mines, brickyards, railroads, quarries, and farm plantations. By the turn of the century every state in the South, except Virginia, had instituted laws that allowed local and state law enforcement to lease prisoners [Blackmon argues that over 90% were black] to these companies. Violations included vagrancy, raising one’s voice in front of white women and a host of other minor offenses. The leasing out was usually the result of the inability to pay a fine/debt and once the transaction was made company owners were given complete control of the prisoner. Blackmon argues that upwards of 200,000 African Americans fell victim to this hideous practice. Check out the website for the book which includes an overview of the author’s argument as well as a selection of photographs from these forced labor camps.
Blackmon structures his book around the Cottenham family, beginning with Green Cottenham who was arrested in 1908 on charges of vagrancy and forced to work for a company in Birmingham, Alabama owned by U.S. Steel. He worked in a mine called Slope No. 12 where, like many others, he died. From there the author traces the history of the family going back to the early nineteenth century. Along the way Blackmon does an excellent job of situating the family’s story in the broader context of the Civil War and Reconstruction as well as early slave-leasing practices, which began before the war as states like Alabama focused more and more on mining and iron production. It is hard to believe that this practice continued into the 1940s and was only stopped for fear that it would aid the Nazis in their claims of racial abuse within the United States.