Tales Show How Slavery Lingered after Civil War (Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
“The genius of Blackmon’s book is that it illuminates both the real human tragedy and the profoundly corrupting nature of the Old South slavery as it transformed to establish a New South social order.”
By Steve Suitts
For the Journal-Constitution
In 2001, Douglas A. Blackmon, Southern bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal, wrote a long article about freed slaves and their descendents who were forced into brutal, dangerous work decades after the Civil War by an Alabama justice system in order to supply dirt-cheap labor for the state’s plantations, sawmills, mines and other industries often owned by Northern corporations. Now he’s written a 468-page book on the topic.
“Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II” is an important, ambitious account of the black men engulfed in a legal system operating for the white South’s pursuit of racial dominance and private profit. It weaves together a vast quantity of existing scholarship, interviews and archival records in order to tell the personal stories of black Southerners snared by the South’s interlocking systems of racial exploitation. These systems included “black codes” – laws enacted to criminalize, disfranchise and re-enslave freedmen; peonage or forced work to pay off often rigged debts; the fee-based judicial systems that manufactured crimes to produce forced labor; and the convict leasing systems that tortured and killed thousands serving time for all-too-often petty or bogus misdeeds.
The book begins with Green Cottenham on the day in 1908 when he was arrested for “vagrancy” in Shelby County, Ala. It follows him, his relatives and his ancestors from slavery to freedom and back into the captivity of legalized enslavement. With a Southerner’s knack for storytelling, Blackmon traces the experiences of the Cottenhams and the same-named white family, who once owned them, as the two clans constructed new lives. The author also tells in detail the tragic stories of other black men entrapped by legalized forms of new slavery, including some in and around Atlanta.
Blackmon has identified examples of how the new enslavement became the foundation of today’s wealth and privilege, including some major corporations, and he reveals some of the white men on both sides of the Mason & Dixon line who ruthlessly mastered these brutal, raw means of economic gain. The genius of Blackmon’s book is that it illuminates both the real human tragedy and the profoundly corrupting nature of the Old South slavery as it transformed to establish a New South social order.
There is a particularly telling moment when a Republican U.S. attorney in Teddy Roosevelt’s administration in 1903 is trying to prosecute white landowners in a Montgomery federal court for enslaving black men. Nearing 50 years after the passage of the 13th Amendment prohibiting slavery, the U.S. attorney realizes – to his and the readers’ astonished dismay – that there are no federal or state statues by which he can prosecute anyone for engaging in slavery in America.
The book, nonetheless, suffers occasionally from more ambitions than it can deliver. In portraying legal enslavement through personal stories, the book jumps a little too much from place to place, story to story, back and forth in time with a multitude of characters, digressions and family members. Among other things, the reader must keep up with “who is who” among almost 40 members of the Cottenham family (spelled three different ways)…
These shortcomings are distracting, but they do not diminish the book’s significance. As the epilogue reveals, “Slavery by Another Name” is more or less a personal quest of historical discovery for a white native of the Mississippi Delta trying to understand the real, living legacy of Southern slavery and Northern complicity. It is guided by the author’s unmasked honesty, prodigious research, good storytelling, and keen insight. It is a signal book about Southern enslavement after the Civil War and a painful, enduring reminder of the simple truth which Mississippi’s William Faulkner enshrined for all of America when he wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
—Steve Suitts, a lifelong Southerner, is an adjunct lecturer at the Institute for Liberal Arts of Emory University and author of Hugo Black of Alabama