The heightened tensions throughout the country following the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland and so many others (just so many) has made race perhaps the defining issue of our times. But it’s impossible to say this is surprising or new for anyone who’s been paying attention. What is going on now has been a continual flashpoint in our nation’s history; at times it’s been relegated to a dull throb in the background of our consciousness, at others it’s been a raging torrent of hate and violence. Racial tension has been the common thread that has tied our nation together, and the blade that has torn it apart.
It’s not enough that Blackmon sets up a theme (that slavery continued well into the 20th century in the form of debt peonage and the convict lease program) and follows it up with indisputable evidence, he absolutely hammers his thesis against the blinders we as a society have turned against the long, terrible silence between Emancipation and the Civil Rights movement. He doesn’t just trace how antebellum America transformed into Jim Crow America, he articulates in vivid detail how white society actively pursued a continuation of slavery against its black citizenry, and masked the carefully orchestrated obfuscation of the amended Constitution so that it appeared as though black people simply weren’t ready for freedom. The narrative is ostensibly framed around a man named Green Cottenham. The son of slaves, he was arrested in 1908 for vagrancy (which basically meant he was accosted and found incapable of proving he had a job) and sold to a mining company, where he was worked to death.
Cottenham’s story, though tragic, really just serves as the path by which we are shown how Southern society systematically usurped the rights of blacks so that the antebellum status quo of white supremacy could be maintained. Plantation owners, using judges and the local constabulary (abetted by state legislatures) to oppress and terrorize African Americans, and they did so while Republicans in the North conveniently looked away. With Emancipation and the passage of the 13th amendment, Abolition effectively died a quiet and ignoble death. It was replaced with the cold indifference national healing.
What I found especially galling is the development of law enforcement in the South as a tool of oppression by which white society could lubricate the engine of American racism. Jails were relatively small and prisons weren’t typically designed to house large inmate populations for extended periods of time. The law existed mainly to ensure that people who had been wronged were compensated. In the post-Civil War South, however, and the development of the Black Codes, the law became a tool by which the state could actively pursue, terrorize, and subdue the now freed slaves. The Convict Lease program allowed Southern states to do this increasingly to their financial gain: selling convicts (mostly black, and typically convicted of petty or invented crimes) to plantation owners and companies. They were brutalized by overseers who used the same methods perfected by slave owners and were often kept in bondage for years (to pay off “debts” incurred, such as reimbursing their masters for medical treatment or clothing). At a time when tax revenue was relatively low, states realized that convict leasing not only provided bountiful free labor, but could earn local governments a tidy profit.
I can’t, in good conscience, give this book a rating. It’s not simply “good” or “bad”. I think it’s necessary reading for any American wanting to understand how we got the point we’ve found ourselves. Slavery By Another Name doesn’t give the whole story, and it doesn’t cover every stretch of road that got us here, but it grapples with a significant period of history that often gets overlooked. The era is book-ended by the two most discussed periods in the Struggle, and it is perhaps for this reason that this is a time of forgotten torment. If everyone is focusing on the Civil War and Civil Rights, it’s no wonder that the eighty years between them will get overlooked.
But it’s a time that shouldn’t be forgotten, and I think we would all be improved with a little deeper understanding.