“Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II” (2012) is a PBS television documentary based on the 2008 book of the same name by Douglas A. Blackmon, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. The book won a Pulitzer Prize for journalism.
After the American civil war (1861-1865) the slaves were freed. Northerners tried to make the South right during Radical Reconstruction (1866-1874). But in the 1870s they lost interest and the South sank into nearly a hundred years of white-only rule known as Jim Crow: the Klan, lynchings, separate and unequal – and slavery by another name:
There were four forms of forced black labour from 1874 to 1942:
- convict leasing – where companies, like US Steel, hire prison labour from state and county governments. As demand for labour increased, like just before a cotton harvest, so did arrests. Crimes that once carried a fine now carried a prison term. Black life was criminalized. Being unemployed, for example, became the crime of “vagrancy”. Blacks accounted for a third of the South but nearly 90% of its prisoners. Most blacks were arrested on vague or trumped-up charges. The stereotype about blacks and crime comes from this period.
- peonage – where you are forced to work for a particular employer till a debt is paid off. Landowners did not have to prove that someone owed them a debt, so sometimes they just made stuff up to get workers.
- chain gangs – prisoners chained together doing work for state and county governments, like road repair. They were a common sight in the South, reaching their height from 1905 to 1935.
- sharecropping – where you work on another’s land getting a share of the crops raised. If you left the land, the police could arrest you and bring you back.
Convict leasing was the worst: at some Alabama prison camps the death rate was 30% to 40% a year: prisoners had no way to protest or leave bad working conditions while employers, unlike slave owners, had no interest in their long-term health: if a prisoner died, they could always get another one the next day at no added cost. It also made it easy to prevent or break labour strikes, keeping wages low even for whites. For black men it meant they could be pulled off the street never to be seen again by their family as they were worked to death in a coal mine.
To white Northerners peonage was the most shocking: while they did not care much for blacks, peonage was beyond the pale – to them it was slavery in all but name. President Theodore Roosevelt tried to end it, but soon lost interest. His distant cousin, President Franklin Roosevelt, did end it at last in 1942 – the year, Blackmon says, that slavery formally came to an end in the United States.
The documentary makes no comment on the mass incarceration of black men in our own time.