Slavery by Another Name, by Douglas A. Blackmon

I recently finished reading this book, subtitled “The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.” In my opinion, every person who wants to understand the heavy weight of racism on the United States today would do well to read this book.

The profound mistrust of the U.S. criminal justice system among African Americans is rooted in the system of convict labor documented by Douglas Blackmon. That system is at the root of the persistent huge and growing chasm between rich and poor and Black and white in the United States. It is at the root of the new wave of mass incarcerations of Black and Latino men and women.

Convict slave labor of the post-Civil War South was not only very profitable. It was absolutely indispensable to corporations for breaking any strike that might have been attempted by free workers. Scabs did not have to be recruited. Convict slaves simply replaced strikers. The whip replaced wages.

A PBS documentary based on the book narrated by Lawrence Fishburne won Official Selection of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. In my opinion, the film’s dramatizations fail to convey the horrors of the conditions, torture, disease and death in the slave labor camps of the South documented by Blackmon. To depict the murders, beatings, starvation and conditions under which the “new slaves” of the post Civil War South lived and labored would not have been possible on public television. (The documentary can be viewed at

I am not a new to the struggle against racism. One could say I was born into it – as a child of 12 I left Louisville Kentucky with my mother in 1954, fleeing from the racist repression of the state that had charged and convicted Carl Braden with conspiracy to overthrow the state government by selling a house in a white suburb to an African-American family.

I had heard about the convict leasing system in the South, through which men and women,
overwhelmingly African American, were sentenced to hard labor. More recently the works of Angela Davis and Michelle Alexander have noted the continuity between the convict leasing system and the current mass incarceration of African Americans.

I was unprepared, however, for the scope and barbarity of this system documented by Blackmon. The new slaves numbered in the hundreds of thousands. They were rented out to work in mines, mills, quarries, factories, and plantations. Their “contracts” were bought and sold as had been their forbearers under chattel slavery. Corporate slave enterprises built the wealth of the “new” southern capitalist class. Many were later taken over by Wall Street banks and corporations such as U. S. Steel. Their true history has been erased.

In its place we have the mythology taught in our schools as U. S. history which covers up this crime. It not only white-washes ante-bellum slavery, suggesting that “only a few” slave owners were cruel. The official mythology acknowledges that slavery was wrong, but tells us that it was eliminated at the end of the Civil War. It tells us that the freed slaves were not equipped for democracy, that they tended toward idleness, lust and crime and required the kind and gentle hand of white men to help them improve.

I always understood and rejected this mythology as an attempt to justify chattel slavery and jim crow segregation. However, Blackmon makes it clear, that this was the rationale for maintaining a slave system long after it was presumably banished by the 13th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution in 1865. The convict leasing system re-enslaved tens of thousands of free men and women who were Black.

Any white person could accuse any Black person of any “crime,” including vagrancy (being alive with no money or proof of a job), gambling, drinking, swearing, being impolite to a white person, and very commonly, breaking a contract, or failure to pay a debt. A local justice of the peace would “hold court” and find the victim guilty. A fine would be assessed plus court costs. A representative of a corporate mine, factory, or plantation would pay the fine plus costs, and the victim would be forced to make his mark on a contract to work for the enterprise for a set period in order to pay off the debt. At the end of the contract the prisoner would often have incurred new debts, fines, or costs. Often the only escape was through death.

The contract would require the purchaser to keep the prisoner locked up, often permanently in chains. There were no requirements for food and clothing, and many starved and died from exposure. No punishment was off-limits. Whippings and beatings were standard punishments for failing to meet production quotas. There were no exceptions for the sick, or those injured by the beatings. Many convict slaves were whipped multiple times in a day. If a beating disabled a convict he was often shot and killed. The owner would simply order more convict slaves from the local sheriff or justice of the peace.

The system established and reinforced a culture in which being Black was to be a criminal. It was transformed into the current system of mass incarceration of African Americans, which has been aptly dubbed the “new jim crow.” This system has terrorized African Americans for over 8 generations after slavery purportedly ended, and barred them from almost all paths of upward mobility such as those open to European and other immigrants.

Thousands were literally worked to death in these slave labor camps. Mortality rates as high as 30 per cent were common. Unlike chattel slaves, who had to be bought and were a “capital investment,” convict slaves could be “rented” for a few dollars a month. When they died they were easily replaced. The bodies of thousands lie buried in unmarked graves. Many were never recorded as having been charged or convicted of any crime. Many were effectively nameless, lost to their families from whom they were stolen when they disappeared into the maw of the new slavery.

Conditions in the slave labor camps of the factories, mines, mills and fields of the “new” South compare with those in the Nazi slave labor camps during World War II. Unlike Europe’s Jews and others targeted by the Nazis, the victims of the new American slavery were usually illiterate and without connections or influence. Their capture and lease as convict slave laborers was often unrecorded. They were often nameless to their masters. Their families lived in such terror that they did not talk about what happened. The new slaves of the United States in the South and their graves just disappeared into the mists of history.

The official mythology is so pervasive that recently Rodney Mims Cook, Jr., a noted architect whose family is descended from James English, one of the leading corporate slavers, is campaigning for a monument in downtown Atlanta in tribute to the “great families” that pioneered and built the city after the Civil War, including English, Joel Hurt and others whose fortunes were built through large scale industrial use of slave labor.

Blackmon, a white native of the South and Wall Street Journal Atlanta Bureau Chief, spent years reconstructing the history of these men and women and the system that enslaved them, combing the scant records that were kept and interviewing surviving family members. He lays out the social and political debt that the United States as a nation owes to the people of African descent who were kept in a state of slavery and racist repression past well 1945, within the memory of many people still living today. Indeed, chain gangs of slave convict laborers did not completely end in the U. S. until 1955, and some states have re-introduced them since 1995, notably Alabama and Arizona.

Blackmon notes that “U. S. Law is unequivocal that the deaths of executives who were responsible for dubious actions don’t end a company’s legal obligations.” Blackmon establishes in chilling detail the social costs of four centuries of racism and slavery. These costs are a debt that must be paid by our society as a whole.

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