Review: Essential History

Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II
Douglas A. Blackmon
Random House, 468 pages

Anyone with the slightest interest in the history of the United States ought to read Slavery by Another Name, Douglas Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning account of how slavery was re-established in the South shortly after the end of Reconstruction. Steel companies, mining operations, large farms, and turpentine producers all purchased thousands of Black prisoners over the course of decades. The men (and some women) did the most dangerous work with virtually nothing in the way of rations or medical care. Mortality was high and fortunes were made.

For the heinous crimes of vagrancy, obscene language, or drunkenness, a man could easily disappear for years under the custody of business ventures. In fact, he could easily be worked to death or die of any of the many diseases rampant in the work camp or simply be murdered. Whenever a greater supply of cheap labor was required, the county could usually be counted on to find as many lawbreakers as a company needed. After all, even though they sold the prisoners cheaply, the county (or state) could make a fair amount of money in sheer volume of sales.

One of the most common practices to enslave an African-American was to ask someone to swear out a complaint against him. Sometimes a particular man would be singled out by request of profiteer, other times the authorities would just pick up anyone who was handy. A judge would levy a fine and court fees that they defendant couldn’t pay. By prearrangement, a white broker would then step up and offer to pay those costs if the defendant would work off the “loan.” The broker would take custody of the prisoner and sell him to a mining operation or farmer or whomever he happened to supply. In order to make a profit, he charged more for the man than he originally paid, and this profit margin was now added to the prisoners supposed debt, as was the cost of food, clothing, shackles, bedding, or anything that the overseer saw fit to claim as an expense.

Federal attorney Warren Reese, the son of a Confederate colonel, tried to expose and end the practice in a series of trials starting in 1903. Slave holders argued variably that they had never held anyone against their will, that the people they held were treated very well, that holding them didn’t amount to slavery, and that slavery had never been made illegal under federal statute. The slave trade continued.

Though his wording is sometimes awkward, Blackmon walks the reader through his methodical research and points out again and again that this re-enslavement was more than a crime, it affected history. In other words, it affects us today. It affected the way industry evolved in the south, and consequently in the north. It affected Black Americans’ and white-led corporations’ respective abilities to earn, to save, and to prosper. It hampered free labors’ ability to form unions, and it prolonged the near-slave conditions of tenant farming. This is not a side story of American history, it is essential history.

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