American slavery persisted until the Second World War

By Alan Bean

You need to read Douglas A. Blackmon’s article on 20th Century slavery in the American South.  The evidence, contained in thousands of letters preserved by the National Archive and the NAACP, is irrefutable.  But Blackmon says that’s just the beginning.

Dwarfing everything at those repositories are the still largely unexamined collections of local records in courthouses across the South. In dank basements, abandoned buildings, and local archives, seemingly endless numbers of files contain hundreds of thousands of handwritten entries documenting in monotonous granularity the details of an immense, metastasizing horror that stretched well into the twentieth century.

We will never know how many African Americans were forced into lifetimes of unpaid servitude under appalling conditions, but Blackmon, who has researched and written a book on the subject, says the numbers are staggering.

By the first years after 1900, tens of thousands of African American men and boys, along with a smaller number of women, had been sold by southern state governments. An exponentially larger number, of whom surviving records are painfully incomplete, had been forced into labor through county and local courts, backwoods justices of the peace, and outright kidnapping and trafficking. The total number of those re-enslaved in the seventy-five years between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War II can’t be precisely determined, but based on the records that do survive, we can safely say it happened to hundreds of thousands. How many more African Americans circumscribed their lives in dramatic ways, or abandoned all to flee the South entirely, to avoid that fate or mob violence? It is impossible to know. Millions. Generations.

The silence of white bureaucrats in the North is almost as disturbing as the cruelty displayed by white southerners.

The biggest contributor to the persistence of de facto slavery after the 13th Amendment was ratified was undoubtedly the repugnant practice of convict leasing described in distressing detail in Robert Perkinson’s Texas Tough.  With the demise of Reconstruction in 1877, Southern states systemically criminalized the normal features of American life.  The Supreme Court ruled most of these laws unconstitutional so long as they applied specifically to African Americans, but when race-neutral language was adopted the legal challenges stopped even though the reality remained the same.

In the 1880s, Alabama, North Carolina, and Florida passed laws making it a crime for a black man to change employers without permission. It was a crime for a black man to speak loudly in the company of a white woman, a crime to have a gun in his pocket, and a crime to sell the proceeds of his farm to anyone other than the man he rented land from. It was a crime to walk beside a railroad line, a crime to fail to yield a sidewalk to white people, a crime to sit among whites on a train, and it was most certainly a crime to engage in sexual relations with—or, God forbid, to show true love and affection for—a white girl.

And that’s how it happened. Within a few years of the passage of these laws, tens of thousands of black men and boys, and a smaller number of black women, were being arrested and sold into forced labor camps by state officials, local judges, and sheriffs. During this time, some actual criminals were sold into slavery, and a small percentage of them were white. But the vast majority were black men accused of trivial or trumped-up crimes. Compelling evidence indicates that huge numbers had in fact committed no offense whatsoever. As the system grew, countless white farmers and businessmen jostled to “lease” as many black “criminals” as they could. Soon, huge numbers of other African Americans were simply being kidnapped and sold into slavery.

If all of this can be documented, why do so few Americans know about it?  If African Americans controlled the history curriculum in our public schools we wouldn’t be asking this question, but they don’t.  We all want to feel good about our heritage.  Listening to patriotic paeans to national greatness has a therapeutic effect.  You can make a lot of money telling white Americans pleasant lies about their history.  We will love you for it.  We don’t just want to feel good about our history, we need to feel good about it.  How are we supposed to stride boldly into an uncertain future, heads held high, if the shadowy mists of history are settling all around us?  To be great, we must be ignorant.

The practical effects of America’s segregated moral discourse are incalculable.  Americans, regardless of race, have been traumatized by our own history.  If we weren’t being persecuted and excluded, we were the persecutors and the excluders and we’ve got to live with that legacy.  There is an uneasy dance between the oppressed and their oppressors.  White Americans cope by telling ourselves it doesn’t matter–our history, however unpleasant and unsettling–has no bearing on this present hour.  Besides, we like to say, I have never owned a slave in my life.

Non-whites regard this kind of talk with stunned amazement, but they don’t determine what is taught and what is ignored by our public schools, so their feelings on the subject don’t matter.

Or maybe they do.  Whites and non-whites voted very differently in the 2012 election, and this time the white team lost.  Moreover, we know it.  The color of money will be white long after the electorate has become majority non-white, so change will come slowly.  But our segregated moral discourse is beginning to crumble and the widespread dissemination of Douglas Blackmon’s essay suggests a new candor is afoot in the land.  Eventually, Americans of every race and tribe must enter into a shared moral conversation.  We cannot heal as a nation until that happens.

6 thoughts on “American slavery persisted until the Second World War

  1. I would venture a WAG that not many black men were convicted in court of having sexual relations with a white woman. My WAG would be that by far the majority of them never made it to a courtroom. Witness Emmett Till, whose only “crime” was whistling at a white woman. And this was ten years after the end of WW II.

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