Slavery Lasted Until Pearl Harbor

One of the trick questions American History teachers ask their classes is: “When did slavery end?”

The answer that is both obvious and wrong is: with President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which you might count either as 1862 (when it was announced) or 1863 (when it went into effect).

It’s a trick question because the Emancipation Proclamation by itself freed almost nobody. It only applied to the Confederate states (not the slave-holding border states that stayed in the Union), and those were precisely the places where no one was paying attention to President Lincoln’s proclamations. Those states had their own president, and he thought slavery was just fine.

The answer the teacher is probably looking for is: with the 13th Amendment, which (as the Lincoln movie dramatized) passed Congress in early 1865. The amendment is short and gets right to the point:

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

It became part of the Constitution that December, when newly reconstructed Georgia became the 27th state to ratify it.

But in his 2008 Pulitzer-Prize-winning book Slavery by Another Name, (which in 2012 PBS made into a documentary that you can watch free online) Wall Street Journal reporter Douglas Blackmon came a different conclusion:

Certainly, the great record of forced labor across the South demands that any consideration of the progress of civil rights remedy in the United States must acknowledge that slavery, real slavery, didn’t end until 1945 — well into the childhoods of the black Americans who are only now reaching retirement age.

The loophole. The reason slavery was able to last so long is that the 13th Amendment has a loophole. (Did you notice it? It went right past me.) The loophole is “except except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”. So if you can rig the local laws and get the cooperation of the local law enforcement and court system, you can convict people of “crimes” pretty much whenever you want. Then they can be sentenced to hard labor, and the  state or county can auction them off to the highest bidder until their sentence (or their useful working life) is up.

That’s what happened across the South when whites regained control of state governments after Reconstruction. Vaguely worded laws created crimes like “vagrancy”, enforced almost exclusively against blacks. For other crimes like petty larceny or disorderly conduct, the say-so of a law-enforcement officer or a white “victim” was sufficient to convict, particularly after blacks were disenfranchised and banned from juries. For minor crimes, justices of the peace were empowered to assess fines without a jury, and when inflated court costs were added to a misdemeanor fine, the total was often far beyond any amount that a black worker could raise. He could then be sentenced to forced labor until the state or county recouped the debt through the “rent” paid by an employer. In this way, even a minor offense could result in months or even years of forced labor without pay, under whatever conditions the employer chose.

Instead of true thieves and thugs drawn into the system over decades, the records demonstrate the capture and imprisonment of thousands of random indigent citizens, almost always under the thinnest chimera of probable cause or judicial process. The total number of workers caught in this net had to have totaled more than a hundred thousand and perhaps more than twice that figure.

In the PBS documentary, Blackmon says the convict market was driven by demand, not supply:

In the fall, when it was time to pick cotton, huge numbers of black people are arrested in all of the cotton-growing counties. There are surges in arrests in counties in Alabama in the days before, coincidentally, a labor agent from the coal mines in Birmingham is coming to town that day to pick up whichever county convicts are there.

Industrial slavery. One of the arguments made by apologists for slavery — it goes back at least to John Calhoun’s 1837 speech to the Senate, “Slavery a Positive Good“, and you can still hear it occasionally today — is that the black slaves on Southern plantations were in fact treated better than the immigrant industrial workers of the North, whose bosses did not live side-by-side with them or care about them in the personal way that, say, Scarlett O’Hara cared about Mammy.

Reading Blackmon’s book, in which slaves are used in the mines and furnaces of Birmingham’s growing steel industry, you see that (to the extent that there is anything to it at all) this observation tells you more about the difference between agrarian and industrial society than about slavery. When you compare apples to apples, the evil of slavery is undiminished: Hired field hands in the North were treated better than plantation slaves in the South, and industrial slaves in the South were treated worse than free industrial workers in the North.

That was true even under the Confederacy, but post-Reconstruction industrial slavery was far worse: The slave was rented rather than owned, and so was treated as renters typically treat property. As historian Adam Green says in the PBS documentary: a leased convict could be “worked literally to death. … when [one] worker died, one simply had to go and get another convict.”

Green Cottenham. To give his story a face, Blackmon focuses on Green Cottenham, a Alabaman arrested for vagrancy in 1908 and sentenced to work for a subsidiary of U. S. Steel in the Pratt mines outside of Birmingham.

There he was chained inside a long wooden barrack at night and required to spend nearly every working hour digging and loading coal. His required daily “task” was to remove eight tons of coal from the mine. Cottenham was subject to the whip for failure to dig the requisite amount, at risk of physical torture for disobedience, and vulnerable to the sexual predations of  other miners — many of whom already had passed years or decades in their own chthonian confinement. … Forty-five years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freeing American slaves, Green Cottenham and more than a thousand other black men toiled under the lash at Slope 12. Imprisoned in what was then the most advanced city of the South, guarded by whipping bosses employed by the most iconic example of the modern corporation emerging in the gilded North, they were slaves in all but name.

Cottenham died of disease before his sentence was up and was buried in an unmarked grave near the mine.

Tip of the iceberg. It’s tempting to compare Blackmon’s 100,000-200,000 estimate to the four million slaves held at the start of the Civil War and see at least some progress. But leased convicts were just the extreme edge of a more general slavery.

Another common practice was for wealthy whites to pay the misdemeanor fines of able-bodied blacks, in exchange for a “contract” pledging to work for a specified period of time. Once “employed”, they were chained and subject to the whip. Often they were kept beyond their contract period, because they had no way to claim their freedom.

One level removed from this were the sharecroppers, who by contract could only sell their crop to their landlord, for whatever price he named. Typically they borrowed from the landlord to buy seed, and never got out of debt. Bankruptcy laws did not apply to them, and running out on a debt was illegal — and could result in being sold to work the mines in Birmingham. Similarly, if you worked as a house servant or in a shop, the name of your white employer was your only defense should the sheriff come looking for “vagrants” he could sell to U.S. Steel.

Freedom was largely an illusion, not just for the leased convicts, but for all blacks.

False dawn. All this was clearly against the federal Civil Rights Act of 1875, but the Supreme Court held in the Civil Rights Cases of 1883 that Congress had no authority to overrule state laws in this way. Effectively, the states could do as they liked, as long as they didn’t call it slavery.

In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed a U. S. attorney in Alabama who naively decided to enforce federal laws against “peonage” — slavery for debt. A federal judge took his indictments seriously, and a handful of whites were put on trial. But as it became clear that these were not isolated cases, and that truly enforcing the law would disrupt the entire economy of the South, the Justice Department lost its nerve. The attorney was re-assigned, the attorney general got another job, and the main defendant was pardoned without ever spending time in prison.

Pearl Harbor. When the U.S. entered World War II, the Franklin Roosevelt administration realized that the continued existence of involuntary servitude in the South undermined the propaganda war against the Axis. Less than a week after Pearl Harbor, Attorney General Francis Biddle issued a directive to all federal prosecutors instructing them to prosecute cases of “involuntary servitude and slavery”. Finally, the law would be enforced.

It was a strange irony that after seventy-four years of hollow emancipation, the final delivery of African Americans from overt slavery and from the quiet complicity of the federal government in their servitude was precipitated only in response to the horrors perpetrated by an enemy country against its own despised minorities.

Significance today. Taking this story seriously reframes the Civil Rights movement and the entire history of race in America. Those who marched with Martin Luther King were not just the grandchildren of slaves; some had probably been slaves themselves. Likewise, when the Supreme Court demanded the desegregation of schools in 1954 or President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1965, the South was not a century past slavery, but only a few years.

In my previous posts about race, I have often run into comments about the long history of black crime, or comparisons to the Chinese, many of whom were also brought to America under forced-labor conditions in the 1800s. But that “long history” evaporates if the original post-slavery “crime wave” was actually instigated by whites seeking to re-enslave African Americans.

And no American race or ethnic group faced anything remotely resembling the black experience. Whatever hardships the Chinese or the Irish or any other immigrant group faced, once things turned around, they turned around. Only blacks experienced multiple false dawns, where rights were granted only to be later taken back or ignored. When today’s blacks look skeptically at authority or seem paranoid about the hidden intentions of whites, they are not reacting to the slavery experiences of great-great-grandparents they never met, but possibly of the parents who raised them.

In short: Slavery is a much fresher wound than most of us have been led to believe.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Comments

  • Yzetta Smith  On March 31, 2014 at 11:17 am

    Wow

  • Kevyn Jacobs  On March 31, 2014 at 12:57 pm

    And it didn’t end at Pearl Harbor. The Drug War? It’s American Slavery, Act III.

  • Eden W  On March 31, 2014 at 12:58 pm

    This makes me so sad… how could i have not known this? (Meaning, how could i have not been taught this, nor found out about this in all my political studying, while growing up?)

  • Anonymous  On March 31, 2014 at 12:59 pm

    This makes me so sad… how could i have not known this? (Meaning, how could i have not been taught this, nor found out about this in all my political studying, while growing up?)

  • Anonymous  On March 31, 2014 at 5:45 pm

    One can imagine how such a history might affect one’s relationship to law enforcement.

  • margyly  On April 5, 2014 at 7:56 am

    It ain’t over – read Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in America.’

  • Anonymous  On August 12, 2014 at 1:16 pm

    Great article. A brilliant historical perspective on what slavery really means and how it’s still going on. We see it in today’s prison industrial complex and our voter id laws in the south. Will the south ever rid itself of this ugly cancer of racial injustice?

  • Nick  On August 13, 2014 at 6:03 am

    Except you ignore that peonage, convict leasing and share cropping and any other similar practices were also used to prey on Whites before and after the civil war. Upper class Black conspired to entrap people into such practices and benefited from it. That doesn’t exonerate or mitigate crimes against Blacks but it does mean that if Blacks were slaves until pearl harbor so were poor Whites. Southern supremacists actually reduced Blacks to the level of poor Whites.

  • Wayne Moyer  On August 21, 2014 at 10:38 am

    Now some states ware edging back to this form of chattel slavery by “renting” a convicts to do routine work for corporations at below minimum wage. It never ends.

  • Dee Romesburg  On March 16, 2015 at 4:18 pm

    I had no idea. Thank you for getting this information out.

  • Chris Lowe  On May 14, 2015 at 12:26 am

    I have to push back against this a little.

    Your piece is interesting, but I think elides some important distinctions for the sake of wanting to claim “slavery” and that “nothing really changed” after the Civil War. That’s really not true.

    What is described is a system of unfree labor, “involuntary servitude.”

    If that is the definition of slavery, then hundreds of thousands of whites (“indentured servants”) were slaves in the colonial era and into the early Republic, and slavery was never really racial in the U.S. And I bet there were poor white “slaves” under laws cited in the article.

    But slavery was more than that. It was a permanent life status by law, barring manumission at the sole discretion of a slaveowner, and even then subject to conditions of guaranteeing support. Unfree convict labor was time-bound.

    Slavery was also a heritable status. Children of enslaved women were born life slaves. That was not true of unfree penal laborers. They were overwhelmingly men (which the story overlooks), and their children did not inherit an enslaved status, although they did inherit a vulnerability to racial discrimination.

    Enslaved persons before the 13th Amendment also had no legal existence as persons outside the power of their owners. Slaves had no ability to form legally recognized marriages, for instance. They could own no legally protected property. They could not make contracts enforceable at law. In the cities, masters sometimes reached agreements with enslaved skilled workers that let the latter have personal incomes and operate as independent artisans, but those arrangements were of mutual convenience and subject to termination at will by the owner; they in effect allowed the enslaved worker to rent himself from the master for a share of the income from his labor.

    None of that was true after the 13th Amendment. The very legal processes leading to unfree penal servitude were based on black persons being legal persons before the courts. Unfree penal laborers retained their rights to be married and have legally recognized kin. Sharecropping (which was much more varied than described in the story and in which many poor whites also engaged), labor tenancy, cash rent tenancy were all relationships of contract subject to legal enforcement. They were not slavery and did not always involve debt peonage. Sharecropping was often a relationship in which the cropper brought their own tools, draft animals and family labor, and got a larger share of the crop as a result. It was a better, more autonomous relationship than a pure labor tenancy in many instances. A significant minority of black farmers were able to save enough to buy land for themselves, creating a farming class that was only finally wiped out in the 1960s.

    Finally, if the type of neo-slavery posited here was really as pervasive as suggested, it would have taken a lot more than an executive order to uproot it. Where is the evidence of massive federal prosecutions sufficient to change institutions during World War II, or after? That just didn’t happen.

    Exposing the institutionalization of violence in labor suppression within the legal system as well as the extra-judicial violence of lynching is important. But we should not lose sight of black agency.

    For political reasons it has become the thing today to emphasize the continuities in oppression, and many of those are real enough. In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, much more attention was paid to the agency of the oppressed, and successes in their struggles for self-determination and autonomy. Those were true too. That tendency was set off in part in response to arguments that slavery was essentially a huge concentration camp that completely dehumanized the enslaved and rendered them utterly powerless (Stanley Elkins) as well as making black culture and social life dysfunctional, with internal dysfunction explaining black inequality (Daniel P. Moynihan).

    Saying nothing changed after the Civil War and that slavery really continued in basically the same way unchanged gets too close for comfort to Elkins/Moynihan territory in my opinion.

  • Rocjard Drewna  On July 8, 2015 at 5:33 pm

    Douglas Blackmon just wrote a pulls-no-punches essay on the Confederate Flag: http://www.slaverybyanothername.com/blog/the-battle-flag-of-white-cowards/

  • Trs Edwards  On July 13, 2015 at 2:39 am

    what on earth makes one think that anything changed in the slightest after pearl harbor. if Nothing else, the ongoing and soon to kick up War on Drugs (teddy roseveldt, richard nixon, ronald reagan, BushI, II. notably) tripled the number of inmates in the decidedly slave oriented US state prison system. They have to be routed through more channels to be available for rent, but they are, indeed, still being shipped in and rented out by the millions every year. ALL the so called emancipation amendments did was to spread the rampant slavery of blacks and irish to the slavery of ALL the peoples of the country.

  • A Texan in Germany  On February 16, 2016 at 10:21 am

    I had heard of “chain gangs” and I knew that Southern justice systems treated blacks particularly badly, but I never put 2 and 2 together like you did. I’d long thought of sharecropping under terrible terms as “slavery by another name,” but this is mind-blowing – and shaming. My friends’ and neighbors’ grandparents (note my username) may have allowed their country to partake in madness for a few years, but my ancestors who “let it happen” too are not as far removed from me as I’d always thought.

    Can’t say I enjoyed it, but this was a very important post – it improved my understanding of why black Americans are less likely to trust law enforcement and the rest of the justice system. Thanks for writing it.

  • Robin Tell-Drake  On September 18, 2016 at 9:19 pm

    Been grimly devouring your material on this subject just lately. Really eye-opening.

    One quibble: there is one demographic which has fared worse at the hands if the US than African slaves and their descendants, truly. Native Americans have faced nonstop genocidal behavior since Columbus; if they’d suffered any worse there’d be none left. And this isn’t incidental. Our country is founded on two great racial evils that together were the basis of all our wealth and power. First, Europeans showed up, found vast landscapes, met the people, observed the abundant resources of all kinds, declared the land unoccupied and took it, harvesting all that bounty with unprecedented suddenness. And then they kidnapped armies of innocents from a third continent to harvest all those resources for free and in perpetuity. Taken together these things produced a world-leading economic powerhouse founded on appropriation from the less powerful.

    • weeklysift  On September 19, 2016 at 7:39 am

      I have no argument with you. Particularly in the cotton country of the Confederacy, the two evils worked hand-in-glove: Steal land from the Native Americans, then bring in Africans to clear the forests and drain the swamps until you have land capable of producing cash crops for the world market and wealth for the European thieves/enslavers.

Trackbacks

  • By Fiendishly Rational | The Weekly Sift on March 31, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    […] week’s featured articles are “Slavery Lasted Until Pearl Harbor” and “Not Primarily Students, Not Really […]

  • […] In the case of the Civil Rights movement, the end result was it’s decline and the rise to greater influence of its most dedicated opponents. In my last essay I also described how this tactic of dividing a dominated group perpetuated the forces of domination over poor Blacks and poor Whites in the American South.  Here the role of Domination is clear, for it empowers the appeal of racism to poor Whites. Under its influence for nearly 100 years after the Civil War over 5000  Black men and women were lynched, along with White supporters, and defacto slavery was re-established. […]

  • […] In the case of the Civil Rights movement, the end result was it’s decline and the rise to greater influence of its most dedicated opponents. In my last essay I also described how this tactic of dividing a dominated group perpetuated the forces of domination over poor Blacks and poor Whites in the American South.  Here the role of Domination is clear, for it empowers the appeal of racism to poor Whites. Under its influence for nearly 100 years after the Civil War over 5000  Black men and women were lynched, along with White supporters, and de facto slavery was re-established. […]

  • By Did WW II end slavery in the US? | Rturpin's Blog on April 24, 2014 at 10:36 am

    […] Muder reviews Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name, which uncovers a sordid history in the south […]

  • By More Than Just Affirmative Action | The Weekly Sift on April 28, 2014 at 10:57 am

    […] keep blacks out of Little Rock’s Central High, the governor could shut the school down. Slavery By Another Name is about how Southern whites circumvented the elimination of slavery itself by inventing bogus […]

  • […] system for building their wealth with black labor. In a story told at length by Douglas Blackmon in Slavery By Another Name, blacks in the post-Reconstruction South were blocked from owning land, preventing from leaving, […]

  • By The Monday Morning Teaser | The Weekly Sift on August 11, 2014 at 8:06 am

    […] Along the way, I’ve been able to break out some of that work into articles like “Slavery Lasted Until Pearl Harbor“, but today I’m going to try to sum it all […]

  • […] of my time over the last two years. (Chunks of that research have shown up in posts like “Slavery Lasted Until Pearl Harbor“, “Cliven Bundy and the Klan Komplex“, and my review of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ […]

  • By US slavery ended in 1945 - Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy on October 1, 2014 at 9:49 am

    […] « The reason slavery was able to last so long is that the 13th Amendment has a loophole. (Did you notice it? It went right past me.) The loophole is “except except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”. So if you can rig the local laws and get the cooperation of the local law enforcement and court system, you can convict people of “crimes” pretty much whenever you want. Then they can be sentenced to hard labor, and the state or county can auction them off to the highest bidder until their sentence (or their useful…. » […]

  • By The Yearly Sift: 2014 | The Weekly Sift on December 29, 2014 at 8:33 am

    […] back to 2012’s “A Short History of White Racism in the Two-Party System“, “Slavery Lasted Until Pearl Harbor“, “Ta-Nehisi Coates Goes There: Reparations“, and “Are You Sure […]

  • By The Monday Morning Teaser | The Weekly Sift on March 16, 2015 at 7:11 am

    […] Party“, “A Short History of White Racism in the Two-Party System“, and “Slavery Lasted Until Pearl Harbor“.
 This week I push back into the pre-Civil-War period with a review of Edward […]

  • […] [5] In Slavery By Another Name, Douglas Blackmon described how phony vagrancy laws created slave-like prison labor that was used in mines and factories throughout the South until World War II. I reviewed his book in “Slavery Lasted Until Pearl Harbor“. […]

  • […] By the time it was all over, the planter aristocrats were back in control, and the three constitutional amendments that supposedly had codified the U.S.A’s victory over the C.S.A.– the 13th, 14th, and 15th — had been effectively nullified in every Confederate state. The Civil Rights Acts had been gutted by the Supreme Court, and were all but forgotten by the time similar proposals resurfaced in the 1960s. Blacks were once again forced into hard labor for subsistence wages, denied the right to vote, and denied the equal protection of the laws. Tens of thousands of them were still physically shackled and subject to being whipped, a story historian Douglas Blackmon told in his Pulitzer-winning Slavery By Another Name. […]

  • […] Doug Muder’s “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party,” and it lead to his “Slavery Lasted Until Pearl Harbor,” “Cliven Bundy and the Klan Komplex,” and “Ta-Nehisi Coates Goes There: […]

  • […] By the time it was all over, the planter aristocrats were back in control, and the three constitutional amendments that supposedly had codified the U.S.A’s victory over the C.S.A.– the 13th, 14th, and 15th — had been effectively nullified in every Confederate state. The Civil Rights Acts had been gutted by the Supreme Court, and were all but forgotten by the time similar proposals resurfaced in the 1960s. Blacks were once again forced into hard labor for subsistence wages, denied the right to vote, and denied the equal protection of the laws. Tens of thousands of them were still physically shackled and subject to being whipped, a story historian Douglas Blackmon told in his Pulitzer-winning Slavery By Another Name. […]

  • By No Responsibility | The Weekly Sift on October 19, 2015 at 11:24 am

    […] Offering non-violent offenders a chance to make restitution rather than be punished is actually a progressive idea, known as restorative justice. But forcing convicts to work in jobs mandated by the state has a long, sad history in the United States, as told by Douglas Blackmon in Slavery By Another Name. […]

  • By The Yearly Sift: 2015 | The Weekly Sift on December 28, 2015 at 10:12 am

    […] Short History of White Racism in the Two Party System” (17K new hits/ 32K total) and “Slavery Lasted Until Pearl Harbor” (6K/11K). Each is worthwhile on its […]

  • By Should I Have White Pride? | The Weekly Sift on November 28, 2016 at 9:05 am

    […] by force. Their labor built a great deal of this country and its wealth, both during slavery and during the times that followed when they were an exploited underclass. In exchange, they received very little of that wealth. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: