When asked to view the documentary Slavery by Another Name, I was expecting to see something about prisoners being used in forced labor by some other country. I was clearly not expecting it to be about the treatment of African Americans in the United States after the Emancipation Proclamation. Based on my understanding of American history, I believed that after the Civil War, African Americans had some struggles, but they were free. I understood that there was still discrimination, especially in the American South, but the former slaves at least had the opportunity to make a living on their own. What Slavery by Another Name revealed to me is that America has been hiding another dark secret about its past through selective memory loss and creative writing in the history books. This is my reflection on some of the events revealed in the documentary.
This documentary covers the period in American history from the end of the American Civil War until the onset of World War II. The focus of the documentary is the lives of the African Americans, the freed slaves, particularly in the American South. The black population of the South, the recently freed slaves, expected that they would be able to establish themselves as a free people and experience the American Dream. They would soon, however, discover that freed life was not going to be easy. The South was in bad shape after the war, industries were destroyed, the economy was in shambles, and the infrastructure was in ruins. Now, the freed slaves had to eke out a living in direct competition with the whites in the area, many of whom were not much better off than the recently freed slaves, and most of whom still believed themselves to be superior to the blacks.
There were approximately four million freed slaves in the South after the Civil War. All they wanted was freedom. Freedom to own property, freedom to work as they wished, freedom to participate in government, and freedom to move around. They were suddenly competing with eight million whites who did not own slaves and were fighting over the same resources as the freed slaves . This would lead to ongoing animosity toward the African Americans.
At issue in the South immediately after the Civil War was the economic turmoil that the Southern States faced. In the five cotton growing states of the South fifty percent of the assets of the major plantations was its slaves (Pollard, 2014). All of a sudden, the plantation owners had to figure out how to continue growing cotton, or other crops, without the free labor that they were used to having. It was difficult for them to accept that they now had to pay for something that they were used to getting for free. What they had to do was devise a way to keep the black population working for them for free. They were successful in doing so.
At first, starting in 1866, the South faced pressure from the federal government in the form of Reconstruction Acts aimed at giving the recently freed slaves equal rights. Also in 1866, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, which granted citizenship to all born and naturalized persons, including all recently freed slaves. This was followed in 1870 by the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave all black men the right to vote. However, federal pressure on the South soon waned, and the Southern states began to create legislation that limited the rights of the freed black men and women. By 1874, the Reconstruction of the South was at an end and the South was free to act as they saw fit toward the African Americans.
The South began to enact legislation aimed at defeating the language of Federal laws and the Constitutional Amendments to control the African Americans. Using these new laws, the Southern States were able to limit the activities of the African Americans and subject them to criminal proceedings for minor offenses. The Southern States then developed a system where prisoners were hired out to individuals and industries in order to cover their fines and court costs. This system grew into an industry all its own and became, in effect, a new form of slavery, or slavery by another name. This practice, known as convict resettling, began in the 1880’s and lasted, to some degree, until the beginning of World War II in 1941.
I am not surprised that the average white person in the South resented the freed blacks. Even those who did not own slaves prior to the Civil War probably believed that the blacks were not equal to the whites. Now they were having to compete for limited resources with these substandard humans who suddenly thought they were equals. What I am surprised about is that the government itself enacted laws that treated the African American with such distain. Of all the laws that were passed limiting the rights of the blacks, the vagrancy laws were the worse. In Mississippi, for example, all black men had to provide proof every year, on the second Monday in January, of employment and residency, or they would be guilty of truancy . This was just one law used to control the blacks. The reality was that black men and women could be arrested for just about anything and not stand a chance of a fair trial.
What I find most surprising about these laws is what happened after the blacks were convicted. Since most of them could not afford to pay the fines imposed by the courts, their services were sold to employers who would pay their fines. The first priority for renting the services of a convict went to the former owner of the convict in custody (PBS, 2009). What is most disturbing about this process is how it soon became a booming industry. The abuse of the system is evident in the fact that arrests and convictions increased around harvest time or right before industry recruiters were due in town. The convicts were often asked to sign a contract committing themselves to work for the farmer or company for a specific amount of time to pay off their debts. However, when their time was completed, they would not be allowed to go. They would remain confined to their job indefinitely under the threat of death.
What is most disturbing about this process is how the convicts were treated. When the plantation owners owned the slaves, it was in their best interest to take care of them. They took care to provide adequate food, shelter, and medical care to the slaves, and to not work them too hard or punish them too harshly. This is because it was too costly to replace a slave if they died. Under the convict resettlement program however, the farmer or business person could work the convict as much as they want, or punish them harshly because, if they died, they could be replaced rather cheaply. This lead to convicts working in deplorable conditions and being worked beyond acceptable hours. It is estimated that around nine thousand African American convicts died while being leased out to industry (Pollard, 2014).
Another surprise from the documentary was the concept of peonage, which I had never heard of before. Peonage was a concept that allowed individuals to be imprisoned by their debtor for failure to pay their debts (Pollard, 2014). This became another method of controlling and African Americans and enslaving them. Farm owners and industry bosses would lease prisoners by paying the county or state a monthly fee, as previously noted, but would incorrectly credit the money toward the prisoner’s debt so that they never paid it off. As long as a white man could claim that they were owed money by a black man, they could get them convicted and gain control over them. As it turned out, many blacks were imprisoned in this manor, even though they did not owe the money as claimed.
Peonage was against the law in the United States and was a felony offense. The federal government, under President Theodore Roosevelt, in the early 1900’s actually investigated and indicted a few white males in the South for peonage. However, when it became apparent that the practice was wide spread throughout the South, the federal government became reluctant to pursue the issue much further. The United States was rapidly becoming a leader in the industrial world, and much of that success was fueled by the industries of the South. To prosecute all of the cases of peonage, and end the practice, would have devastated the economy of the South, and consequently, of the entire nation. After prosecuting a few cases, and finding some business men guilty, it was hoped that the message would be received and the practice would be stopped. Two men actually did a few months in prison for their crimes, but later received a presidential pardon from President Roosevelt. One person, John Pace, was convicted of peonage and appealed his conviction. His appeal was based on the fact that he was not, in fact, guilty of peonage because the blacks he kept confined on his farms did not owe him any money! He had actually bought them from the people who were owed the money (Pollard, 2014). Prosecutors discovered that although the United States has declared slavery illegal with the Fourteenth Amendment, Congress had never enacted a statute making slavery punishable (Pollard, 2014). Pace never did any time in jail and was also pardoned by President Roosevelt.
I am amazed that a government that claimed all men are created equal could create laws that did not treat all men as equal. Even with an amendment to the Constitution that gave the black man equal rights to the whites, there were still laws that said otherwise. Discrimination was still the policy of the day and segregation was the norm. African Americans were expected to show deference to the whites in everything they did, including stepping into the mud to clear the sidewalk for approaching whites. The segregation of blacks from whites in public was actually made legal with the Supreme Court decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896. This ruling established the “separate but equal” doctrine that would control the lives of blacks for several more decades, until the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954 . These policies made is easier for the whites of the South to continue their subjugation of the blacks.
The enactment of the various black codes in the Southern states, along with the practice of peonage, also affected the nation’s perception of the African Americans. With the vagueness of the truancy laws, and the profitability of the convict leasing programs, it became big business to arrest as many blacks as possible in order to get them into the leasing system. Blacks were arrested for any offense against the white folk, for getting in the way, or for just being “uppity”. They were charged with various crimes in order to increase their sentences and, therefore, increase profits. Robbery and burglary were two popular charges that came with lengthy sentences. As a result of this policy, blacks, who represented less than ten percent of the population in the South, accounted for over thirty percent of the prison population. These statistics were then used by the whites to justify their opinions that the blacks were not as good as the whites, and deserved to be treated as second class citizens. It seems that this sort of bias in the law enforcement community has prevailed even until now.
Another form of enslavement that was used at the time was sharecropping. The recently freed African Americans wanted to work. In fact, they were happy to work long hard hours in order to make a living for themselves. Of course, they had no money for purchasing land, so they would rent land to grow crops and make a living. They would usually have to borrow from the land owner in order to get started. The white land owners would use this to their advantage by devising ways for the debt to never quite get paid off. If a sharecropper were to decide that they had had enough and leave their farm, they were often hunted down and charged with fleeing debt or truancy (since they could not prove that they had a home and a job). They would be convicted and, most often, sent right back to their farm; this time to work for free. Knowing that this could be their fate, many black families stayed on their farm, working in servitude for generations (Pollard, 2014).
One thing that stands out in my mind from viewing this documentary is how little is known about this stage in American history. One historian in the documentary points this out clearly. He comments that the history that he was taught in school did not discuss any of these issues or facts. He was taught that after the Civil War, the freed blacks struggled to find a place in free society. There was some mention of sharecropping and abuses, and of course the Klu Klux Klan was discussed, but there was nothing about the systematic re-enslavement of so many freed slaves. There was nothing covered about the economic benefit to using prisoners as slave labor in order to re-build the South. This just goes to show how the dominant force gets to write the history books and control knowledge for generations.
What strikes me the most, when reflecting on this documentary, is how the white people of the United States, in general, have discriminated against the black people throughout history. They brought them here as slaves, treated them as animals, and refused to give them their rights once they were freed. The African Americans have been exploited and discriminated against routinely for generations. Although great strides have been made and African Americans have proven themselves equal in all respects, they still suffer a higher rate of poverty, criminal prosecution, and incarceration than the white population in the country. Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and Boston, Massachusetts show that there is still a divide between the races. Even more recent news revealed that part of American drug policies that were enacted in the late 1960’s were aimed at controlling and demonizing the black population . To have this kind of government legislation enacted a full century after the emancipation of the American slaves is just an indication that the nation has still not become a nation where “all men are created equal”.
Edelman, A. (2016, March 23). Top adviser to Richard Nixon admitted that ‘War on Drugs’ was policy tool to go after anti-war protesters and ‘black people’. New York Daily News. Retrieved from http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/nixon-aide-war-drugs-tool-target-black-people-article-1.2573832
History.com. (2009). Plessy V. Ferguson. Retrieved from History.com: http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/plessy-v-ferguson
PBS. (2009). "Black Codes" of Mississippi 1865. Retrieved from PBS Slavery and the Making of America: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/slavery/experience/legal/docs6.html
Pollard, S. (Producer), & Pollard, S. (Director). (2014). Slavery by Another Name [Motion Picture]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UcCxsLDma2o