I saw the documentary and now I’ve read the book. I consider both as enlightening experiences. The following is a high-level review of the book, including a note as to how it affected me.

Book Review: Slavery by Another Name

By Donald R. Barbera

A large portion of white America and a small segment of Blacks like to think that the days of slavery are far in the past; they fervently wish it to be so, otherwise, it provokes discomfort and stirs hidden guilt between both races. Douglas Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, “Slavery by Another Name,” is a provocative look at a piece of American history few talk of and even fewer know about.

For those that believe the United States entered a post racial era with the election Barack Obama as the first African American president of the United States, Blackmon’s book reveals some uncomfortable truths regarding black and white relationships, especially concerning racism and slavery.

Blackmon, a Wall Street Journal bureau chief, pulls the covers off one of the most repulsive chapters in American history—convict leasing; or, as his subtitle indicates: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. Blackmon’s narrative focuses on Alabama where leased prisoners worked the coalmines under dangerous and brutal conditions. Other industries using slave labor included railroad, mining, farming, and logging operations. The book makes it clear that Southern states moved to re-enslave blacks immediately after the Emancipation Proclamation became law, January 1, 1863.

The book makes it clear that nearly all the convicts were black. Independent research shows that Southern prison populations suddenly shifted from more than 70% white to nearly 90% black. In addition, prison populations also increased thanks to the number of blacks siphoned into the system. In Georgia, there was a tenfold increase in prison populations during a four-decade period (1868–1908).

Slavery by Another Name is a distressing and disturbing story that painstakingly investigates post-antebellum involuntary servitude, including convict leasing, debt slavery and peonage, which were the most common forms of re-enslavement. Using a corrupt and dysfunctional legal system, Southern whites used the law to re-introduce slave to the South. Blackmon’s research shows how the South used laws designed specifically to intimidate blacks that resulted in tens of thousands of African Americans arrest. Arrest was just the first step to slavery as jailed black men were loaded down with unpayable fines and even charged with the cost for their own arrest.

Although the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, it was allowable as punishment for a crime. “And within that loophole, it became a crime in the South to be unemployed, to leave one job for another one, to sell cotton after sundown, to speak too loudly in the company of white women.” A variety of trumped-up charges were used to keep the flow of black prisoner high in order to lease them to the owners of factories, farms and mines as slave laborers. As before, slaves received no pay for their work, yet entire states, counties and individuals made money off the re-enslavement of blacks. With no means to pay these "debts," prisoners were sold as forced laborers to coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, quarries, and farm plantations. Thousands of other African Americans were simply seized and compelled into years of involuntary servitude. Armies of "free" black men labored without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and forced through beatings and physical torture to do the bidding of white masters for decades after the official abolition of American slavery. In states using the convict lease system, revenue from the program contributed to 372% of the costs of prison administration and was extremely profitable for the government and business.

From the moment the Emancipation Proclamation became law, the South set about finding ways to circumvent it and keep blacks enslaved as free labor. Blackmon points out that there was little reaction from the north, so the South operated with quasi approbation of the US government. Although the practice eventually ended, it took another 80 years before it happened and only then because of the probability of the Axis Powers using it as propaganda. Until the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, the government ignored the despicable practice.

Reading Blackmon's account is highly personal for me as my great-grandmother Sally was a slave and my grandmother, Donna, was the daughter of a Missouri slave owner that went on to become governor of the state. When my grandmother was a mature woman and her white sisters became ill in old age, they asked her to come "home" and take care of them. She declined.

It is difficult not to inject this personal note because my family and others that I grew up with knew of similar instances and are concerned that this sad chapter in American history is not known and that unawareness whether deliberate or not continues to underlie racial issues today such as white privilege and political racism.

Blackmon's research may also reveal the genesis of black distrust of the legal system and the police as the very people and system designed to protect and serve became convoluted and corrupt in imprisoning black men to make money. I didn't know about the coalmines in Alabama, but I constantly was admonished to stay away from the police and to beware whenever they were near just to be safe. Blackmon said he believes the extension of slavery during those years helps explain why African-Americans made so little economic progress between emancipation and the civil rights movement.

Slavery by Another Name is also the title of a 90-minute documentary film (based on the book) that aired on PBS in February 2012. As always, the book is much better than the movie, but it is no one's fault. The depth and breadth of Blackmon's research cannot be depicted on television without turning it into an epic effort. The clear-headed story offers a microscopic view of a little-known crime against African Americans, and the legacy of racism that still infects American principles.

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Comment by Jerry Wesner on September 23, 2012 at 11:38pm

I had heard much of the information here, but I've never had it presented in so coherent a form.  This explains economic, cultural, and social differences which continue to this day.  I had nothing to do with any of this, but I feel guilty that it continued with no protest from me.  Thank you Donald, and to the author of the book you reviewed.

Comment by Donald R Barbera on September 23, 2012 at 11:30am
I never want to force something on anyone, but I will say that we do a poor job of educating ourselves about each other with the result being misunderstanding, division and self-imposed ignorance. Yet, there is some hope in that such a book was written and the documentary filmed. There is recognition and there is a "trickle down" effect.
Comment by Daniel W on September 23, 2012 at 9:02am

This book is incredibly moving.  I agree with you that the book is far more comprehensive than the movie, although there is a place for both.  I listened, twice, on audible - not much time in my life for a sit-down read these days.  

I can't get over how this book affected me.  The evil that was done is unforgivable and should not be forgotten.

Comment by Jerry Wesner on September 22, 2012 at 11:13pm

Although I knew much of the basic information presented here, I had never heard it integrated so coherently into a pattern of racial abuse.  Thank you, Donald, for such a concise and clear explanation of a phenomenon which is still affecting Americans and our country.

Comment by Alan Perlman on September 22, 2012 at 1:11pm

Actually, I was ignorant of Jim Crow in the South until my college honors thesis, for which I read a lot of novels by black authors.  I remember being shocked and indignant.  WTF??  I grew up in a small town just north of the Mason-Dixon line.

Comment by Donald R Barbera on September 21, 2012 at 10:05pm
It is no one fault for not knowing. Black history is a puff course in college and a jellybean course if it is taught in high school. Plus, usually it is populated a majority of black students. We know little about the Chinese the Asians that live here, Indians (east), south Americans etc. it would take a major in world populations to do it and maybe that wouldn't be enough. However, pretending slavery, indentured servitude and prisoner leasing doesn't have a role in the condition of African Americans today is absurd. It is proven fact that those born to poverty rarely escape. There are noted exceptions that required extraordinary efforts or serendipity, but realty offers little chance. Combined with denial of opportunity, second-class citizenship and ignorance of the problem, it is wonder African Americans have progressed as far as we have. Still, there is no blame other than those who knowingly mistreated other human beings, especially for profit. Warped people bring about at least the semblance of an excuse, but those that succumb to immorality for money are far worse.
Comment by Alan Perlman on September 21, 2012 at 8:41pm

Very enlightening - I never knew it was that bad.  Thanks.

Comment by Steph S. on September 20, 2012 at 10:28pm

Yeah I will have to buy this one - many thanks.

Comment by Glen Rosenberg on September 20, 2012 at 7:05pm

Thanks for the review. Will buy.

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