The slavery after slavery

In Mississippi, I had a friend whose father owned a Delta plantation. I went to visit once: lots of land, a big house for the white folks, unpainted shacks for the tenant farmers. My friend said her father didn’t pay the workers in money; he paid them in “chits”, which could be exchanged for goods at the plantation store. I’d never heard of “chits”, but I remember thinking how odd that sounded.

Little did I know.

After slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment, southern plantation owners were desperate for field labor. A system was devised that resurrected slavery by other means. Slavery had been abolished in every case except “as punishment for crime.”

White landowners used the South’s criminal courts to compel African Americans to work. The South enacted interlocking laws that defined all blacks as criminals, regardless of their behavior, making it legal to press them into chain gangs, labor camps, and other forms of involuntary servitude.

slavery by another name

Vagrancy was defined loosely, so any freed slave not under the protection of a white man could be arrested. An 1865 Mississippi law required black workers to enter into labor contracts with white farmers by January 1 of each year or face arrest. Laws were passed that made it illegal for a black servant to take a job without a discharge paper from his former employer.

It was a crime for a black man to speak loudly, have a gun in his pocket, be a bastard or gamble. A crime to walk beside a railroad line, fail to yield a sidewalk to whites, sell cotton after sunset or sell his crop to anyone except his landlord. A crime to sit among whites, and—the greatest sin—to show affection for a white woman.

All were grounds for arrest.

Tens of thousands of black men and boys were forced into labor camps, and criminals were sold into slavery. When complaints were filed it was discovered, slavery might be unconstitutional, but there were no federal statutes making it illegal. White farmers could “lease” as many black workers as they needed. Huge numbers were kidnapped. As these laws expanded, they became the primary means of terrorizing black Americans.

Black tenant farmers never saw wages because charges for rent and food (at company stores like the one run by my friend’s father) always exceeded compensation.

Hundreds of thousands of blacks worked in virtual slavery until World War II, and things haven’t been exactly sunny for poor African Americans since.

bound man

When people say all this is in the past and no excuse for people not picking themselves up and succeeding the American way, remember: 200 years of slavery; another 100 years of Jim Crow-induced near slavery. Imagine what that does to sap the will and the very ability to imagine a future.

To read more, see the full article on The Alternet or read Douglas Blackmon’s book, Slavery by Another Name. 

12 responses »

  1. Such horrific history, but I’ve never recovered from the realization that — once slavery was outlawed by the English in 1831, all slaves sold on the blocks of this nation were those already here. They were owned, passed along to family members as “estate” in wills, re-enslaved as punishment manufactured crimes, but by far the most egregious was that slave-owners then began to “breed” their own “stock” by rape of female black women on their plantations. Those slave-masters were quite literally selling their own children! Small reason that the nation has never been able to process that history. A people who could do such things is quite capable of the cruelties at Abu Graib or Guantanamo. White privilege is so ingrained in our system of governance that it must remain silently hidden lest we will be forced to admit that our nation has not yet reached the ideals upon which we claim to be based.

  2. Sherry Bellamy

    What strikes me about the horrific imagery above is the similarity to Nazi concentration camps.

  3. Sondra Alexander

    Aghhh ! We still don’t understand what we did. We keep saying “we’ve given them everything they want, haven’t we?” Now we just incarcerate them.

  4. This is still going on TODAY. Black people and other people of color have been arrested in the “drug wars” more often than white people, and given that their unemployment has always been twice that (++) of whites, when they have relaxed by imbibing or selling they have been incarcerated by 40% more than whites. Cheap slave labor in the prison system. Even after the three strikes law has been abolished many are still being held for just smoking pot and other similar “crimes.” Our past is not so much in the past after all.

    • And it is a reminder that the prisons were actually built with the Black man in mind while they had their way with many of the Black women who had to be there for her children and other family members. Taking advantage of people and their emotions is what’s sick. No condition is permanent and what goes up must come down. Just sayin!

    • Perzackly. And let’s not forget racial profiling, police brutality, disparity in sentencing, coerced confessions, wrong prosecution, persistent racism in hiring — and the list goes on and on.

  5. Truth is not much has really changed. Black men are still kicked around and minimized leaving Black women to carry the load…which perpetuates her anger towards her own man right from the start of a relationship. White women pass on to their daughters that their White men are overly interested and attracted to Black women …and so many of them hold some weird indescribable anger toward Black women and sub consciously treat them as if they are inferior to them. Its picked up and kicked back and has lead to the Black woman’s distrust of White women. White women….White men….they all have their perpetual sense of entitlement. The party is winding down!

  6. The author is dead on — except for the final statement: “Imagine what that does to sap the will and the very ability to imagine a future.”

    African-Americans as a group aren’t listless, demotivated and broken, as this statement seems to imply. That is NOT why we are where we are. We are where we are, in part, because of things you addressed earlier in your post — their legacy persists to this day — and a litany of other injustices, some of which Jewels Marcus mentioned.

    Add to that the fact that African-Americans were specifically targeted by the banking/lending industry with subprime loans — even when we qualified for loans at regular rates. The mortgage crisis has stripped the African-American community of 52 percent of its wealth. The Great Recession has resulted in persistent unemployment at twice the rate of whites, with black youth unemployment well over 40 percent.

    Add to that a failed public education system..

    Despite all this, African-Americans are not bowed or dispirited. We remain determined, resolute (the GOP tried to keep us from the polls in the last election cycle and only fueled our resolve), strong, tenacious and resilient.

    And we ain’t goin’ no-damned-where.

  7. BTW, great blog post. 😉

  8. Excellent, thought-provoking, disturbing post.

  9. PBS has a great documentary: Slavery by Another Name.

    You should see it.


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