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.
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.
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.