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22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Much needed look at much overlooked abuses, April 20, 2008
This review is from: Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (Hardcover)
Sub-titled, "The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II," the volume deals with a little remembered period in the southern US that followed emancipation and continued into the first decades of the Jim Crow era during which "separate but equal" led inevitably to "colored" water fountains, back of the bus riding, serving African Americans out of the back of restaurants, turning a blind eye to crimes against African Americans, etc. Having lived in the south my entire life this book was intriguing on its face, but I had no idea just how ignorant I was about the history of the places of my raising. The essence of the book is that slavery in the US did not end in the 1860's as we have believed, but in the mid 1940's. The argument is bulletproof. Slavery did not disappear; it simply changed names.

Immediately following Lincoln's Proclamation that granted freedom to all slaves in the US there was confusion in the South. Was it really freedom? Where would these millions of freed slaves live and work? Could they really vote? What would happen to the land belonging to whites? Would there be an occupying army from the North for months or years? How would the economy, which had become substantial in steel and cotton production, be rebuilt without slaves? It would not take long for these questions to be answered in the most horrifying way-a way that would make some antebellum plantations and the sipping of mint juleps while black hands deftly cleared cotton bolls under the threat of the lash pale by comparison. Blackmon writes, "By 1900, the South's judicial system had been wholly reconfigured to make one of its primary purposes the coercion of African Americans to comply with the social customs and labor demands of whites."

The core essential to the re-enslavement was the "convict lease" program entered into by many corporations and plantation owners. In order to provide cheap labor for the burgeoning mining industry, lumber yards, mills, and turpentine production, businesses as large as U. S. Steel (via its subsidiary Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co.) would "lease" convicts for labor-convicts that could not pay off the fines and debts charged to them in court. The problem was that the legal system that grew from this arrangement had a single purpose: the arrest and conviction of African American men who had no means of paying the fines and fees assigned to them so that they could be "leased" to a corporate entity for a period of time (say, 100 days) after which time they would supposedly be freed.

Across the "Black Belt" of the old South, small town governments gave wide latitude to local sheriffs, constables and justices of the peace to arrest, on the flimsiest of evidence, convict, sentence and lease prisoners. The laws that were passed and enforced were, primarily, those of which African-Americans would be found "guilty": vagrancy (vaguely defined as not being able to prove at a given moment that one has a job), making a pass at a white woman, leaving employment without permission from the employer (creating permanent servitude). At sentencing a "friend" or corporation would pay the fine and associated fees thereby taking possession of the prisoner until the debt was paid or lease the prisoner from the controlling government. The "convict" would then be taken to a place such as the Pratt Mines in Birmingham, the Chattahoochee Brick Company in Atlanta or one of any number of plantations or forests across the south. Once in the system, any person could be sub-leased any number of times making it almost impossible for concerned family members to ever find them. Powerful Atlanta families as well known and honored in memory as the Woodruffs and the Hurts were involved in this chicanery to various degrees.

Additionally, once leased, any infraction could add days, weeks, months or years to a sentence that might have been as short as 30 days. Broken tools, stolen food, lack of productivity and others infractions real and imagined could and did accumulate at the time of impending freedom for many, if they were blessed enough to live that long. Because of the endless supply of African Americans to be arrested, there was little to no incentive for the corporations or landowners to take care of those they had leased. In the slavery era, each slave represented a capital investment from which the slave owner expected a return. To kill a slave was akin to throwing money in the wind. The convict lease program removed all need for such "compassion." At the Slope No. 12 mine outside Birmingham, AL, men were daily loosed from their barrack shackles at 3:00 AM, taken into a labyrinth of tunnels underground, worked all day in excrement fouled waters, brought back above ground after nightfall only seeing the sun on Sunday. That, of course, was the Lord's Day and the white folks did not work.

Murder, contagion, rape and intentional sickness from drinking the defiled tunnel water were common. Those who died were dumped unceremoniously into unmarked graves at the edges of the massive compound. The call would then go out for more workers. Which meant more trumped up charges. More arrests. More money changing hands. In a single year, 25% of the income for the State of Alabama came from the convict lease program.

With the exception of an extended investigation under President Teddy Roosevelt and a tenacious, heroic effort by an Assistant U. S. Attorney named Warren Reese, virtually nothing was done to stop, as the author phrased it during our discussion, this "malevolent exclusion of justice." In the aftermath of the Civil War and the still tenuous relationship between North and South, the investigations ended in minor penalties on some very guilty men with most sentences being suspended. Had he been supported with a little backbone from those in Washington, DC, Reese may well have gone down in history as the William Wilberforce of his generation. But it was not to be.

Anyone raised in the south should read this book. Anyone interested in racial understanding or reconciliation issues should read this book. IMO, it will set a standard for understanding this period of American history. It is a deep and profound work.
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