After Slavery, Servitude

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 20, 2008

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The Journal-Constitution last week assembled a remarkable group to discuss a remarkable book: “Slavery by Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans From the Civil War to World War II.”

The new book documents a South unknown to many—a place in which white sheriffs, politicians and businessmen got rich by enslaving thousands of black men for decades after emancipation. The process was simple and evil: Black men were arrested on a pretext, shunted through a rigged system and then chained like animals and sent to work off their sentences or debts in coal mines and steel mills and on plantations.

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A ‘devastating’ look back

“At times, as I read different books, I have to pull away, because it makes me angry. And even now I can feel it—it’s not I-want-to-kill-the-white-man type angry—it’s why don’t we use history to learn from? On both sides? There are blacks who don’t want to use it, and there are whites who just want to omit it, as if it didn’t exist. We don’t use our history wisely.”

—Bill Rembert, high school teacher, Covington

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Book reveals ‘terrible human costs’

These are excerpts from a discussion of the book “Slavery by Another Name,” by Douglas A. Blackmon, involving the author, the AJC’s Jay Bookman and 15 readers who visited the paper recently for a kind of “book club” conversation.

TRAGIC CONNECTIONS

In February 1920, the book reports, federal investigators visited the Jasper County farm of John S. Williams to ask him about charges made by an escaped worker that Williams was enslaving black men. A week later, the book says, Williams either participated in or presided over the murders of 11 leased convicts to conceal the slavery on his farm. His great-granddaughter, Susan Burnore, a recently retired IBM executive who lives in metro Atlanta, attended the AJC’s discussion last week. Among her comments:

My great-grandfather was John S. Williams, who is pages 360 through 364 in Mr. Blackmon’s book. He was one of the most egregious individual users of the peonage [system]. I grew up knowing that my great-grandfather—he died before I was born—had died in prison, and that he had died in prison for murdering a black man. But that’s really the only truth that I knew. My family, of course, had a, no pun intended, whitewashed version of it that made it sound as if he wasn’t really such a bad guy, he was just doing what was accepted at the time. So that’s the story I heard, and it was always: “Well, things were different then, and he was a good man, and we just have to overlook that.” Then, about 10 years ago, this book came out, “Lay This Body Down.” . . . It’s just one very sad story. But the thing that makes it historically significant, and this absolutely shocked me, John S. Williams became the first white man to be convicted of murdering a black man since Reconstruction. That was in 1921. There was not another such conviction until 1960-something.

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Laura Lester, a retired elementary school principal and graduate student.

In 1833, my great-great-grandfather bought 10,000 acres—”bought”—from the Cherokees [in Polk County, Ga.]. I can remember seeing it as a child visiting, that farmland was divided up—my mother and all her brothers and sisters inherited some of that 10,000 acres. I could never, ever recover from the fact that they had hundred-year-old shacks that African-American families were living in when I was a child, doing sharecropping.

Not only was the land literally stolen from the Cherokees. All the wealth that was derived from it was stolen from these African-American sharecropping families. They were paid absolutely nothing, just given the hundred-year-old shacks to live in and a mule to plow. So the history as it is reconstructed for me is such firm evidence that the present wealth of [many] whites in the South still derives from slave labor.

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REPARATIONS

Marty Duren is a Southern Baptist pastor in Buford.

I don’t know about any of the other white folks here. There’s a lone echo of slavery in my family that I know of. My great-great—some number of greats—grandfather was killed by one of his slaves. I’ve always felt that he probably deserved it. . . . The whole concept of reparations is so misunderstood. Nobody knows where the money would come from, nobody knows who would get the money. There is so little clarity as to how that would be effected, it disallows serious conversation as to whether it can happen or not.

Muhammad Yungai is a writer and activist in Atlanta.

What you just said is reflective of what I was saying earlier: Most white people don’t have any idea what’s going on in the black community. I’ve been involved in various groups, been involved in N’COBRA—the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America. There is a very detailed, reasonable, laid-out plan by many black thinkers and scholars about reparations, where the money would come from, who it would go to. And it’s not necessarily just money. One of the ideas was to take people coming out of prison and train and re-educate them and reintegrate them back into society.

Douglas A. Blackmon.

[European courts were turning aside cases in which German companies were sued for their roles in Nazi Germany. Blackmon notes that the U.S. passed a law in the late 1990s enabling those plaintiffs to file their cases in American courts.]

Any company that could be connected to something like that and also had operations in the United States could be sued in American courts.

And so an avenue was created by America for raising all these issues, even though—as leaped out at me—we’re a country that has never been willing to open such avenues for our own citizens about our own conduct.

And so I just sort of said: “Well, gee, what would happen if we looked at ourselves through the same lens that we insist other countries look at themselves through?”

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

Muhammad Yungai.

Right now, one out of nine black men are somehow involved in the criminal justice system. And it’s not just because there are a bunch of black criminals running in the streets. As we read in the book, the goal posts change. This is not against the law, but if a black man does it, all of a sudden it is against the law. And then, poor, powerless people don’t have any recourse when they go to court. Sometimes, when I’m joking with people, I say, “You’ve got about the same chance as a black man in Mississippi in 1930.” Because when you walk into that courtroom, you are automatically guilty. A lot of that was carried on today.

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BLACK FAMILIES

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Excerpts from reviews of Blackmon’s ‘Slavery’

These are excerpts from two reviews of “Slavery by Another Name”—one from the New York Times Book Review, and one that ran in AJC’s Arts & Books section last Sunday.

From the Times’ Janet Maslin:

Author Douglas A. Blackmon eviscerates one of our schoolchildren’s most basic assumptions: that slavery in America ended with the Civil War. Blackmon unearths shocking evidence that the practice persisted well into the 20th century. [Maslin complains that the book starts slowly, speculating about an enslaved man about whom few records exist.]

But as soon as it gets to more verifiable material, “Slavery by Another Name” becomes relentless and fascinating. It exposes what has been a mostly unexplored aspect of American history (though there have been dissertations and a few books from academic presses). It creates a broad racial, economic, cultural and political backdrop for events that have haunted Mr. Blackmon and will now haunt us all. And it need not exaggerate the hellish details of intense racial strife.

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From Steve Suitts, for the Journal-Constitution:

The genius of Blackmon’s book is that it illuminates both the real human tragedy and the profoundly corrupting nature of the Old South slavery as it transformed to establish a New South social order.

The book, nonetheless, suffers occasionally from more ambitions than it can deliver. In portraying legal enslavement through personal stories, the book jumps a little too much from place to place, story to story, back and forth in time with a multitude of characters, digressions and family members. Among other things, the reader must keep up with “who is who” among almost 40 members of the Cottenham family (spelled three different ways).

In giving real flesh and blood to its narrative, “Slavery by Another Name” appears in a few places to go beyond its sources in describing personal characteristics and motives based only on bare-bones government and census records. The book’s subtitle also overreaches since, in fact, the work analyzes patterns of enslavement only through the 1920s, not to World War II.

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