ST. PETERSBURG — Pulitzer Prize-winning author Douglas Blackmon discussed his book “Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II” at the Poynter Institute Jan. 12 as part of the 2015 Heritage Lecture series presented by Pastor Clarence Williams and the Greater Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church along with St. Petersburg College.
Before joining the Washington Post in 2011, Blackmon was the chief of the Wall Street Journal’s Atlanta bureau. His 2008 book explores the use of African American forced labor by individuals, governments and corporations in the American South after the Civil War and well into the 20th century. The New York Times best seller won Blackmon the Pulitzer for General Non-Fiction in 2009 and was adapted into a documentary film by PBS in 2011.
“How could the place that raised me up, a little town in the middle of the Mississippi Delta, that reared me in kindness and forgiveness…in the bosom of the First Presbyterian Church of Leland, Miss., how could this same place have at the very same time…how could it have been so cruel to all the children who looked different from me,” rhetorically asked Blackmon.
That’s the central paradox that he’s been seeking to reconcile all his life, he said. Referencing the recent deaths of African-American males at the hands of white police officers, he later added that what drives him is the question of why do we keep setting the Darren Wilsons and the Michael Browns on a course bound to collide with one another?
“Why do these things keep happening and yet we remain so unable, in my opinion, to constructively discuss what really happened and how to make it not happen again,” he asked.
In regards to the now-long-gone time period his book covers, Blackmon said as the author he is often asked why we should still care about any of these things that happened some time ago. He conceded that after all, we’ve had African-American generals, governors, mayors, chiefs of police, Secretary of State and even President—so why do the terrible things done to African Americans in the past matter all that much?
“The simple answer is that we can never understand the present—can never understand Ferguson—until we understand the past, or at least until we have tried to understand it,” he said.
“Slavery By Another Name” tells the story of how after the Civil War a new system of involuntary servitude was resurrected in the South, first through a perversion of the judicial system and then metastasizing all through Southern society, and how this system—what he calls in the book the “age of neo-slavery”—returned with a kind of force and brutality into the lives of millions of black people that is difficult for us to comprehend in the 21st century.
In his book Blackmon tells the grim story through the lives of people who experienced what was one of the most terrible chapters in American history in terms of the abuse of its own citizens. The central figure is an obscure black man named Green Cottenham, born to two formerly enslaved African Americans.
In 1908, Cottenham was one of hundreds of thousands of African Americans who were compelled into a new kind of servitude through corrupt local courts, kidnapping, terror and economic manipulation. Everywhere in the South after the Civil War whites resisted the full citizenship promise to formerly enslaved African Americans and waged a relentless campaign to recreate an economic system that looked as close to slavery as possible without calling it that, Blackmon explained.
Thousands of African Americans were arrested for crimes that weren’t committed or for offenses that were hardly criminal in any regard, and forced into corporate prison mines, quarries, timber camps, railroads and farms. The courts, police and sheriffs allowed their neighbors and political supporters to buy these men out of jails and courtrooms.
As more and more African Americans were forced into labor in this way, the old business systems of slavery reappeared across the South. Consequently, white thugs were patrolling the back roads, seizing black men and selling them to the highest bidders. Soon African Americans began to ask out loud if the Civil War had been undone, Blackmon said.
In Florida, he said, these practices of working these men in brutal conditions were pervasive and exceeded nowhere else in the South.
During his research, he said, he discovered that there are almost no letters, diaries and memoirs written on sharecrop farms by impoverished African-American families, but when he visited courthouses throughout the South, he found thousands of pages of records from this period documenting arrests of African Americans for utterly inconsequential charges or for violations of laws specifically written to intimidate African Americans.
It was technically a crime in the South to be a vagrant Blackmon explained. It was a crime to walk beside a railroad line. And it was certainly not only a crime to engage in any sort of sexual activity with a white woman if you were a black man, but to engage in loud talk in the company of a white woman. Offenders were jailed and subsequently purchased legally by farmers that could put them to work in their farms, as convicts.
“Millions of African Americans lived in the dark shadow of that peril,” Blackmon said, “and it would not begin to fully recede from their lives until the dawn of World War II.”
Blackmon said even in the early 1900s, the Republican and Democratic parties were turning their backs on African Americans. In President Taft’s inaugural address in 1909, he said he applauded how whites in the South had successfully engineered new voting restrictions to prevent almost all blacks from voting in the South, and preventing “the danger of an ignorant electorate.” Democrat Woodrow Wilson instituted Jim Crow segregation throughout the federal government for the first time.
He contended that even government programs that were designed to decrease poverty and make this country more prosperous came at the cost of some basic rights of African-American citizens.
Regarding Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal work programs, which ended poverty and desperation for millions of Americans, Franklin was able to get the new laws through Congress only after meeting with all the “white supremacist” Southern senators and promising them all that if they would vote for the New Deal, the federal government would make sure that none of these programs interfered with segregation. And as more and more jobs became available for white people, allowing them to escape poverty, these same jobs were denied to African Americans.
A myth has set in, Blackmon said, that the reason white people are better off is because white people work hard and follow the rules and black people don’t. America engineered a plan of how to get white people out of poverty and into some kind of better place, and it was achieved at least partly by not doing that for African Americans.
“You either accept that the better outcomes of white people in America were the result of those kinds of things,” Blackmon stated, “or you’re a white supremacist. It’s one or the other. You either believe there’s something wrong with black folks, or you believe there’s something wrong with the system we live in. And obviously it’s the system we live in.”
It’s this system that has given us this world in which so many people have a sense of self-satisfaction and complacency, he said, so when a terrible thing happens in Ferguson or some other place, this is just another incident of one or the other—”a bad white guy, or a bad black guy, or a bad both guys—people try to boil it down to that.”
The author stated that he feared that we as Americans have reached a point where we are no longer trying to engineer the better society that we obviously can become.
“Our Founders, even as flawed as they were,” Blackmon asserted, “as deeply bigoted and racist as they were, nonetheless accepted the idea that they were trying to create something completely new, even though they came from at the time what looked like the best system in the world. But they accepted that they needed to create something wholly new and different.
“That’s how this country got started—with all its flaws—but at least with an ambition, with an unrealized idea that sealed the ambition, we hope. But we seemed to have lost faith in that idea, the idea that the job of government, the job of all of us, is to be in a conversation about how to engineer the world we want to live in. And the world I want to live in is one which these young men don’t exist in the way they exist today, and don’t encounter each other under the circumstances in that they did. That’s the world I want my children and grandchildren to grow up in.”
This is the last article in the three part 2015 Heritage Lecture series presented by Pastor Clarence Williams of Greater Mt. Zion AME and St. Petersburg College.