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Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2008 04:17 pm

A new form of Southern slavery led to Northern race riots

Forced black labor in U.S. industries gave rise to virulent racism

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John L. Spivak’s 1932 photo of a prisoner being punished in Georgia.
Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, by Douglas A. Blackmon. Doubleday, 2008. $29.95.

During and immediately after Reconstruction in the South, the same entrepreneurs and bankers who had built the Confederacy's munitions and armament plants during the Civil War engineered a new form of industrial slavery. At its zenith in the early 20th century, this new system of labor held millions of African-Americans as slaves to the U.S. coal, steel, turpentine, lumber, housing, agricultural and railroad industries in the South. This book is the story of how Southerners created this complex and nuanced machinery of forced labor, maintained it by using wholesale violence against manacled, black laborers, and, with their Northern collaborators, made fortunes off of it.

The heart of story is that slavery in the American South ended, not with the Emancipation Proclamation nor the end of the Civil War, but only with the onset of World War II. The author discovered this story by digging through county courthouses in Georgia, Alabama and Florida which held the original arrest records and convict lease contracts for hundreds of thousands of African-American males, incarcerated and forgotten in this new form of slave labor which flourished between 1885 and 1940.

This is a tough story to tell without the proper context. To his credit, the author sets forth a huge chunk of background history so the general reader can make sense of the details. He writes of how a new generation of African-Americans which came of age in the 1870s found themselves enmeshed in it; of how Southern legislatures criminalized all aspects of black behavior so the Southern states would have an abundant and flexible supply of low-cost labor to lease out to capitalists; of how the industrialists who benefited from this new slavery defeated efforts to unionize black labor; and of how the federal Department of Justice's investigation of peonage in 1903 led to the prosecution of hundreds of "slave contractors" and to the conviction of none.

What is surprising and compelling in this story is the broad participation of Northern capitalists in the South's lucre. Firms such as U.S. Steel, Wachovia Bank Corp., Walter Industries, U.S. Pipe and Foundry, U.S. Sugar, Coca Cola, Chattahoochee Brick, Georgia Pacific, Inc., and Consolidated Lumber Products all invested in and profited handsomely from convict lease slavery. When called by the author to account in 2001 for their companies' brutal labor schemes in the 20th century, with one exception none of the CEOs would admit to their subsidiary's predatory practices, any responsibility for the deaths of tens of thousands, or the psychological damage done to the African-Americans ensnared in industrial slavery.

Accompanying the erection and development of this industrial slavery in the 1880s and 90s was the rise of a more virulent and deadly form of racism which undercut the paternalistic racism of the pre-war South. Southern racists and social Darwinists unleashed dehumanizing interpretations of the racial order which depicted blacks as members of a degenerate culture and inclined towards animalistic violence and lustful pursuits. Only by forcing black labor into contract slavery, reasoned the apologists of this new slave labor, could the South maintain discipline and decorum.

Racial proscription and increasing segregation in Northern and border communities accompanied the spread of this racial venom at the turn of the century. Violent race riots between 1900 and World War I occurred in: Tulsa, Okla.; Evansville and Indianapolis, Ind.; Joplin, Mo.; Peoria, East St. Louis and, of course, Springfield, Ill. Without exception, the riots were caused by working class whites concerned primarily with the progress and political influence of black professionals or, as the rioters explained, "the arrogance of uppity blacks who think they can prove their black asses equal to whites." The results in Springfield included the trashing and burning of the homes and businesses of successful blacks in the levee district; harassment and destruction of the property of sympathetic Jews; and the lynching of the two most successful black entrepreneurs from lampposts by the white mob, according to In Lincoln's Shadow: The 1908 Race Riot of Springfield, Illinois, by Roberta Senechal de la Roche.

As the race riots in the North and border states demonstrated, the repercussions caused by black enslavement rippled outward. The very system of enslavement ensnared and degraded millions of black Americans in a system of slavery more deadly than the antebellum variety; the ensuing racial virus justified the barbaric treatment of blacks nationwide; and the financial arrangements of the convict lease system and the disenfranchisement of blacks corrupted Southern and national politics and culture for generations.

Carl Oblinger, former mayor of Chatham, is Assistant Professor of Humanities and Political Science at Springfield College in Illinois. He teaches courses on American society, foreign policy, and American Government and Western Civilization.

Author Douglas A. Blackmon will speak about his book at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 13, at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield. The presentation is free to the public, but reservations are necessary. Call 217-558-8934.

The book will also be a subject of a panel discussion on "Slavery and Other Issues After the Civil War" at 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 30, at Beata Hall conference room inside the main building at Springfield College in Illinois. The panel includes Bill Logan, Springfield activist; Jim Lewis of the U.S. Attorney's office; Khyran Boyd, graduate student; and Carl Oblinger. The program will be repeated Nov. 6.

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