- Slavery by Another Name by Sam, Pollard, Sheila Curran Bernard, Laurence Fishburne, Jason L. Pollard, Andrew Young, Michael Bacon, and Douglas A. Blackmon
In 1942, slavery officially ended in the United States, asserts douglas blackmon, whose documentary Slavery by Another Name powerfully demonstrates the disconnect between the official abolition of slavery on paper and the enduring practice on the ground. Based on Blackmon’s book of the same title, this PBS documentary brings to light the long-silenced story of convict leasing and debt peonage in Southern states from the Civil War to World War II, and reveals these structures for what they were: new state-sanctioned forms of slavery. Blackmon does an excellent job of restoring the voices of Southern blacks who experienced this brutal reality, through letters, court records, and archival images, as well as through dramatizations by actors and the personal testimonies of their descendants. The result is a deeply informative presentation of the social and economic forces that kept Southern blacks in bondage. The [End Page 86] contemporary viewer who is currently unaware of this chapter in U.S. history will find him/herself echoing the refrain of the descendants interviewed in the documentary: “We didn’t know, but now we do.”
Throughout Slavery by Another Name, the past and the present converge as scenes switch from grainy black and white photographs to reenactments of events in color. Accounts of Southern blacks living through this period mingle with narration provided by Laurence Fishburne, analyses by historians, and emotional testimonies of descendants. This powerful strategy gives voice to the silenced victims of convict leasing and debt peonage and allows these African Americans to tell their own stories of forced labor and the horrors they witnessed and suffered under this system. It also allows us to fill in the gap concerning hundreds of thousands of Southern blacks who disappeared without a trace in coal mines, in lumber camps, and on cotton plantations well after the de jure abolition of slavery.
Blackmon’s work demonstrates that as the gains of Reconstruction were eroded by Jim Crow laws, Southern farmers, steel corporations, lumber companies, and coal mines found a new source of cheap, exploitable labor. With the complicity of law enforcement officials who also ultimately turned a profit, as well as state agencies, a disproportionate number of black men were arrested on vague and trumped-up charges and were leased to work in mines and industries for fees. Essentially, free Southern blacks could be picked up at any time for so much as walking along the railroad tracks (a felony at the time), vagrancy (the most common), spitting on the sidewalk, talking loudly, or simply the accusation of wrongdoing—“crimes” that were sufficient to rob thousands of their freedom—and made to disappear within these industries, never to be heard from again. Others fell victim to the system of debt peonage and were kept enslaved on farms in an eternal cycle of debt due to extraordinarily high interest rates. In a period when personal and economic freedom should have been guaranteed by the Thirteenth Amendment, Southern blacks found themselves reinscribed in a system of indentured servitude facing the whip, disease, and other familiar forms of torture and brutality.
Slavery by Another Name recreates this atmosphere of fear and uncertainty primarily through the stories of three men: Ezekiel Archie, Green Cottenham, and John Davis. Their different stories represent the eighty-year evolution of convict leasing and debt peonage, an increasingly profitable arrangement for wealthy whites and a dangerous, exploitative system for blacks. Archie and Cottenham ultimately did not make it out of the mines, having been captured at a time when convict leasing was at its peak and law enforcement officials either supported it or turned a blind eye. Davis, on the other hand, regained his freedom due to the crackdown on debt peonage in 1903 with the transition to Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency. But this crackdown did not end the practice, and...