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Posts Tagged ‘Neo-Slavery’

The violation was known as “vagrancy.” If you were a black man in the South following Reconstruction, and you were unable to show proof of employment on-demand to the police, you could be arrested and delivered into what Douglas Blackmon, author of Slavery by Another Name, calls “Neo-Slavery.”

“Show me your papers” in the vernacular of the late 19th Century through World War II involved furnishing pay stubs or, if you were lucky, the word of your employer — some kind of evidence proving to a police officer that you were employed.

But what if you forgot to carry your employment records with you when you left the house that morning? What if you were — like so many regular citizens — unaware of the anti-vagrancy law? Hell, what if you were simply unemployed? It might be your last mistake as a free citizen of the United States.

Like so many other African American males of that era, you might be incarcerated, convicted and perhaps sold to a farming, mining or lumber operation. Yes, sold. After the Civil War. After the abolition of slavery and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. Slavery, it turns out, survived.

In the Spring of 1908, a young African American son of slaves living in Alabama named Green Cottonham was arrested at a train station. We don’t know for sure what law Cottonham had violated to warrant his arrest because, at his trial, the arresting officer literally forgot the reason why Cottonham was picked up in the first place. So the charge of vagrancy was substituted. Cottonham convicted and sentenced to 30 days of hard labor, but since he was poor and couldn’t pay several intentionally impossible-to-pay fines, the 30 day sentence grew to a year. He was carted off and “legally” sold for $12-a-month to U.S. Steel. At age 22, Green Cottonham was shoved into a coal mine as a manual laborer — occasionally whipped and tortured, eventually dying before the end of his sentence.

Vagrancy and a wide variety of other similar violations were intentionally broad and trivial — not intended to clean up the streets, but, instead, to suppress the advancement of blacks, as well as to feed the engines of agriculture and industry in the South with cheap forced labor.

This was a back-door slave trade, ensnaring hundreds of thousands of African American men. The Southern judicial system, fueled by ridiculous laws and ridiculous trials, became an above-boards means of rebuilding the South on the backs of slave labor. And it flourished until just after Pearl Harbor when President Roosevelt asked the Justice Department to shut it all down for fear the Germans and Japanese would use it against us in their propaganda.

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