Michelle's Reviews > Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II

Slavery by Another Name by Douglas A. Blackmon
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Douglas Blackmon's Slavery by Another Name is SUCH an important book with history that is practically unknown (at least in most circles), but I can't exactly say that I would recommend it to anyone.

The basic content of the book was originally published in a WSJ article in 2001. The book's introduction explained that this article received quite the response. Apparently white people felt that “it seemed to be an account of one more important but sadly predictable bullet point in the standard indictment of historic white racism…” but the “reactions of African Americans were altogether different. Repeatedly, they described how the article lifted a terrible burden," answering questions such as "what explained the inexplicably labored advance of African Americans in US society in the century between the Civil War and the civil rights movement of the 1960s?" and "How had so large a population of Americans disappeared into a largely unrecorded oblivion of poverty and obscurity?" According to Blackmon, "For many black readers, the account of how a form of American slavery persisted into the twentieth century, embraced by the U.S. economic system and abided at all levels of government, offered a concrete answer to that fear for the first time." (Side note: I'm definitely uncomfortable with the way he explained this reaction, but I get the point, that's for sure.)

So why don't I recommend the book? For one thing, it is extremely dense and repetitive, as it should be. Slavery by Another Name is extremely thorough in documenting the breadth and depth of the atrocities committed in the convict leasing system. The result is chapter after chapter full of names and specific accounts involving very similar themes. If no other book has already compiled and consolidated these details, then I am glad it exists in this form. On the other hand, the format and level of detail leaves a lot to be desired in terms of a narrative to follow from beginning to end. Blackmon tried to stick with one individual throughout the book, but he clearly (and admittedly, I would think) didn't have enough information to support a particularly compelling story.

So to those that are interested, and everyone should be, I will attempt to summarize the basics here. (The article itself is also worth reading. I probably should've taken copious notes, but I didn't, so this is from memory and subject to minor errors.)

1. After the civil war ended and slavery was officially abolished by the 13th amendment, white society felt threatened, especially in the south, and found it effective to criminalize completely reasonable behavior. So, for example, if a black man was found walking down a street with no proven destination in mind, he could be arrested for "vagrancy." (Since the judicial system outside of cities was less than legit at that time, a "judge" might just be the owner of the local general store and both laws and records were largely ignored.)

2. Once a black man was arrested, usually on a pretty insignificant (if valid at all) charge, he had to pay a fine for committing the crime. He also had to pay the "fees" associated with the whole process. "Sheriffs, deputies and some court officials derived most of their compensation from fees charged to convicts for each step in their own arrest, conviction and shipment to a private company. That gave sheriffs an incentive to arrest and obtain convictions of as many people as possible. They also had an incentive to feed the prisoners as little as possible, since they could pocket the difference between what the state paid them and what they spent to maintain the convicts while in their custody. Some convicts had enough money to pay the fees themselves and gain their freedom; the many who didn't were instead put to work."

3. Since the "convict" was unlikely to be carrying enough cash to pay these fees and the fine (and he would not be allowed to go home or to family for the resources), one of two things would happen. Either a white farmer might "offer" to pay the total amount and "allow" the prisoner to work it off on the farm. Or, the prisoner might be sold to a business (such as coal or steel mines) with the payment for his labor covering the fine and fees. These terms were often months long to pay off the debt and a new fee was often assessed (for attempting to escape, etc) prior to the end of the term in order to extend it even longer.

4. Whether stuck on a private farm or working for a major corporation, prisoners/slaves were subject to extreme conditions and abuses. These are listed in great detail in the book, but it is enough to say that it was likely worse than if they had actually been slaves in the antebellum south, because there was no financial incentive to keep them healthy, or even alive. New convicts could and would easily replace those that were too injured or sick (or deceased) to work. This same idea meant that the corporations could afford to dismiss the unionization of white workers. Steel mills or coal mines had no reason to accommodate the demands of white workers who went on strike when they could simply lease additional convicts from the nearest prison system.

5. This was not some small scale operation. In Alabama alone, “the total number of those sent into the mines over the 60-year span of the system probably far exceeded 100,000…[and] based on the numbers that do exist, annual mortality rates among the prisoners ranged from 3% to more than 25%." Yet any time the federal or state governments got involved, there were virtually no consequences for those holding convicts under false pretenses. Some individual farmers even pled guilty, knowing they would only have to pay a small fine before returning to business as usual.

6. The financial consequences of the convict leasing system were significant. “The convict board's records show that Alabama's forced labor system generated nearly $17 million for the state government alone -- or between $225 million and $285 million in today's dollars -- in the first two decades of the century. The total amount collected by counties isn't known.” So the government earned a LOT of revenue. But the corporations also SAVED a lot of money. Yes, they had to pay the government for the prisoners’ labor, but that was nothing compared to how much they would have had to pay actual employees. They also skimped on things like food, lodging, medical attention, etc when it came to the prisoners. In the end, both the the government and major corporations (and their wealthy white owners) “got rich” off of the convict leasing system, to say nothing of the lower level wealth that may have been accumulated by individual farmers or the sheriffs making the arrests. White society as a whole likely benefited from the system as well. Steel, coal, and other commodities that were “subsidized” by convict labor were inevitably cheaper as a result. So for white people to say “I haven’t benefited from slavery since my family didn’t own slaves” is just addressing one of the ways we have benefited from the enslavement of black people (and people making this silly claim need to shut up).

The sociology lover in me was also pretty disappointed that the book simply listed the people, governments, and businesses involved but never really explained how this system affected black society on a larger scale. It is easy to imagine how an individual and his family would be affected by his incarceration and slave labor, especially if it ended in his death. But what percentage of the black community was affected? How many individuals were removed from the labor force? What did this mean for their ability to accumulate any wealth (or even just get out of poverty)? How did it affect the spirit of the people? Did all black families know this was going on and consequently live in fear? What were the long term consequences? Again, some of these questions can be answered with common sense, but others cannot and I'd prefer to have answers that are backed up by research.

So in conclusion, I would have preferred something a little different. Maybe even historical fiction. But I’m glad I know what actually happened and can share that knowledge with everyone else who won’t be reading the book.
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Reading Progress

June 27, 2015 – Shelved
June 17, 2016 – Started Reading
July 12, 2016 –
page 216
September 21, 2016 – Finished Reading

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