US Slavery Ended in 1942
You may remember from history class that after the Union defeated the Confederacy in the United States Civil War, the 13th Amendment was passed, banning slavery, and freeing millions of southern blacks from involuntary servitude. And you understand that one doesn’t simply emerge from slavery to a lucrative career, but in 153 years, future generations should have been able to reach the mean success measures for Americans. A Pew Research study in 2013 found that first-generation immigrants earn less, are less likely to own homes or go to college, and more likely to be in poverty than the average American, that the second generation immigrant will approach or even surpass these benchmarks. 153 years is about five generations– so what gives? Well what if Slavery of blacks in America actually only ended 76 years, or 2.5 generations ago? Preposterous right? Well read the 13th Amendment (replicated above), and notice a pretty important clause in between the commas of section one, noting that slavery can exist “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”. Former Confederate States were readily aware of this exception, and as many as 800 thousand blacks lived lives as slaves for more than half a century following the Civil War.
Half of the invested capital in the South at the start of the Civil War was in slaves; the post war society would need to radically change in order to rebuild its economy. However, needed agrarian reform was not passed, and instead the South found a way to maintain its Lost Cause. Though there was a period of “Radical Reconstruction” following the war, the Corrupt Bargain of 1876 saw Republican Rutherford Hayes win the Presidency in exchange for the removal of federal troops from the former Confederate states. Quickly, Black Codes were passed, and henceforth it would be difficult for a Southern Black to go throughout a day without committing a possible felony offense. Dice games, walking on train tracks, speaking loudly, being “uppity” and almost anything else one could think of became a cause for conviction. Perhaps chief among them: not having a labor contract. This latter law almost compelled many southern blacks to choose between two choices which would lead to the same answer. Either accept an unfair labor contract with your former owner (or on a former plantation), or commit the crime of being unemployed. However, if you accept the labor contract, you will have to go into debt to afford the tools to till the land; you likely will not be able to pay this debt off– and guess what– that’s a crime. And have I mentioned yet that Judges would be better compensated if they ruled for conviction?
The reality of convict leasing and debt peonage would be quickly realized by blacks in the South. Just 10 years after the Corrupt Bargain, a rapidly expanding new slavery counted 15,000 subjects; by 1890 there were nearly 20,000 convict laborers. As many as 1/3 of male convicts were younger than 16 years of age, while over 90% of convict laborers were black men. To further cement the ludicracy of the charges levied, over ⅔ of arrests in 1886 were vague burglary charges–an offense simply claiming the theft of one dollar or more– such as a piece of wood from a fence.
Though tough to imagine, the lives of convict slaves were arguably worse than for pre-Civil War slaves. This is because after 1807, the US banned the importation of slaves, and therefore southerners had at least some vested interest in their slaves living long lives. In stark contrast, convict laborers could be leased out to a private enterprise for as short a period as just a few months. Thus, they were worked excruciatingly long; a convict laborer in a coal mine would work six days a week from 3 AM to 8 PM. With such long hours, and working in completely abhorrent conditions, it is unfortunately to no surprise that these slaves would die at a rate of 30-40% a year. Just like the North profited off of Slavery in the first half of the 19th century, the region similarly shares some guilt in this despicable institution in the second half of the century. Many northern based industries benefited from this cheap southern labor force; Standard Oil trains made their way to Birmingham on tracks built by slaves, powered by coal harvested by them. Further, Northern manufacturers continued to get cheap cotton; “coincidentally”, there was an annual surge in arrests in the Autumn when it came time to pick cotton.
While our collective historical memory seems to have easily forgotten this long period of time, our criminal justice system has continued its legacy admirably. With the incentive of free labor, blacks quickly became three times over-represented in southern jails, comprising 30% of the jail population. This overwhelming prison population cemented the association of race and crime for generations. Further, as can be seen in the above chart by the Prison Policy Initiative, the majority of people in jail today (which is overrepresented by blacks) have not been convicted of any genuine crimes.
Many ask why blacks would not simply leave the South if conditions were so bad; a deeper dive shows that this alternative option was simply infeasible for most. This was in large part due to the dire, inescapable economic status of most southern African Americans. Most worked as sharecroppers, who would receive 8% of the profit from their toils, yet would be charged 70%, or even higher interest rate for loans needed to get materials. The cycle of debt peonage has already been discussed, but the magnitude it reached, and the longevity of the peculiar institution, is challenging to understand. By as late as 1930, half of African Americans in the United States– four million people– were in the South, and almost all were trapped in some form of exploitative labor. With racial segregation legalized in the 1890’s, and upheld in the 1896 Supreme Court Case Plessy vs Ferguson case, southern blacks had no route to the money or legal freedom to move North.
This post-Civil War slavery was not hidden from plainsight; blame must also be placed on the Federal Government which, perhaps over fear of provoking another regional conflict, refused to use arms of the Federal Government to either strengthen the 13th amendment or enforce the 14th amendment. Alabama’s debt peonage was actually found to be illegal in the early 20th century, however, President Teddy Roosevelt caps his own Attorney General’s investigation in 1903, pardoning those convicted. Nonetheless, the trials were at least enough to scare the South into slightly changing their method of convict leasing: going forward, blacks worked for the state as opposed to being leased to private industry. By this time, states would rather chain gangs pave roads to improve the South’s dilapidated infrastructure than earn the profit from leasing blacks to private industry. Despite Woodrow Wilson’s segregation in the government, some 400 thousand African Americans still enlisted to fight in World War II. Alabama at last ended convict leasing in 1928, though it would continue for another decade in other states. Franklin Roosevelt’s Presidency’s encounter with World War II made the country at last revisit this slavery by another name. For one, 2.5 million patriotic African Americans enlisted in the US armed services in the war to fight for a freedom for peoples abroad that they did not enjoy at home. Yet arguably of even more important to the administration, Japan waged a war for moral high ground with the US by pointing out the country’s racial problems. With FDR’s order number 3591, the Federal Government at long last declared it would persecute any form of involuntary slavery– whether it be through debt peonage or some other conviction. 1942 saw a man in Texas convicted for holding a man slave for 15 years; bondage finally would end in the United States soon thereafter.
As many as 800 thousand blacks were forced into slavery in the 75 years following the war that supposedly ended the practice. A documented nine thousand of these men and women died while leased– though the number is likely quite higher. The criminal justice system, happy to convict blacks for walking along a train track, had a far tougher time finding southern whites guilty for the first-degree murder of a black person. In fact, after the Civil War, such a conviction occurred three times until the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum in the 1960’s: convictions occurred in 1877, 1907, and in 1966. Re-read that sentence: during a time period where close to one million blacks were forced into slavery over faux crimes, a grand total of three whites were found guilty of murdering blacks. Certain news outlets ask why we don’t talk more about black on black crime today: perhaps this is because half of the country had never contemplated white on black crime for most of this nation’s history. The one hundred years which passed between the 13th Amendment and the Voting Rights act saw southern whites form a middle class built off slave labor, while northern whites were able to take advantage of government policies to achieve economic mobility themselves.
The 13th Amendment sought to end slavery through legislation; problematically, it took 7 decades for actions to catch up to that sentiment.
This article was written by Eli Wachs.
Blackmon, Douglas A. Slavery by another name: The re-enslavement of black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. Anchor, 2009.