Piling detail on detail, Blackmon has exposed a horrible reality: slavery in the United States thrived for nearly 80 years after the Civil War, defined by race (Southern whites enslaved African Americans) and disguised as debt peonage or criminal servitude. The record of what he calls "neo-slavery" was readily available in local records and musty Justice Department archives, but few had ever looked for it.
Hundreds of thousands of African Americans, mostly young men, labored involuntarily in mines, on farms, and in the forests to the great economic benefit of whites. They worked while shackled in chains, barely fed or clothed, under constant threat of whippings, water torture (yes, these slave drivers went in for Dick Cheney's favorite game) and outright murder.
Their condition was often worse than that of pre-Civil War slaves because they weren't the expensive, valuable, property of the mine or mill. Slave drivers -- whether industrial giants like United States Steel or local farmers -- simply rented these unfortunates from rural sheriffs for a small monthly fee, usually less than $20. If the private jailer worked or beat a laborer to death, they could just rent a new hand. Rural sheriffs and justices of the peace made good money by picking up Black men, fining them for "vagrancy" or some other unrecorded offense, and passing them on to paying slave drivers seeking workers.
Blackmon reports how this system was imposed by defeated Confederates after the Civil War to keep the freed laborers down and at work; how impotent to stop it were sporadic federal legal intrusions on the system; and how only national mobilization for war in World War II, a mobilization that perforce needed African Americans, helped bring the slave system down.
Later in the book, he shares the story of an extended African American family coming to terms with each other about a history that had never been explicitly told. Several generations brought their different perspectives.
Reading this, I had to wonder how many Black children today, north and south, have a similar ghostly awareness that an uncle or a father "went away to prison and never came back." This is the contemporary truth that Michelle Alexander writes about in The New Jim Crow.
Mrs. Danzey's grandchildren had their own generational response to her stories.
We don't live in a world where it's likely anyone is going to have to "pay something" -- but at least we can all tell the truth about what was done.
But nonetheless I find it haunting. The economic interests involved are obvious; sheriffs, farmers and industrialists had a good deal going for themselves. But the unconstrained sadism takes the practice into some additional horrible cranny of human possibility
Many more pictures from the neo-slavery era are posted at the book's website.