Douglas Blackmon on “neo-slavery” in America:
On March 30, 1908, Green Cottenham was arrested by the Shelby County, Ala., sheriff and charged with vagrancy. After three days in the county jail, the 22-year-old African-American was sentenced to an unspecified term of hard labor. The next day, he was handed over to a unit of U.S. Steel Corp. and put to work with hundreds of other convicts in the notorious Pratt Mines complex on the outskirts of Birmingham. Four months later, he was still at the coal mines when tuberculosis killed him.
Born two decades after the end of slavery in America, Green Cottenham died a slave in all but name. The facts are dutifully entered in the handwritten registry of prisoners in Shelby County and in other state and local government records.
In the early decades of the 20th century, tens of thousands of convicts — most of them, like Mr. Cottenham, indigent black men — were snared in a largely forgotten justice system rooted in racism and nurtured by economic expedience. Until nearly 1930, decades after most other Southern states had abolished similar programs, Alabama was providing convicts to businesses hungry for hands to work in farm fields, lumber camps, railroad construction gangs and, especially in later years, mines. For state and local officials, the incentive was money; many years, convict leasing was one of Alabama’s largest sources of funding.
Janet Maslin’s review of Douglas Blackmon’s recently published book, “Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II”:
He [Blackmon] describes free men and women forced into industrial servitude, bound by chains, faced with subhuman living conditions and subject to physical torture. That plight was horrific. But until 1951, it was not outside the law.All it took was anything remotely resembling a crime. Bastardy, gambling, changing employers without permission, false pretense, “selling cotton after sunset”: these were all grounds for arrest in rural Alabama by 1890. And as Mr. Blackmon explains in describing incident after incident, an arrest could mean a steep fine. If the accused could not pay this debt, he or she might be imprisoned.
Alabama was among the Southern states that profitably leased convicts to private businesses. As the book illustrates, arrest rates and the labor needs of local businesses could conveniently be made to dovetail.
For the coal, lumber, turpentine, brick, steel and other interests described here, a steady stream of workers amounted to a cheap source of fuel. And the welfare of such workers was not the companies’ concern. So in the case of John Clarke, convicted of “gaming” on April 11, 1903, a 10-day stint in the Sloss-Sheffield mine in Coalburg, Ala., could erase his fine. But it would take an additional 104 days for him to pay fees to the sheriff, county clerk and witnesses who appeared at his trial.
In any case, Mr. Clarke survived for only one month and three days in this captivity. The cause of his death was said to be falling rock. At least another 2,500 men were incarcerated in Alabama labor camps at that time.