Tomorrow is National Freedom Day in the United States, commemorating Lincoln signing the 13th Amendment, and celebrating freedom from slavery. In this second part of the slavery series we argue that the celebrations were and still are too early.
Not only that the American civil war didn’t break to end slavery as we argued in the former post, it didn’t end slavery at all. In fact it took another century for slavery to really formally end in the United States and even then it wasn’t for moral reason but again for strategic ones.
For slavery to really end, it took watertight prohibition laws and the will to enforce them. Blacks didn’t have the first to their help and whites didn’t have the second.
The allegedly emancipatory 13th Amendment has an exception which is involuntary servitude as a punishment for a crime. Humans like humans, used this exception as a loophole to keep slavery active and thriving by systematically criminalizing African Americans.
We are not talking about the notorious Jim Crow laws which were designed to further exclude blacks from society (mainly by absolute social segregation) but about the former discriminatory system known as the Black Codes, which were directly designed to further enslave blacks by establishing a legal basis for neo-slavery.
The Black Codes
Unable to resurrect their economy, the South had a powerful incentive to keep their coerce labor system. All they needed is to reconfigure their judicial system and to count on the rest of the nations’ apathy.
And so new sets of terribly discriminatory laws called the Black Codes passed in the South. For example it was illegal to walk along the railroad (which was impossible to avoid because there were no alternatives), not only that romantic relationships between whites and blacks were illegal but it was illegal to even speak loudly in the company of a white women, it was a crime to sell goods after dark (so blacks couldn’t go after the working hours and sell crops they’ve grown for themselves next to the ones they grew for their employers).
But the most pernicious set of laws regarded “vagrancy”. It became a very serious crime for any man not to prove he was employed. This meant that almost everywhere in the south every black man was vulnerable to arrest unless he had the explicit protection of a white man. Being employed was very hard in those times especially for blacks since some states limited the occupations opened for them and barred them from acquiring land.
What made the vagrancy laws even worse was that in every southern state, no matter how horribly a farm worker was treated, it was a crime for him to seek employment with another land owner, unless he received a written permission from his current employer. If blacks were cheated out of their settlement by the land owner in the end of the season, or if they were abused or starved, or their children or wife were abused or starved, they couldn’t leave for another plantation without a written permission, which they almost never got. That put all blacks in a perpetual state of vulnerability. And indeed tens of thousands of blacks were accused of this crime and ended up prolonging their slavery simply because they were looking for a job.
The laws weren’t written so that they would apply to black men only, but they anyway did. Police records show tiny amount of arrests before the black codes and then an enormous leap in their numbers from a certain point and for a period of more than 70 years.
There are more than thirty thousand pages related to debt slavery cases in the Department of Justice at the National Archives.
The records demonstrate the capture and imprisonment of thousands of poor citizens. The total number of workers caught in this net is probably more than a hundred thousand.
Repeatedly, the timing and scale of surges in arrests appeared more attuned to rises and dips in the need for cheap labor than any demonstrable acts of crime. Hundreds of forced labor camps came to exist, scattered throughout the South – operated by state and county governments, large corporations, small-time entrepreneurs, and provincial farmers.
The idea was obvious, to criminalize blacks so they can be re-enslaved under a legal system. 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 as many blacks as possible (And while in custody 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).
At that time even a $20 fine was hard to settle, and it never ended with that. Since Convicts were charged a fee for their arrest, for having a warrant served on them, for every witness who testified against them, for the court clerk and etc, a $20-30 fine would typically add up to $80-100.
A very common thing was to be fined the equivalent of two year work for a one or two dollar theft.
Some convicts had enough money to pay the fees themselves and gain their freedom, the many who hadn’t were instead locked in servitude. Their offense was blackness.
The convict leasing system was developed to allow businesses and white plantation owners to purchase prisoners to live on their property and work under their control.
This system was a great deal for Southern state governments, which derived income from renting out the prisoners to work and avoided the costs of housing and feeding the convicts. And of course it was also a great deal for private companies who gained extremely cheap and exploitable labor.
These For-profit mines, farms, and factories were supposed to be regulated by the state, but in practice, inmates were routinely abused and forced to work under dangerous and harsh conditions. In addition, because the state profited each time an individual was convicted and leased to a privately owned farm or a factory, markets for convict laborers developed very soon, with entrepreneurs buying and selling convict labor leases.
With this new economic market mechanism for valuing and trafficking men, very quickly many people realized there was a new way to again take possession of a black man who had been their slave only a decade before. If a white man wanted to take control of such a man or his now grown sons, all he had to do was swear out a warrant against them, claiming that they stole something from him. The white man would be believed by the court, the black man would not stand a chance, and would have no way to pay the fine – especially when the white man worked out a deal with the sheriff. Then for a year or two the white man would have a complete control over the falsely accused man and his sons.
And when the “supply” of convicts fell below the demand, compliant legislators and country sheriffs stood ready to raise it. Thousands and thousands of people were kidnapped, (physically snatched from the side of the road and forced into servitude) or arbitrarily arrested and leased to coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, quarries, and farm plantations.
There were no rules, no defenses and no way to predict the behavior of this oppressive force.
This system was not exclusive to the South – convicts were also used as a forced labor source in the North, and state systems of penal labor often contracted prison labor out to private entrepreneurs. However, only in the South did the state give up total control of the prisoners to contractors.
Before the civil war, it was never in the economic interest of a slave owner to kill his own slaves or abuse them so terribly that they couldn’t work anymore, so the slaves’ economic value protected them in a very twisted kind of way. However when it came to convict leasing, the inmates weren’t cared for at all because new inmates could always be available. Their lives meant even less than salves’ and therefore were treated with unprecedented brutality. They were regularly beaten, underfed and forced to work under the most horrible working conditions and in the most horrible places.
Whipping was the accepted norm for punishment. Contractors whipped prisoners for insubordination and for trying to escape, but they also used whipping to enforce labor discipline.
Coal officials often faked “bad conduct” reports on prisoners to prolong their sentences and thus keep experienced men in the mine longer.
The mortality rate was very high. The “Prisoners” died of exhaustion, sunstrokes, frostbites, pneumonia, gunshot wounds, and shackle-poisoning caused by the constant rubbing of chains on flesh.
When blacks were accused with an offense and were unable to pay the fines, the judge would sentence them to a number of years of hard labor, to be performed at private companies that have a contract with the court (Convict Leasing), or, a local businessman would step forward to pay the fines. The convict would then sign a contract agreeing to work for him without pay, for a year, two years or five years until the debt was paid off.
In many cases a defendant who, when faced with the likelihood of a conviction and the threat of being sent to a far-off work camp, would “confess judgment,” essentially claiming responsibility before any trial occurred, then a local businessman would step forward to act as “surety,” vouching for the future good behavior of the defendant, in exchange of the defendant’s labor. That form of slavery was called Peonage or debt slavery.
Furthermore, African Americans found themselves in the state of peonage even without ever stepping into a court house or being accused of a felony, by being ripped off again and again by a white plantation owner through a system called Sharecropping.
Sharecropping by definition is the working on a piece of land by a tenant in exchange for a portion of the crops or the revenue that they bring in for the landowner. In theory, the proceeds the sharecroppers earned for their portion of the crop would pay all of the expenses, with money left over that could be saved until they could pay off their debt or even purchase their own farms. The reality was that most sharecroppers found themselves in more and more debt each year.
The landowner would force the sharecropper to buy seeds and tools from his store, which often had inflated prices. These rates created an environment of debt and poverty that the sharecroppers had trouble escaping from.
The white landowners treated the workers minimally better than they were treated as slaves. White people watched them with rigid supervision and drove them to their limit. Along with the poor physical treatment, the sharecroppers were cheated out of their share. A sharecropper, often illiterate, rarely had the opportunity to check the books and add up his or her own debt, to calculate the interest, or even to shop his or her cotton to different buyers. In many cases the sharecropper was told that the amount he made selling his crop was not sufficient to settle the debts accrued during the year, and was bound to the landlord for another season.
For thousands of former slaves, sharecropping led to the separation of families as black sharecroppers were frequently arrested and forced to work under overseers without pay until their “debt” had been paid in full.
The next evolvement of slavery was the chain gangs – groups of convicts who were forced to labor while chained to each other. This system replaced the convict leasing system, instead of selling prisoners to private companies and businesses, African American were exploited by the public sector. It meant no change in the lives of the convicts themselves which were still short and brutal. Hard labor on a chain gang became a standard sentence for vagrancy and petty larceny in the South.
Chain gangs had tasks such as road construction, ditch digging, or farming while chained together. Some chain gangs labored at work sites near the prison, while others were locked in transportable jails such as railroad trucks or caged vehicles.
The living conditions for chain gang convicts were frequently horrific, with sanitation practically nonexistent and diseases and illnesses very common. This was especially true for those kept in portable jails, which were transported from site to site. Chains were wrapped around the ankles of prisoners, shackling five together while they ate, slept and of course worked at gunpoint and under whips in a public spectacle of chattel slavery and torture.
From the Civil War to World War II
A war did help to end slavery in the United States but it wasn’t the Civil War as the tale tells, but World War II, and just as it was with the civil war, it wasn’t moral reasons that triggered the decision to finely act against slavery, but strategic ones.
Until December 1941 the policy of the Department of Justice was not to investigate cases of forced labor and there wasn’t a federal law stating that it is a crime to hold a person as a slave.
The change came as a result of Roosevelt’s fear that racial inequalities would be used as anti-United States propaganda by the Japanese during World War II. After Pearl Harbor Roosevelt asked the cabinet what were the U.S soft spots, propaganda wise. The reply he received was that the Japanese may claim America is stating that it fights for freedom while oppressing its own citizens. This led him to finally order some enforcement actions against slavery by the federal government.
It took almost another century to officially end slavery after it was supposedly abolished in the US (and yet not all the forms were even formally ceased, convict leasing is still very prevalent in the U.S nowadays). The reality in the South between the Civil War and World War II didn’t disrupt the good story of how the North ended slavery.
There are documentations of expressions of hope that progressive whites from the North would come to the rescue of the newly enslaved blacks. Figures as Fredric Douglass made public pleas, calling attention to the destruction of black lives by a set of new bondage mechanisms, and calling for their allies at the North for help. But they never did. The North’s apathy to the reality after the civil war is another indication that it wasn’t moral reasons that caused it, what further ridicule the myth we have addressed in the former post. The North’s indifference and racism was exposed once again when they turned their look away and the South was free to have its way with the fate of African Americans.
It is another disturbing reminder of how historical common knowledge is formed and by who, while whose voices are silenced.
More importantly, it is another disturbing reminder of how external, cynical, interested reasons, and not moral ones, end up ending exploitative systems (at least until loopholes and modifications appear).
And most importantly, even regardless of the true reasons and causes for ending slavery, it never really ended, not in the U.S and definitely not all over the world. In fact there are more slaves today than ever before in history. That’s what makes slavery ending as a successful test case for animal exploitation ending so absurd. If the comparison is at all relevant (which is the topic of the last part of this series), it is a test case that proves the opposite. And that is the topic of our next post.