Interview with author Douglas Blackmon by Bill Moyers
Bill Moyers: Every time I walked downtown where I grew up in Texas, I passed the statue of Johnny Reb, facing east toward Richmond, the capitol of the Confederacy, reminding us of the bravery of gallant men who fought and died to protect a way of life . Tragically, it was a way of life built around slavery.
At one time there were thousands of slaves in our county. And after Richmond fell to Union troops, my home town became, briefly, the military headquarters of the Confederacy. But in 12 years of public schools I cannot remember one of the teachers I deeply cherished describe slavery for what it was. Nor did they, or anyone I knew, talk about how our town’s dark and tortured past in restoring white supremacy after the Civil War prevented the emancipated slaves from realizing the freedom they had been promised.
Across the South, from Texas and Louisiana to the Carolinas, thousands of freed Black Americans simply were arrested, often on trumped up charges, and coerced into forced labor. And that persisted right up into the 1940s, when I was still a boy.
Look at these pictures. Those photographs are from one of the most stunning new books you’ll read this year, “Slavery by Another Name.” The author is Douglas Blackmon, the Atlanta bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal. His articles on race, wealth and other issues have been nominated for Pulitzer Prizes four times. His reporting on U.S. Steel and the company’s use of forced labor was included in the 2003 edition of Best Business Stories, and his contribution to the Journal’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina received a Special Headliner Award in 2006. Welcome.
Douglas Blackmon: Well, the result was that by the time you got to the end of the 19th century, 25 or 30 years after the Civil War, the generation of slaves who’d been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, and then the constitutional amendments that ended slavery legally, this generation of people, who experienced authentic freedom in many respects – tough life, difficult hard lives after the Civil War – but real freedom, in which they voted, they participated in government …
Bill Moyers: They farmed?
Douglas Blackmon: They farmed. They carved out independent lives. But then, this terrible shadow began to fall back across Black life in America that effectively re-enslaved enormous numbers of people. And what that was all about, what that was rooted in, was that the Southern economy and, in a way, the American economy, was addicted to slavery, was addicted to forced labor. And the South could not resurrect itself.
And so, there was this incredible economic imperative to bring back coerced labor. And they did, on a huge scale.
Douglas Blackmon: Well, and that was a charade. But the way that happened was that, of course, before the Civil War, there were Slave Codes. There were laws that governed the behavior of slaves. And that was the basis of laws, for instance, that made it where a slave had to have a written pass to leave their plantation and travel on an open road.
Well, immediately after the Civil War, all the Southern states adopted a new set of laws that were then called Black Codes. And they essentially attempted to recreate the Slave Codes. Well, that was such an obvious effort to recreate slavery that the Union military leadership that was still in the South overruled all of that. Still, that didn’t work. And by the time you get to the end of Reconstruction, all the Southern legislatures have gone back and passed laws that aren’t called Black Codes but essentially criminalized a whole array of activities, that it was impossible for a poor Black farmer to avoid encountering in some way.
Bill Moyers: Such as?
Douglas Blackmon: Vagrancy. So, vagrancy was a law that essentially, it simply, you were breaking the law if you couldn’t prove at any given moment that you were employed. Well, in a world in which there were no pay stubs, it was impossible to prove you were employed. The only way you could prove employment was if some man who owned land would vouch for you and say, he works for me.
And of course, none of these laws said it only applies to Black people. But overwhelmingly, they were only enforced against Black people. And many times, thousands of times I believe, you had young Black men who attempted to do that. They ended up being arrested and returned to the original farmer where they worked in chains, not even a free worker, but as a slave.
Bill Moyers: And the result, as you write, thousands of Black men were arrested, charged with whatever, jailed and then sold to plantations, railroads, mills, lumber camps and factories in the deep South. And this went on, you say, right up to World War II?
Bill Moyers: You have a photograph in here – I have literally not been able to get this photograph out of my mind since I saw it the first time several weeks ago when I first got your book – it’s a photograph of an unnamed prisoner tied around a pickaxe for punishment in a Georgia labor camp. It was photographed some time around 1932, which this is hard to believe was two years before I was born.
Douglas Blackmon: Well, that picture was taken by a journalist named John Spivak, who took an astonishing series of pictures in these forced labor camps in Georgia in the 1930s. He got access to the prison system of Georgia and these forced labor encampments, which were scattered all over the place. Some of them were way out in the deep woods. There were turpentine camps. Some of them were mining camps. All incredibly harsh, brutal work. He got access to these as a journalist, in part, because the officials of Georgia had no particular shame in what was happening.
Bill Moyers: That’s a surprising thing.
Douglas Blackmon: Well, but what the picture also demonstrates was the level of violence and brutality, the venality of things that were done. And so, this kind of physical torture went on, on a huge scale. People were whipped, starved. They went without clothing. There were work camps where people reported that they would arrive looking for a lost family member, and they would arrive at a sawmill or a lumber camp where the men were working as slaves naked, chained, you know, whipped. It’s just astonishing, the level of brutality.
Bill Moyers: You have a story in here of a young man, a teenager, who spilled or poured coffee on the hog of the farmer he was working for. He was stripped, stretched across a barrel, and flogged 69 times with a leather strap. And he died a week later. But that’s not a unique story in this book.
Douglas Blackmon: No, that was incredibly common. And there were thousands and thousands of people who died under these circumstances over the span of the period that I write about in the book. And over and over again, it was from disease and malnutrition and from outright homicide and physical abuse.
Bill Moyers: You give voice to a young man long dead, whose voice would never had been heard, had you not discovered it, resurrected it and presented it. He’s the chief character in this book: Green Cottenham, that is.
Douglas Blackmon: Yes, that’s right.
Bill Moyers: Tell me about Green Cottenham.
Douglas Blackmon: Green Cottenham was a man in the 1880s born to a mother and a father, both of whom had been slaves, who were emancipated at the end of the Civil War. Imagine, a young man and a young woman who’ve just been freed from slavery. And now they have the opportunity to break away from the plantations where they’d been held, begin a new life. And so they do. They marry. They have many children. Green Cottenham is the last of them.
He’s born in the 1880s, just as this terrible curtain of hostility and oppression is beginning to really creep across all of Black life in the South. And by the time he becomes an adult, in the first years of the 20th century, the worst forces of the efforts to re-enslave Black Americans are in full power across the South.
And in the North, the allies, the white allies of the freed slaves, have abandoned them. And so, right before the 20th century, whites all across America have essentially reached this new consensus that slavery shouldn’t be brought back. But if African-Americans are returned to a state of absolute servility, that’s okay.
And Green Cottenham becomes an adult at exactly that moment. And then, in the spring of 1908, he’s arrested, standing outside a train station in a little town in Alabama. The officer who arrested him couldn’t remember what the charge was by the time he brought him in front of the judge.
So he’s conveniently convicted of a different crime than the one he was originally picked up for. He ends up being sold three days later, with another group of Black men, into a coal mine outside of Birmingham. And he survives there several months and then dies under terrible circumstances.
Bill Moyers: You write, 45 years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Cottenham was one of thousands of men working like a slave in these coal mines. Slope 12, you call it.
Douglas Blackmon: Slope Number 12.
Bill Moyers: What was Slope Number 12?
Douglas Blackmon: Slope Number 12 was a huge mine on the outskirts of Birmingham, part of a maze of mines. Birmingham is the fastest growing city in the country. Huge amounts of wealth and investment are pouring into the place.
But again, there’s this need for forced labor. And the very men, the very entrepreneurs who, just before the Civil War, were experimenting with a kind of industrial slavery, using slaves in factories and foundries, had begun to realize, hey, this works just as well as slaves out on the farm.
The very same men who were doing that in the 1850s come back in the 1870s and begin to reinstitute the same form of slavery. And Green Cottenham is one of the men, one of the many thousands of men who were sucked into the process and then lived under these terribly brutalizing circumstances, this place that was filled with disease and malnutrition. And he dies there under terrible, terrible circumstances.
Bill Moyers: And you found the sunken graves five miles from downtown Birmingham?
Douglas Blackmon: It’s just miles away. In fact there are just two places there, because all of these mines now are abandoned. Everything is overgrown. There are almost no signs of human activity, except that if you dig deep into the woods, grown over there, you begin to see, if you get the light just right, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of depressions where these bodies were buried.
Bill Moyers: You say that Atlanta, where you live now, which used to proclaim itself the finest city in the South, was built on the broken backs of re-enslaved Black men.
Douglas Blackmon: That’s right. When I started off writing the book, I began to realize the degree to which this form of enslavement had metastasized across the South and that Atlanta was one of many places where the economy that created the modern city, was one that relied very significantly on this form of coerced labor. And some of the most prominent families and individuals in the creation of the modern Atlanta, their fortunes originated from the use of this practice.
And the most dramatic example of that was a brick factory on the outskirts of town that, at the turn of the century, was producing hundreds of thousands of bricks every day. The city of Atlanta bought millions and millions of those bricks. The factory was operated entirely with forced workers. And almost 100 percent Black forced workers. There were even times that on Sunday afternoons a kind of old-fashioned slave auction would happen, where a white man who controlled Black workers would go out to Chattahoochee Brick and horse trade with the guards at Chattahoochee Brick, trading one man for another, or two men. And …
Bill Moyers: And yet, slavery was illegal?
Douglas Blackmon: It had been illegal for 40 years. And this is a really important thing to me. I was stunned when I realized that because the city of Atlanta bought these millions and millions of bricks, well, those are the bricks that paved the downtown streets of Atlanta. And those bricks are still there. And so these are the bricks that we stand on.
Bill Moyers: Didn’t this economic machine that was built upon forced labor, didn’t these Black Codes, the way that Black life was criminalized, didn’t this put African-Americans at a terrific economic disadvantage then and now?
Douglas Blackmon: Absolutely. The results of those laws and the results of particularly enforcing them with such brutality through this forced labor system, the result of that was that African-Americans, thousands and thousands of them, worked for years and years of their lives with no compensation whatsoever, no ability to end up buying property and enjoying the mechanisms of accumulating wealth in the way that white Americans did. This was a part of denying Black Americans access to education, denying Black Americans access to basic infrastructure, like paved roads, the sorts of things that made it possible for white farmers to become successful.
And so, yes, this whole regime of the Black Codes, the way that they were enforced, the physical intimidation and racial violence that went on, all of these were facets of the same coin that made it incredibly less likely that African-Americans would emerge out of poverty in the way that millions of white Americans did at the same time.
Bill Moyers: How is it, you and I both Southerners, how is it we could grow up right after this era and be so unaware of what had just happened to our part of the country?
Douglas Blackmon: Well, I think there are a lot of explanations for that. The biggest one is simply that this is a history that we haven’t wanted to know as a country. We’ve engaged in a in a kind of collective amnesia about this, particularly about the severity of it.
And the official history of this time, the conventional history tended to minimize the severity of the things that were done again and again and again and to focus instead on the idea, on a lot of false mythologies. Like this idea that freed slaves after emancipation became lawless and sort of went wild and thievery and all sorts of crimes being committed by African-Americans right after the Civil War and during Reconstruction. But when you go back, as I did, and look at the arrest records from that period of time, there’s just no foundation for that. And the reality was there was hardly any crime at all. And huge numbers of people were being arrested on these specious charges, so they could be forced back into labor.
Bill Moyers: Another reason – I just think, as you talk – another reason is that anybody who raised these allegations or charges or wrote about them when I was growing up were dismissed as Communists. If it had been from The Wall Street Journal, it might have been a different take.
Douglas Blackmon: Well, I think there’s some truth to that. Anyone who tried to raise these sorts of questions was at risk of complete excoriation among other white Southerners. But that’s also what’s remarkable about the present moment. And one of the things I’ve discovered in the course of talking about the book with people is that there’s an openness to a conversation about these things that I think didn’t exist even 10 or 15 years ago.
Bill Moyers: What has been the response to it? Americans don’t like to confront these pictures, these stories.
Douglas Blackmon: They don’t. But over and over and over again I’ve encountered people who’ve read the book, who e-mailed me or they come up to me after I talk about it somewhere, particularly African-Americans – African-Americans know this story in their hearts. They may not know the facts. They may not know exactly what the scale of things were. But they know in their hearts that this is what happened.
And so, people come up to me and say, “Gosh, the story that my grandmother used to tell before she died 20 years ago, I never believed it. Because she would describe that she was still a slave in Georgia after World War II or just before. And it never made sense to me. And now it does.”
Bill Moyers: It is amazing that this was happening at a time when many of the African-Americans retiring today were children.
Douglas Blackmon: Were children, exactly. Exactly. And so, again, these are events unlike Antebellum slavery. These are things that connect directly to the lives and the shape and pattern and structure of our society today.
Bill Moyers: Does it explain to you why there might be so much anger in the Black community among, let’s say, African-Americans who are my age, 73, 74, who were children at the time this was still going on?
Douglas Blackmon: Well, there’s no way that anybody can read this book and come away still wondering why there is a sort of fundamental cultural suspicion among African-Americans of the judicial system, for instance. I mean, that suspicion is incredibly well-founded.
The judicial system, the law enforcement system of the South, became primarily an instrument of coercing people into labor and intimidating Blacks away from their civil rights. That was its primary purpose, not the punishment of lawbreakers. And so, yes, these events build an unavoidable and irrefutable case for the kind of anger that still percolates among many, many African-Americans today.
Bill Moyers: If people want to know more about not only your book, but about all of this, for research and so forth, where do they go?
Douglas Blackmon: Go to my website, or the book’s website, www.slaverybyanothername.com.
Bill Moyers: Douglas Blackmon, thanks for being with me.
Douglas Blackmon: Thank you for having me.
Visit www.pbs.org:80/moyers/journal/06202008/watch2.html to watch the broadcast – or get a podcast – of this interview.