This 90-minute PBS documentary, based upon the 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Douglas Blackmon, eviscerates one of America’s most cherished myths: the belief that slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. “Slavery by Another Name” documents how thousands of African Americans were pulled back into forced labor with shocking force and brutality, sanctioned by the judicial and legislative system, and propelled by the loss of slave labor after the Civil War.
African Americans were systematically charged for petty crimes, and sentenced to hard labor working for former white slave owners. “Convict leasing” became “Slavery by Another Name”, coercing African American “convicts” to work on chain-gangs and for major corporations. A form of “industrial slavery”, these purported convicts, who worked on month-to-month leases, were used and disposed of at will. Moreover, the brutality imposed on “prisoners” in the last part of the 19th and first half of the 20th century was identical to that used against slaves prior to the Civil War. The mortality rate was as high as 30-40% or more. No records were kept.
One strategy to recreate the slave economy was the creation of the crime of “vagrancy”. This provided a steady supply of “vagrants” forced to work off their sentences under heinous labor conditions. Convicts were repeatedly bought and sold throughout their sentences, again to former white slave-masters and industrialists. Replacing the outlawed debt slavery or peonage, convict leasing resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars of corporate profit. Tolerated by both the North and South as essential for raising the gross domestic product and propelling the United States to unprecedented economic power, this form of industrial slavery did not begin to decrease until the Second World War [motivated in part by the Japanese intention to use US racism to justify their own military actions] and the need for African American soldiers.
Deeply moving, fascinating, and repugnant all at the same time, “Slavery By Another Name” opens our eyes to the deliberate exploitation of African Americans. A courageous refutation of the ongoing myth that “Lincoln freed the slaves,” the documentary “Slavery By Another Name” demonstrates that slavery survived long past emancipation, until less than eighty years ago.
Conveniently overlooked by the nation and perpetrated across an enormous region over many years, the institution of forced labor as a fixture of African American life perniciously suffocated their aspirations and opportunities for their families and their very existence. This documentary film should be a required history lesson for us all.