20th Century Slavery in the U.S.

I’m generally aware of what’s going on in the world, so rarely does an article or photo in Newsweek surprise me.  This, however, was very different.  The photo here was so striking, so strong an image that it made me stop — and what I discovered was that this was taken in the 1930s, in a forced labor camp in the South.

Unbeknownst to me, and I’m sure many other Northerners, black and white alike, slavery continued long past the Civil War.  We’re not talking Jim Crow segregation laws.  We’re talking large scale kidnapping and enslavement of black men and boys that lasted into World War II.

Under laws enacted specifically to intimidate blacks, tens of thousands of African Americans were arbitrarily arrested, hit with outrageous fines, and charged for the costs of their own arrests. With no means to pay these ostensible “debts,” prisoners were sold as forced laborers to coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, quarries and farm plantations. Thousands of other African Americans were simply seized by southern landowners and compelled into years of involuntary servitude. Government officials leased falsely imprisoned blacks to small-town entrepreneurs, provincial farmers, and dozens of corporations—including U.S. Steel Corp.—looking for cheap and abundant labor. Armies of “free” black men labored without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced through beatings and physical torture to do the bidding of white masters for decades after the official abolition of American slavery.

One of the easiest methods to put the nation’s stain of slavery behind us is to say that it was long ago, that generations have passed and we have no connection to that time.  But while my grandfather was preparing to be sent into WWII (he didn’t go, the war ended), boys his age were being forced into slavery in rock quarries, brick pits, and farms.  That’s the first news to “rock my world” in a long time.

You can hear an audio slideshow at Newsweek’s site, or go to the site for a new book, Slavery by Another Name, by Douglas Blackmon.

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