Slavery By Another Name: Devastating History, Epic Research and Media Project

The Pulitzer-Prize winning book by Douglas Blackmon Slavery By Another Name (Doubleday, 2008), has also become a documentary film (and Sundance Film Festival selection). In this epic research and media project, Blackmon and his collaborators bring to light a period of time when slavery had officially ended, yet a new form of was being reinstated. 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. In the following (long for the web at just over 8 minutes) video clip, Blackmon describes how he came to write the book and why he thinks it’s important history for everyone in the U.S. to consider today:

In addition to the devastating historical account of the brutal oppression of African Americans by white overlords, there is a meta point to be made about the project as well. What Blackmon, along with filmmaker Sam Pollard and unnamed web production staff at PBS, have created here is a triumvirate of knowledge production in the digital age: a book, a documentary film, and an interactive website with additional materials. This, my scholarly friends, is the wave of the future in knowledge production. Doctoral students in the social science and humanities, take note: time to begin forging those collaborative working relationships with your friends in visual media, art and interactive design (and/or, cross-training on skills).

Interestingly, Blackmon has done this innovative scholarly project as a journalist and with the largess of his employer, the Wall Street Journal. One of my graduate school advisors used to say that “sociology is slow journalism,” but the reality is that really good journalism takes a long time – Blackmon says he thought this project would take him 2 years, but it ended up taking 7 years (the average length of time to complete a PhD dissertation). It would be great if more PhD-degree granting institutions began to recognize the potential for such cross-platform forms of knowledge production.

You can watch the entire film, “Slavery By Another Name,” along with the “Making Of…” on the PBS website, here.


  1. I think it’s really important to stress that in addition to breaking laws enacted specifically to intimidate them, blacks were arrested even when they had broken no law at all. Another point to emphasize is that while all sharecroppers were exploited, blacks were trapped in illegal debt peonage making their situation doubly worse.

    And here’s the coup de grace: the children, grandchildren, and even some of the survivors of neo-slavery are still alive! So it’s completely reasonable that reparations be paid. Certainly not everybody will be paid the same. The descendants of someone who died in one of the prison camps should receive more than those who were never arrested. (And that goes for white prisoners as well.) But people who survived that terror, even if not personally affected, deserve restitution, too. Call it pain and suffering if you must, but think of it like this – the logic behind statutes of limitations is that citizens shouldn’t have to live their lives in fear that at any moment, the government could come and arrest them for something done years ago. Blacks during that time had no such protection.

    The documentary also made a pertinent point that it was during this time that blackness becomes linked with criminality.

  2. cordoba blue

    I own this book and have recommended it to many friends and students. It really was “Slavery in America:Chapter Two” after the Civil War. So many people who knew about slavery never knew about this method of arresting black men on specious charges so the prisoner labor could be “bought” by American corporations as free labor. Corporations would actually use penal labor for 6 months, for example, and then hand the African American inmates to another corporation as “their turn”. Yes, it was slavery! In every sense of the word.
    Plus, so many black men would just be lifted off the streets and thrown in prison, that thousands of black families never even knew what happened to their loved ones. One day their son would be walking down Main Street, the next night he wouldn’t return home. Black families would inquire what happened to their male members and the “county authorities” pretended they didn’t know.
    There’s a place in Birmingham, Alabama that the author visited. It was the place where prisoner coal miners were buried in unmarked graves if they died. They would simply be thrown in a wooden box and buried in this field. There’s a field there to this day overgrown with weeds. Blackmon said, “Who knows how many souls are buried here? We will never know.” This book always affects me deeply. Maybe because it took place after slavery was supposedly gone. But the cruelty of it is heart breaking.
    The first time I told my son about it, he started to cry and asked me how people could be so inhumane. A tragic book, but you will never see American racism in the same light if you read it. Because it didn’t terminate as long ago as you believe.

  3. crispinabides

    I would really like for everyone here, including the gentleman in the video, to take a position as a substitute teacher at a black-majority or near-majority high school in suburban Detroit, in city like Southfield or Eastpointe, and then come back and lay all the problems of the black community in this country SOLELY at the feet of institutional and cultural racism.

    • cordoba blue

      “The gentleman in the video” did not say that. When did he say that Sir? He is simply recording a little-known period of time regarding black history. For my own stance, for the record, even though ANY racial or ethnic group has a tragic past, this should not impede them from creating a successful future. You can never help a person who won’t also help themselves. Self-sabatoge may always be lurking in the background.You get a job, you consistently show up late, or stoned or whatever, and you get fired. Because employers need to make money, not carry you on their backs. This applies to all races.
      Hard workers are hard to find in ANY RACE. If you go into a situation saying, “I’m doing the least amount of work possible”, expect the intense working go-getter to trump you. Life is competitive and I think many Americans have forgotten that.
      As I’ve mentioned before, many black young men lack a positive male role model. This may be a function of our sad culture today which seems to Forgive and Condone men getting women pregnant (and this is white and black) and then leaving to date other women. Black women have shouldered the burden of parenting alone for decades. So I always give a nod to black single mothers. There ARE things in the poorer black communities that can be fixed by members OF THOSE communities. It begins with an attitude of conquering their obstacles, no matter what. If you start with an attitude of defeatism, you will surely end up defeated.
      For the record, I don’t think anybody here is blaming the failure of all African Americans to reach middle class status on institutional racism. I surely am not. But then again, we all know Sir, how often does a black man get a break over his white counter-part? That’s the message I feel needs conveying.
      By the way, (lol) I seem to have given people the impression the Asians are the perfect minority? Nobody’s perfect. Some of my Asian customers have been downright rude to me in regard to my tutoring fees. And I charge a whole whopping $20 an hour! WoW! That’s outrageous. Plus, I always give homework. I actually charge less than any private tutor I know.
      Yesterday an Asian lady had the temerity to hang up on me when I explained my fees to her. And she lives in a $700,000 house folks. Her son is partially deaf and desperately needs tutoring! She waited til he was 7 years old to actually “empty her pocket” and buy the child a hearing aid. He already failed kindergarten, which is pretty hard to do!
      Point of story? No such thing as the perfect race. That’s an absurd concept. Some Chinese customers haggle until it’s absolutely insulting. I let those customers go because I can sense a train wreck coming. Yes, they work hard. Yes, they value education. But some of them, when they get some money in their pockets in America, are extremely rude to American Caucasians. Like now they can dominate the “ugly American” and it just feels so good, they can’t resist. Street smart but not very well educated.
      I never have a problem with educated Chinese, interestingly enough. The sons and daughters of doctors and engineers are very polite. The sons and daughters of Chinese people who aren’t educated but have managed to own restaurants and beauty parlors etc (have money but not educated in other words)are the ones who do the “street smart” meme. “How much? Too much. We can make a deal!” Unfortunately I don’t have any wiggle room at these rates.
      I’ve said this before, EDUCATION MAKES THE DIFFERENCE IN CRUCIAL JUDGMENTS. Lack of awareness, short-sightedness, confusion about priorites: all a product of lack of education. Living and reacting according to myths and old wive’s tales (Always strike a bargain..even if it’s about your child’s education!) What kind of nonsense is this? Or “Don’t trust those sneaky Americans. They’re all out to get us!” If you can’t distinguish between honest sincere hard workers and a bum plumber who is trying to rip you off, that’s just ignorance people.
      Human silliness exists in all races, people. It’s penny wise and pound foolish at my rates. And this is concerning, after all, your children. Not a new couch or lawn furniture. LOL. Just thought I’d share. All races do have their little notable characteristics, and yeah they’re culturally enforced. I’ve seen it. 🙂

  4. parvenu

    I have recommended the book to all of my friends and family from the days that it first was published. Thus I made it a point to see the PBS report on Blackmon’s excellent and most unique book. First of all I rceognize that it was a lot to cover for PBS and so I applaude their effort. However, as an introduction the PBS presentation was outstanding, but there were several things that should have been included or emphasized.

    The prime audience that should have been targeted for this PBS production is the African American youth. Why? Because these are the people who will be indirectly affected by the lies and pernicious racial stereotypes that were generated and widely circulated decades ago by the enslaving southern white power structure to explain away the unlawful capture of Negro men directly off the streets in the deep south during the post Civil War era.

    As an example of such lies consider this. From this period and earlir Negro men have been labeled as “the lowest of shiftless lazy criminals, who will up and run off with any woman who raises her skirts in their direction”. First of all as the documentary showed, the white sheriffs and judges as a general practise denied ANY COMMUNICATION between any arrested Negro man and his family. This isolation was necessary to make sure that the unfortunate Negro man would be unconditionally available to be sold into slavery to pay his bogus “fines and legal fees”. Blackmon documents in his book several instances where a relative found out that a certain prisoner had been picked up by the sheriff, and the relative was able to scrape up enough money from the man’s family and others in the black community to free the man at trial.

    In thousands of instances where a solid hard working family man was suddenly snatched off the streets by the sheriff and his deputies, no word as to what happened ever got back to the man’s family. Later on when when an inquiry was made of the local white sheriff, the sheriff would use the old lie and say something like, “most likely he done run off with some ol’ gal and dun gone back on up nawth someplace!” Under these circumstance not only was that poor enslaved Negro man deprived of his freedom but he was deprived of every shred of decency in his reputation and others memory of him.

    This lie has influenced and shaped the behavior of millions of black men over the decades that followed. Witness the lyrics from the Temptations top R&B hit “Papa was a rolling stone”. The Lyric goes, “wherever he hung his hat was his home, and when he died all he left us was alone!” The lies told by these deep south white sheriffs to cover the capture and destruction of the lives of over 800,000 Negro men over the decades became an accepted stereotype even among members of their own families. The irony of such a racist outrage is beyond simple injustice, it is nothing less than an American mini-holocast (14% of 6 million).

    This is the reason why I beleive that PBS should have allocated time to hold an interview panel with a round table of African American youth who have read the book to get their response to the PBS show and the book.

    The other fact that should have been made stronger and clearer was the unintended consequence caused by the courthouse records of the vast number of phony arrest documentation for Negro men illegally sold into slavery. Just like the “skirt chasing” lie told on Negro men by white sheriffs to explain their disappearances, all of these phony arrest records gave the appearance that Negro men were inherently criminal by nature. This pernicious documentation has had the effect over the decades that followed of guaranteeing that African American men will receive the poorest treatment possible by police departments across the nation. The lie that all black men have a natural criminal disposition (as based on these courthouse records throughout the deep south) nominally caused white policemen all across America to be on the alert for some criminal activity whenever they see a black male on the streets. The PBS special made note of this but did not make a CLEAR STRONG association with the phony arrest records for enslaved Negro men in the courthouses across the south and the traditional problems that black communities have long had with police across America. Witness the police murder of that 18 year old unarmed boy in his home by New York City police week before last. The boy is dead and the killer cops are free.

    Finally I think that PBS gave more credit to the Roosevelt administration for ending this post Civil War form of slavery than it deserves, Blackmon’s book is very clear on this. Roosevelt’s hand was forced by the dire need for steel after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. U.S. Steel who now owned the mines and smelter facilities in Alabama wanted to continue the Negro enslavement fiasco, but could not begin to meet the overwhelming needs of the Nation’s war effort. Enslavement of Negro men finally ended there when Roosevelt nationalized the U.S. Steel facilities in Alabama. The facilities were then put on a war time footing with the introduction of an integrated steelworker’s union. By the time the war was over the use of Negro “debt enslavement” labor was a distant memory.



Leave a Reply