The conventional wisdom regarding African-American slavery in the United States — that we all learned in school at some point, probably at a very young age — is that Abraham Lincoln, through victory in the Civil War and through the Emancipation Proclamation, freed the enslaved black people of the South. End of story. No more slavery.
But like most things, the true story is far from being that simple, and former Wall Street Journal writer Douglas A. Blackmon chronicled incredibly disgusting breaks in the flow of this happy-sounding narrative in his 2008 book Slavery By Another Name, a terrific work of jaw-dropping research and revelation that has been made into an excellent documentary film making its television debut on PBS Monday, Feb. 13, at 9pm ET (check local listings). The documentary, narrated by actor Laurence Fishburne, was also an official selection at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, held last month, where its director, Sam Pollard, received a nearly two-minute standing ovation after the film’s screening.
Blackmon’s incredibly researched and detailed book, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize, opened the eyes of many readers of the bestseller to a new, under-the-radar age of slavery that thrived in the South during the roughly 80 years from the end of the Civil War through the early days of World War II. It was a horrific system based on labor practices and laws that sentenced African Americans to forced labor for violating laws that criminalized their everyday behavior. Charges against them were often trumped up, and the convicted persons would be sentenced to work off the court fines paid off for them by the “kindly” white benefactors who just happened to be made aware of their cases, and stepped in to “help.” Eventually, a system developed where sheriffs, justices of the peace and other whites would sell the convicts among each other, resulting in a reemergence of human labor trafficking in the South. Any black person, usually a young black man, unlucky enough to be swept up into this system faced a life of not only brutally harsh working conditions, but also incredibly cruel punishments for any perceived breaking of his or her supposed “contract” with the white person (or white-owned business) who controlled the contract. Many convicts were not even officially recorded as having been arrested, and their “sentences” could be indefinitely prolonged by further bogus charges and debts, with the poor souls stuck in their nightmarish existences until, in many cases, they were simply worked to death. Not only individuals were complicit in this “Age of Neoslavery” — which could be argued to have even been worse than the age of antebellum slavery, if that’s imaginable. Businesses and even entire states were involved in the sleazy, shadowy business of leasing questionably convicted people out for labor. And while this primarily went on in the South, the North, aside from a few exceptional individuals who worked to try to bring some convictions against the offenders, generally felt that whatever was going on was the South’s business to take care of.
It’s shocking, to be sure, to learn that this insidious form of slavery continued into the lifetimes of many people still living today, and Blackmon’s book packs a wallop if you have the chance to read it. Its length and detail made it inevitable that not everything in it would be covered in the film, but the documentary is still powerful in its own right, and includes insights from descendants of both victims and oppressors from this era not featured in the book, along with dramatic reenactments of some situations and personalities that do figure in the book, as well as on-camera insights from Blackmon and other experts.
Last month, I sat down with Blackmon and the film’s executive producer, Catherine Allan of Twin Cities Public Television’s tpt National Productions, to talk about the Slavery By Another Name documentary and this shocking era of American history.
Douglas, your book stunned many people who had believed that there was no way any sort of slavery of African Americans could have persisted into the 20th century. How did you come upon this story? Had anyone else written about this era before?
Douglas A. Blackmon: There certainly are other people who have written about aspects of this, and there were a fair number of Ph.D dissertations and other things, though this territory tended to be written about by historians of the penal system — sort of crime and punishment type academic work. And there was a tendency of academics – I didn’t understand this at the beginning, but now, in hindsight, trying to understand why this comes across as such never-before-revealed history – number one, even the great American historians tend to minimize just how badly African Americans were treated in the beginning of the 20th century. Because this is a story that so defies our mythologies, and our basic mythology, that Abraham Lincoln fought the Civil War, and that ended slavery. Unfortunately, things happened after that, but we did stop slavery. That fundamental mythology. And this story runs squarely against that. So even great, progressive-minded, heroic, legendary historians of the 20th century still had some tendency to not really perceive just how bad African Americans were treated.
It’s also just a fact that historians carry the same social mores of their larger society that everybody else does. And in the course of the 20th century, for whatever reason, American history was sort of dominated by Southern academics, and so you’re talking about people who were writing American history whose fathers and grandfathers had actively been involved in aspects of this, or lived through it, been witnesses to it. Or the historians themselves. We are talking about quite recent history, and tortured history really can only be unpacked after some time has gone by. That’s part of this.
In terms of how I got involved in this, I grew up in the Mississippi Delta, surrounded by black people in terrible poverty, and from a very early stage, I was just a kid who was hung up on trying understand why that was. I was sort of baffled by the world that surrounded me. So even as a child I started writing about race and civil rights. In fact, I wrote a little essay in the 7th grade that I actually consider the beginning of the book. But then, as a professional writer, over the last 25 years, while I did lots of other things, I continued to have a real interest in these parts of the civil rights story that still didn’t make sense to me. In particular, this gap in time. Why, really, was it that African Americans are liberated at the end of the Civil War, but then 80 years goes by, and the vast majority of African Americans are still living out in the countryside in the Deep South, in poverty? How did that happen, exactly? That they were called a bad name, and that there was the Ku Klux Klan, didn’t ever seem like a sufficient explanation to me for why things were still the way they were at the time of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. So I was always interested in that, and as a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, I was really interested in how corporations and business had never really been called to account for the way that it was banks and real estate agents and employers who were the primary enforcers of segregation in all parts of the country.
So, in the late 1990s, there were these lawsuits in Germany by Holocaust survivors against companies that had used slave workers during World War II, and the argument was being presented that said it doesn’t matter that 50 years have gone by, and that the bad guys are all dead. There are still these people who were abused in this terrible way. They deserve something. They should be able to bring a claim. And that was when I first thought about how corporations live forever. We die, and our liabilities die with us. But a corporation can live forever, under American law. And a corporation is a citizen; it’s the same thing as an individual. And I thought, “What would happen if we looked at American corporations through the same, unforgiving lens that we were all happy to see German corporations examined through? What would we find?” It really was that abstract question that led to a couple of stories that I did, one of which was coming across this place in Alabama where U.S. Steel Corporation owned these mines that apparently had slave laborers in them at the beginning of the 20th century. And that was in 2001. And here we are, 11 years later, still pushing this ball down the road.
And that ball has rolled now into this film. What was the process of turning the book into this documentary, and, particularly, what makes PBS a good fit for it?
Catherine Allan: This is the kind of story you really don’t find anywhere else but PBS. When it comes to serious American history — in-depth American history — PBS is really the only game in town, and PBS has shown a long interest over its lifetime in telling the big, important stories of American race, and African Americans throughout American history, with series like Eyes on the Prize, The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow and on and on, several of which our producer/director Sam Pollard was involved in. So this was just a natural topic for PBS, but also just the treatment of it, the in-depth treatment, 90 minutes on a difficult topic like this. A lot of places would have turned us down. We were thinking of HBO at one point just because it would have been easier to go in there, they write a check, you can start producing. Whereas with public television you have to fund it, and it just isn’t the kind of project that you’re going to see HBO do – that serious, in-depth look at American history.
Somebody on our team at Twin Cities Public Television [TPT] had seen Doug interviewed on the Bill Moyers show, and like just about everybody else in America, including Bill Moyers, who came in contact with the book and was just like, “What? What are you saying? That slavery was reinstituted or came back in a new form after the Civil War and lasted until World War II?” he was really taken by that, and we read the book and approached Doug, and he was also being courted by some other people who were interested in turning it into television.
Douglas: I had, from the beginning of working on the book, thought to myself, “There is a film here. There’s a part of this story that would lend itself to film.” And I had never done that. I always had a fascination with film, and an interest in doing film, and I thought this may actually be the project of mine that could make that crossover. But then I worked on the book for almost seven years, and there was a friend of mine who is a television producer and was interested in doing a film really early on, and actually accompanied me on some research trips. Unfortunately for her, the book just took so long, and the project kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and there was no real infrastructure or funding for it. And so her efforts just kind of faded away because she never really had a book to make a film based on. And the book just didn’t come for many years yet. Then when the book did come out, even before it was actually published, and there were galleys that began to circulate around, there did begin to be a number of people who heard about it and approached me. But in the end, there was sort of this competition, in a way, not to overdramatize it, but TPT was really interested, and another team that involved Sam Pollard, the ultimate director, who came more from sort of the Spike Lee orbit of filmmakers in New York. And I was busy talking about the book, and the book, to my surprise, had become a bestseller. It was before it won the Pulitzer. I was sort of consumed with that, and it was a little hard to get focused on this film thing, so it took a long time. But there was a point at which a friend of mine said to me, who had done a book a few years before, “Look, don’t wait too long on this, because eventually nobody will want to do it. Don’t miss while the boat is at the dock.” So that really led to a point where I said, “Okay, I’ve got to actually make a decision here”. And ultimately, I looked at Catherine and her team of folks in St. Paul, and I said, “These folks can make this film.” I still was remembering back to the thing that had withered years before. Okay, I really want to go with somebody who’s got resources and infrastructure and a history and a really good track record of taking on complicated historical topics. So I did the deal with them, and then Catherine called me the next day and said, “We need to hire a director, and there are only three or four people in the country we should look at,” and Sam Pollard [pictured above] was one of the names she said. And I said, “Well, he was on the other team.” Long story short, Catherine called him up, and he said, “Sure.” So I ended up — from my point of view, this is the dream team, of the creative genius over here, and people with this track record and experience in history over here. It was just a wonderful serendipity.
Catherine: Once we made the deal and [the book] won the Pulitzer Prize, it just made fundraising a little bit easier. I won’t say a lot easier … [laughs]
Speaking of serendipity, Douglas, your book, and potentially now this film, proved serendipitous for many descendants of the people involved in the events covered by you — both descendants of victims, and of oppressors. They were able to learn more about their family’s history, however shameful it may have been. Did you have many people approach you after the book’s publication, and do you expect more after the film’s airing? Are there any descendants featured in the book who also appear in the documentary?
Douglas: There’s no living person in the book who’s also in the film, for a variety of reasons. But what was interesting was that in the book — for me, one of the most moving passages in the book is in the epilogue. I had spent years and years and years trying to bring back to life this person, Green Cottenham, who’s the central character in the book, but who was very nearly erased by these events. He was arrested in 1908, he was sold into a slave mine in Alabama, he died there five months later under terrible circumstances, his body was dumped in an unmarked grave in a now vast, abandoned burial field on the outskirts of Birmingham. And I had zeroed in on him from the very beginning of the project, to try to write the story of this guy, and to try to tell this huge story through the story of this one guy. But in the end, there were no more than five pieces of paper that survive today that even demonstrate that he ever lived, one of which is his death certificate on which his name was misspelled. So for me, he represented what the book was really about, just this horrifying, destructive system that did erase countless lives and nearly erased and forced us to forget for various reasons this whole era of American history.
And for years and years and years I was trying to find anything and everything that might illuminate the life of this guy, and at one point in the book, I finally reach this great-nephew of this guy, an elderly gentleman in Birmingham. I call him up, get him on the phone, and in the book I sort of recount the dialogue we have on the phone. It’s this very moving, sad conversation with this man who ultimately was astonished that someone had put together this history of his family, and I took it all the way back to the African-born slave from whom Green descended, and from whom this man descended. But in the end, in the book, he wouldn’t talk to me. We got to the end of the conversation and he said, “I don’t want to talk about that. We don’t want to talk about a slave.” And he really represented the degree to which, for that generation of African Americans, the need to actually get away from the trauma of this past, and their need that’s as powerful to forget as a lot of white people’s powerful need to forget, for different reasons. But amazingly, at the end of that conversation, I said to him – as I was losing him – and this is all quoted in the book, I said, “Look, Mr. Cottingham, is there someone else in the family that I can talk to? A younger person, who’s into history?” Just anybody else. I was just trying to save the interview, basically. He said, “No, no, no, there’s not anybody.”
Well, then after the book comes out, some months after it appeared, I get an email one day that says, “Mr. Blackmon, on page 401 of your book you have this conversation with Louis Cottingham, and you asked him, ‘Is there any other person in the family,’ and he said, ‘No.’ And she wrote, ‘Well, I am that person.’ So then began what has actually become a very beautiful friendship, as is the case with many of these descendants who are in the film. Many of them – all of them, really – have become these kind of dear friends of mine, these sort of life-changing relationships with many of them. That woman’s name is Tonya Groomes, and she’s really just a star in the film, and she’s this beautifully eloquent, articulate person who has exactly the perspective on all of this that you would hope a person of our generation would have — black, white or otherwise — about this history and the importance of it, but also not being crippled by it. That’s the best example in a way of yes, there’s a body of American sentiment, black and white, of “Let’s not talk about this.” But there’s this other group of people, that’s just as big and really more important now, who actually do want to talk about this, and not for bad reasons. They don’t want to talk about it to get mad, they want to talk about it just because the truth makes life work better. Life today makes more sense if we deal with the truth of what happened before. So that’s the beautiful thing about the descendants – they just wonderfully represent that on both sides of the equation, the descendants of the victims, and the descendants of the oppressors.
Catherine: And Doug never had to look for them; they all found him. He would pass the emails on to us, and we would go, “Wow. This is so amazing, these people are thanking you for revealing these things their great-grandparents did that they had not a clue about.”
Douglas: Or never knew about. Never even knew existed. Like Green Cottenham. No relatives of Green Cottenham alive today were aware that he had ever lived, because he was killed at such an early age, and he didn’t have children of his own, so all of his relatives are sideways descendants of his sisters or his father and that sort of thing. But all of the descendants in the film are people that approached me after the book. None of them are ones that we sought out, or that I discovered before the book was published.
The one thing that I know will happen [after the film airs], just based on my experience with the book — after the book came out, people saw the Moyers interview and then watched it over and over again on the Internet and it sort of percolated around. Then they would go to some event where I was speaking someplace and for a long time there, every speaking engagement that I did, it became this thing where I could tell somebody who was with me, “That person over there is about to come up to me and tell me about their grandmother.” I could tell; I just knew. Because all these people would come up to me – this was more on the victims’ side in the beginning – and say, “You know, I never understood the story that my grandmother used to tell before she died. In fact, I thought she was kind of crazy, and now I feel bad about it, because I told her she was crazy. She always talked about how when she was a little girl, they were on this farm in south Alabama or south Georgia or Mississippi, and they couldn’t leave the farm, and the white man never paid them for their work. And I would say, ‘Grandma, that’s not possible. That was the 1930s, and there wasn’t any slavery then.’ And she would say, ‘No, you just don’t understand.'” And then she wouldn’t tell the story anymore. Oftentimes, the story then ends with, “But then she said that her older brother came back at the end of World War II, after he had been in the service, and they all snuck away in the middle of the night. And it just never made sense to me. Why did they have to run away in the middle of the night?” I’ve had some version of that story — I’m not exaggerating to say, at least a hundred or two hundred people have come up and told me something like that. And when the film appears, we’ll be flooded with those, I have no doubt about that.
Slavery By Another Name premieres on PBS Feb. 13 at 9pm ET. Check your local listings.
Four convicts photo: Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Convict tied to pickaxe photo: Courtesy of Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin
Convicts and overseer photo: Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Sam Pollard photo: Courtesy of tpt National Productions
Crew filming scene: Credit Leisa Cole/tpt National Productions