Slow Train to Freedom

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That Abraham Lincoln “freed the slaves” may be the most enduring myth in American history. “But wait!” you say, remembering the fine print of the Emancipation Proclamation. “Lincoln freed the slaves only in territory controlled by the Confederate Army in 1863, but he did set the United States irrevocably on the road to full abolition, which we accomplished once and for all with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.” But even that seemingly unimpeachable statement of fact obscures the fate of black Americans after abolition. Martin Luther King Jr. had it exactly right when he wrote, “The Emancipation Proclamation freed the slave, a legal entity, but it failed to free the Negro, a person.”

In Slavery by Another Name, Douglas Blackmon argues-passionately, forcefully and convincingly-that by any measure, blacks in the states of the former Confederacy saw their freedom so warped and constrained in the decades after the Civil War that the overwhelming majority were not in any meaningful way free. Blackmon’s thorough detective work and historical reconstruction of the convict lease system that arose in the Southern states after the war results in a damning indictment of the men, and the society, that profited from it.

Blackmon, the chief of The Wall Street Journal‘s Atlanta bureau, excels at corporate forensics. He digs through the records of major American corporations to document just how profitable the leasing of convict labor was for their shareholders. His most glaring example is the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company, which until 1861 was owned by a syndicate of New York investors. The company became profitable before the Civil War on the backs of slave laborers; it was the largest consumer of leased convict labor in Alabama, and the largest commercial enterprise in the South after emancipation; and it became the largest subsidiary of U.S. Steel after its acquisition at the turn of the century. U.S. Steel continued the company’s practices. To cite just one example, it paid Jefferson County, Alabama, the 2008 equivalent of $1.1 million to acquire the labor of every man the county sheriff could arrest and convict in the year 1908.

Such practices take on particular importance in Blackmon’s telling, for “it was business that policed adherence to America’s racial customs more than any other actor in American society” during the Jim Crow era. Business was thus responsible, Blackmon writes, for a problem that was “far larger than one or two places, and involved far more than scattered pockets of involuntary servitude, confusion about the law, or unintended violations.” It’s easy to understand why industrialists especially liked the convict lease system: It was profitable, and it hindered union organizing.