Slavery went by other names

Writing in 1921, newspaperman Herbert J. Seligmann reported that decades after emancipation, white Southern judges routinely sold African-Americans into peonage or quasi-slavery for such "crimes" as debt and vagrancy. Courts leased blacks convicted of petty offenses to local governments, planters and private corporations to work off their fines on chain gangs or in mines, lumber camps, quarries, farms and factories. Abused, whipped and frequently murdered, "in any full sense the Negro is not considered a human being," Seligmann charged.

Journalist Douglas A. Blackmon's "Slavery by Another Name" is the latest exposé of the New South's notorious convict lease system that marred the region from the so-called Progressive Era until World War II. Drawing heavily on local court records and newspaper accounts, Blackmon describes the neo-slavery of the post-Civil War South as "distinctly different from that of the antebellum South in that for most men, and the relatively few women drawn in, this slavery did not last a lifetime and did not automatically extend from one generation to the next."

Still, like numerous observers before him, Blackmon defines the coerced labor of blacks as "slavery -- a system in which armies of free men, guilty of no crimes and entitled by law to freedom, were compelled to labor without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced to do the bidding of white masters through the regular application of extraordinary physical coercion."

Blackmon focuses closely on the case of Green Cottenham, arrested by the sheriff of Shelby County, Ala., in March 1908. Charged with vagrancy -- "a new and flimsy concoction dredged up from legal obscurity" -- Cottenham received 30 days of hard labor from the county judge. When he could not pay various legal fees, the court extended the 22-year-old's sentence to almost one year of hard labor. According to Blackmon, as with as many as 200,000 other convict laborers in the South, "Cottenham's offense was blackness."

Like antebellum slaves hired out to businesses, Shelby County leased Cottenham to the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Co., a subsidiary of U.S. Steel Corp. In exchange for his forced labor -- his task was to remove eight tons of coal per day from the Pratt Mines outside of Birmingham -- the company paid the county $12 a month to defray Cottenham's fees.

Blackmon's fast-paced book builds upon but adds little to earlier works by historians Pete Daniel, Alex Lichtenstein and Vivien Miller. He underscores the collusion between local officials -- determined to maintain racial control -- and capitalists -- driven to turn a profit. Sadly, Blackmon identifies a pattern of "episodes in which public leaders faced a true choice between a path toward complete racial repression or some degree of modest civil equality, and emphatically chose the former." Cottenham died from tuberculosis months after his enslavement in the Pratt Mines.