Happy New Year, Dear Readers. I hope your holidays were full of good food, laughter and love.
After tweeting a link to my last post with a mention of “Boardwalk Empire” actress and singer Margot Bingham, I got a shock days later when she actually responded:
Needless to say, that tweet made my week. I’m pretty sure my dad will get a kick out of it, too.
Speaking of family, earlier this week, while talking to my paternal grandmother, who was born in 1930, she mentioned a number of details about her childhood in South Carolina that I had never heard before. She had younger twin siblings who were stillborn. There was a house fire that left the family without any possessions. And the deaths of two older borthers within six months of each other.
I began to press her on their passings. One had been murdered by a mentally challenged classmate.
The other, Thomas C.- she never knew what that “C” stood for- drowned. She paused before adding, “He was drowned. He’d gone to Florida for work, he had this little fiance who was pregnant. So he went on down to Florida to work with a friend and a group of white men went and drowned him. It was reported that he had just drowned… but his friend, when he got away from there, he told us the truth.”
My stomach turned. “Grandma… oh Grandma, I’m so sorry.”
It had so traumatized her, she had problems with her memory for years after that. She use to remember the smallest things; in the wake of her brothers’ murders in the same year, she just couldn’t.
“But the Lord helped me with that over time. He restored my memory.”
I sat on the edge of Zoe’s toddler bed holding my iPhone to my right ear, feeling sick, and wishing I could forget what I just heard.
My grandmother as a young woman.
This is a post I didn’t want to do. I still don’t. For weeks, I avoided it. I knew as I breezed through these decades, especially the Thirties, there would be no way I could not mention the “Race Problem”. It’s there even with my bit on Nina Mae McKinney, and if you actually took up the invite in my last post to watch Mae West’s “I’m No Angel”, you can see it there on the periphery. Specifically the bevy of brown maids that waited on West’s Tira, hand and foot. They talk in stereotypical Southern Black accents and cluck and coo over their “Miss” while doing her mani and pedi. Their expressions are over the top, with their eyes bulging widely. And as far as Black folks go, that’s about all you’ll see of them in the whole film.
Yesterday I saw “Vogues of 1938” and all the Black performers in that are… performers. They stay, constrained, on the stage, singing, dancing (again with those over the top grins and bulging eyes), spinning and tapping while the film’s White stars watch. Even while I was only casually watching it on my iPad while doing dishes, I immediately noticed that the Black performers entire scene didn’t actually add to the plot (although let me make it clear, that plot is paper thin; the film is pretty much an extended fashion revue). I’ve known for a while that many Black actors appeared as “guest stars”, doing one-off scenes like that in the big studio films. Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne and The Nicholas Brothers all did song and dance numbers that could easily be cut out when shown in the South.
However, this post isn’t about the treatment of Blacks on film, but off, in the real world. When I started reading old articles and watching documentaries on this time period, I kept finding myself horrified. It’s not the incidents of racism that did it so much. It’s the way those incidents occurred with the cooperation of people in the judicial system, law enforcement, and the media. In other words, it wasn’t the racist people that frightened me, but the systemic racism- often times codified in law and then exploited by politicians and glorified in the press.
I suppose that’s what been haunting me about my great-uncle Thomas C. The white men who killed him explained away their guilt, and their word was bond, and so murder became an accident. No investigation, no charges, no trial.
Black people on and off film could be disappeared.
I got a Kindle edition of “Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II” by Douglas A. Blackmon and got to reading. Meticulously researched, Blackmon lays out how the Emancipation Proclaimation and even the Civil War did not stop thousands of men, women and even children to be forced back into bondage. From it’s website comes this descriptor:
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.
The neoslavery system exploited legal loopholes and federal policies which discouraged prosecution of whites for continuing to hold black workers against their wills. As it poured millions of dollars into southern government treasuries, the new slavery also became a key instrument in the terrorization of African Americans seeking full participation in the U.S. political system. Based on a vast record of original documents and personal narratives, SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME unearths the lost stories of slaves and their descendants who journeyed into freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation and then back into the shadow of involuntary servitude.
It also reveals the stories of those who fought unsuccessfully against the re-emergence of human labor trafficking, the modern companies that profited most from neoslavery, and the system’s final demise in the 1940s, partly due to fears of enemy propaganda about American racial abuse at the beginning of World War II.
An old newspaper article detailing a case of “involuntary servitude” of Negroes. (PBS.org)
As I read through the book, I highlighted a number of passages, and I’m going to share a few here:
In the immediate wake of emancipation, the Alabama legislature swiftly passed a measure under which the orphans of freed slaves, or the children of blacks deemed inadequate parents, were to be “apprenticed” to their former masters.
Forcing convicts to work as part of punishment for an ostensible crime was clearly legal too; the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1865 to formally abolish slavery, specifically permitted involuntary servitude as a punishment for “duly convicted” criminals. Beginning in the late 1860s, and accelerating after the return of white political control in 1877, every southern state enacted an array of interlocking laws essentially intended to criminalize black life. Many such laws were struck down in court appeals or through federal interventions, but new statutes embracing the same strictures on black life quickly appeared to replace them.
Few laws specifically enunciated their applicability only to blacks, but it was widely understood that these provisions would rarely if ever be enforced on whites. Every southern state except Arkansas and Tennessee had passed laws by the end of 1865 outlawing vagrancy and so vaguely defining it that virtually any freed slave not under the protection of a white man could be arrested for the crime.
An 1865 Mississippi statute required African American workers to enter into labor contracts with white farmers by January 1 of every year or risk arrest. Four other states legislated that African Americans could not legally be hired for work without a discharge paper from their previous employer—effectively preventing them from leaving the plantation of the white man they worked for. In the 1880s, Alabama, North Carolina, and Florida enacted laws making it a criminal act for a black man to change employers without permission.
Let’s pause here so I can restate what we just learned: in Alabama, from what should’ve been the start of freedom, a law was passed which that could force Black children back into working for their former masters; throughout almost the entire South, other laws forced Black people to enter into exploitive labor contracts that virtually tied them to plantations or risk being imprisoned for “vagrancy”; and if that wasn’t bad enough, a few states made it illegal for Black men to leave a job for another WITHOUT PERMISSION.
Once a Black man (or woman or child) was arrested on such charges as changing jobs, adultery, bastardy (!), selling moonshine or cursing in public, the system moved with lightining speed:
Swift, uncomplicated adjudication was the key to the system. Trials were discouraged; lawyers for black misdemeanor defendants were scant. Indeed, the fee system—with its additional charge for each act in the judicial process or appearance of another witness or official—was a built-in disincentive to prisoners who knew that each added dollar of their final fine and costs would ultimately equate to additional days held in forced labor.
The span of time from arrest to conviction and judgment to delivery at a slave mine or mill was often no more than seventy-two hours. The most common penalty was nine months to a year in a slave mine or lumber camp. All of this was predicated on the absolute defenselessness of black men to the legal system, and the near certainty that most would be unable to bond themselves out of jail or pay fines imposed upon them.
Across Alabama, northern Florida, and Georgia, a bewildering world of casual judicial process emerged in which affidavits were scribbled on scraps of notebook paper, half-official judges and strongmen assuming the authority to arrest resided every few miles, men were identified and arrested on the basis of meaningless physical descriptions, and hardly anyone could sign their own name. Increasingly, it was a system driven not by any goal of enforcement or public protection against serious offenses, but purely to generate fees and claim bounties.
So much truth in the verse, “The love of money is the root of all evil.” In a sick twist, many of the neo-slaves were actually in greater danger than their slave forebears had been:
An unintended distinction between antebellum slavery and the new forced labor system became increasingly clear—and disastrous for the men captured into it. Slaves of the earlier era were at least minimally insulated from physical harm by their intrinsic financial value. Their owners could borrow money with slaves as collateral, pay debts with them, sell them at a profit, or extend the investment through production of more slave children. But the convicts of the new system were of value only as long as their sentences or physical strength lasted. If they died while in custody, there was no financial penalty to the company leasing them. Another black laborer would always be available from the state or a sheriff. There was no compelling reason not to tax these convicts to their absolute physiological limits.
Famous to prison mines and camps in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida was the “pick shackle,” which Allen described as a sharpened pick head riveted upside down to a prisoner’s ankle—making it utterly impossible to run or even walk normally—and typically left there for the duration of a convict’s sentence. Worn for months or years at a time, the twenty- to thirty-pound picks rubbing against bare skin caused abrasions that led to pus-filled lesions and infections prisoners called “shackle poison.” Littered through the records of convict camps are amputations of feet and lower legs as a result of blood poisoning from the injuries.
By far the most torturous and widely used punishment was the “water cure,” a medieval cruciation whose many variations rendered the strongest and most defiant of men utterly compliant. In its most moderate form, the water cure was simply forcing a man to stand naked under a shower of cold water until he convulsed with cold. More often, prisoners described being stripped of their clothing and tied to a post or chair. A water line—often a high-pressure fire hose—was turned on the naked prisoner, pounding his skin with intense pressure and filling his mouth and nose with torrents of water until he became convinced he was about to drown.
The following quote from the end of the book sums it all up to me:
Reading Charles Silberman’s Crisis in Black and White in its publication [in 1964] Martin Luther King scribbled a long note in the margins of his personal copy: “The South deluded itself with the illusion that the Negro was happy in his place; the North deluded itself with the illusion that it had freed the Negro. The Emancipation Proclamation freed the slave, a legal entity, but it failed to free the Negro, a person.” In every aspect and among almost every demographic, how American society digested and processed the long, dark chapter between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the civil rights movement has been delusion.
A newspaper article on the convictions of a White farmer and his daughter for enslavement. (PBS.org)
If you made it through all of that, well, you are a super reader (I’m aware that sound like a certain PBS Kids show… I have a three year old). If not, here’s the documentary film version that aired on PBS in 2012.
While we’re on documentaries, I want to add two more from the PBS series “American Experience”. The first, “Scotsboro: An American Tragedy” is about a group of 9 young Black men who were accused of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931. Amazingly, they escaped lynching, but… well, just watch it. Once again, note how the newspapers helped to enflame and further hatred, and how, despite being innocent and eventually being released, many of the men went on to live shortened, sad and violent lives. Prison helped to disfigure and warp lives that were already impoverished and rough.
A newspaper editorial cartoon depicting a Hawaiian man attacking a White woman during the first arrests and trial featured in “The Massie Affair”.
The second documentary is called “The Massie Affair” and also occured in 1931 and involved an accusation of gang rape by a white woman against a group of young minorities. But this took place in Hawaii and the men were of Asian or Pacific Island ancestry. However, I found it quite telling that the young woman’s mother, who hailed from the Deep South, reportedly made reference to Southern Whites knowing how to deal with “niggers”. There is also the rotten mix of the media, law enforcement and the judicial system. Even the U.S. Navy was part of this miscarriage of justice.
Finally, I’m going to close this post with Billie Holiday’s 1939 song “Strange Fruit”. But first, let me be clear: this post is not meant as an attack on White people. It’s part of what I’ve read and watched while looking into the 1930’s. I felt in my heart, especially in light of the recent Mike Brown and Eric Garner cases, that this history must be discussed. It needs to be known. I’ve repeatedly heard people say, “Why can’t Black people get over the past?” Slavery ended One hundred and fifty years ago, afterall. Well, no. Even in “freedom” untold thousands were enslaved by unjust laws, greed, hatred, fear and imprisonment.
Untold thousands… even in my own family.
His friend was afraid to tell the truth.