Reckoning with Our Racial History in the Era of Obama

Sunday, February 17th, 2013

blackmon_130213The 13th Amendment ended slavery in the United States, or did it?  In the February 13, 2013 meeting of the Senior Statesmen of Virginia, Pulitzer Prize winner Douglas A. Blackmon talks about what really happened during reconstruction.   The program was moderated by SSV vice-president Bob McGrath.  Click below to listen to the podcast.


Douglas A. Blackmon is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Slavery by Another Name: The Re- Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, chair of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center Forum program,  and a contributing editor at the Washington Post. Mr. Blackmon’s book was awarded the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. The book also received many additional awards and citations and was a New York Times best seller. Mr. Blackmon  is also co-executive producer of a documentary film based on the book which was broadcast on PBS last year. The documentary will be rebroadcast on PBS on February 22, 2013.

Until 2011 he was the longtime chief of The Wall Street Journal’s Atlanta bureau and the paper’s Senior National Correspondent. He has written about, or directed coverage of, some of the most pivotal stories in American life, including the election of President Obama, the rise of the tea party movement, the BP oil spill, and the hurricane Katrina disaster. Prior to his work at the WSJ, Blackmon covered race and politics at the Atlanta Journal Constitution for seven years.

Raised in Leland, Mississippi, Blackmon penned his first newspaper story for the Leland Progress at the age of twelve. He received his degree in English from Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. At present he is time sharing between Charlottesville and downtown Atlanta where his family makes their home.

Program Summary

Douglas Blackmon is the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. The book is the story of how, after the Civil War and full citizenship had been extended to the formerly enslaved African-Americans, something happened that most of us don’t know about. Even though the freed former slaves were incredibly impoverished and had been denied education for generations, there was a tremendous move by African-Americans to grab onto real citizenship and participate in elections on a huge scale. They wanted to get away from the folks who controlled them before, and it’s largely a fairy tale that many so loved their masters they wanted to stay behind. They swarmed into schools and the first real public schools were set up. The literacy rate skyrocketed to be comparable with that of poor whites. They began to acquire property and were moving into the mainstream of American life.

But then a terrible thing begins. First, white Southerners couldn’t resurrect the cotton economy without four million slave workers, and they simply could not conceive of any equitable labor arrangements. Thus there was a tremendous need economically to figure out how to get as many African-Americans into a condition as close to slavery as possible. At the same time, whites wanted to stop African-Americans from exercising their civil rights and get them out of the political process.

Beginning in the 1870s, laws were passed that were designed to essentially criminalize black life. It became a crime for any farmer to sell his produce after dark, which meant the African-Americans could only sell to the land owner. It also became a crime to walk beside a railroad track or to speak loudly in the company of a white woman, or to romance or have physical activity with a white woman. But the most insidious laws that were passed imposed tremendous penalties for vagrancy – if you couldn’t prove you had a job you were arrested. Also, it was a crime for a farm worker (who may have been repeatedly lashed, deprived of his fair share of the crops, starved, his wife abused by the landowner, etc.) to look for another job.

Overwhelmingly these laws were only applied to African-Americans. Payments to sheriffs and others were based on a fee system—you had to pay a fee to who arrested you, witnesses against you, the court, and the jailer. The fine for vagrancy might be $5, but the fees could add up to $100 – a full year’s pay. To pay the fine and fees, the convicts were leased or sold back to the same landowner, or to work in coal mines, lumber camps, turpentine camps—all the new industries dependent on this forced labor. The terror of having this happen was greater than even the fear of mob violence, and it resulted in African-Americans going along generation after generation with whatever was imposed upon them. This system persisted right up to the 1940s.