Those who believe slavery ended with the passage of the 13th Amendment are wrong.
That was the main message this week as Central New Mexico Community College turned its attention to systems of forced labor in the South between the end of the Civil War and the onset of World War II.
In recognition of Black History Month, the college aired excerpts from the PBS documentary “Slavery by Another Name” on Thursday. In its opening moments, the film frames the issue as “one of the most shameful and little known chapters of American history (in which) generations of black Southerners were forced to labor against their will.”
It’s called peonage, which Webster’s New World Dictionary defines as “the system by which debtors or legal prisoners are held in servitude to labor for their creditors or for persons who lease their services from the state.”
Following the passage of the 13th Amendment and the collapse of formal slavery, Southern states began adopting such systems with the one goal of keeping former slaves enslaved. As one of the film’s historians put it, “If you had something for free in the past, you don’t necessarily want to pay for it now.”
According to the film, as many as 800,000 black Americans were forced to toil in the nearly 80 years between the two wars, and an estimated 9,000 died while they were leased, many slain by brutal overseers.
The organizers of Thursday’s event assembled an expert panel to discuss the issue in depth: University of New Mexico Professor Charles Becknell Jr., associate director of UNM’s Africana Studies Program; CNM Professor Ikechukwu ugbomah-Otunuya; UNM Professor Sonia Gipson Rankin, associate dean of Africana Studies and UNM’s University College; and CNM and UNM alumnus Patrick Barrett. Cathryn McGill, director of the New Mexico Black History Organizing Committee, facilitated the event.
Only a few of the 50 or so audience members said they knew about peonage and the South’s convict-leasing systems. Not one had read about it in a history textbook in school.
Asked if the various forms of peonage practiced in the South were worse than slavery, ugbomah-Otunuya noted two categories of enslavement. One, slavery, is objective and straight forward. The other, which he called “subjective servitude,” has the same end result, but the subject or slave perceives he or she is free.
Audience member Bloom Beloved raised a point she called “replication.” The post-Civil War practice of jailing blacks just so they could be re-enslaved continues, she said, “the same thing is happening today.” Gipson Rankin pointed out that rules governing the treatment of slaves were not applicable in the prison-lease system, where blacks had absolutely no legal protections.
Barrett said the black convicts have now been replaced, in large part, by undocumented workers.
Audience member Charles Powell noted that one need not commit a crime, only be accused and convicted. “The system is very reluctant to correct any mistakes it has made,” he said.
In response to a question about a “war on black males,” Becknell said a centuries-old “mythology” about black men is perpetuated today. Many Americans carry the same old biases, but subconsciously, he said.
Luca Carbone, a white woman in the audience, was near tears as she spoke about the “shame” she feels about her forebears who carried out atrocities. For her and others, it was “Slavery by Another Name.”