*The anticipated TV premiere of “Slavery by Another Name” finally makes its PBS debut tonight (Feb. 13) at 9 p.m. [Check local listings.]
Narrated by Lawrence Fishburne, the 90-minute documentary tells how former slaves, just after the Emancipation Proclamation, were often arrested on trumped up charges and forced to work for free as prisoners under a loophole in the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, except in the case of punishment for a crime.
Thousands of newly-freed slaves were arrested for such “infractions” as being unemployed, leaving one job for another one, selling cotton after sundown or speaking too loudly in front of white women. Once incarcerated, the prisoners were shackled, bought and sold and whipped as they were forced to work without pay in coal mines, brickyards, turpentine farms and plantations.
The forced labor was not only tolerated in the North at the highest levels of government, but it lasted for more than 80 years – well into World War II.
The film is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning book of the same name penned by Wall Street Journal writer Douglas Blackmon. “The book grew out of a story that I wrote in the Wall Street Journal now more than ten years ago. And that story grew out of my interest in the way that American corporations had never really quite been held to account for their involvement in the enforcement of Jim Crow segregation and those sorts of abuses,” said Blackmon.
His 2001 article revealed how the U.S. Steel Corporation had owned coal mines in Alabama that, in the early part of the 20th century, were still clearly operating with black slave workers.
“I was shocked by that in the beginning and then wrote that initial story, which took a very long time,” Blackmon said. “And then when I began working on the book, which took six and a half years to write, I was astonished by just the discovery that this wasn’t this bad place in Alabama where one company went off the rails and did a lot of bad things to a few thousand people. This was a story of a whole system of enslavement that existed everywhere in the rural deep South, where there was a large black population.
“Essentially where the slaves had been, there was a new form of slavery. And it existed almost everywhere on a huge scale, and in direct and indirect ways, millions of people were dramatically affected by all of this. I was shocked by the kind of brutality that was that insinuated through every aspect of this. The level of violence, the level of physical abuse was specific and horrifying to me to discover.”
As previously reported, the documentary’s director Sam Pollard received a nearly two-minute standing ovation after the film’s premiere last month at the Sundance Film Festival. The screen version includes interviews with descendants from either side of the forced labor practice: Susan Burnore, whose great-grandfather – a farmer in 1920s Georgia – murdered 11 former slaves who were working illegally on his farm; and Dr. Sharon Malone, whose uncle was a victim of forced labor in the early part of the century.
Both the book and the film, Blackmon says, are meant to hip-check those among us who believe blacks need to get over slavery because it’s in the past. Listen below. [Scroll down to watch a promo and a “making-of” featurette.]