Remembering Joe Turner: Neo-slavery in the South

Remembering Joe Turner: Neo-slavery in the South

Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II
by Douglas A. Blackmon
Anchor Books, 2009, 468 pp., $16.95

As the playwright and chronicler of twentieth-century African American life August Wilson recognized, the modern experience of forced labor haunted the black imagination long after the abolition of slavery.

They tell me Joe Turner’s come and gone
Ohhh Lordy…
Got my man and gone
Come with forty links of chain
Ohhh Lordy
Got my man and gone

So sings Wilson’s “root doctor” in the play Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. The semi-mythical “Joe Turner” was a “mancatcher,” who, in the first decade of the twentieth century, rounded up poor black sharecroppers who fell afoul of the law and sold them into slavery as “punishment for a crime,” as the Thirteenth Amendment says. “He’d go out hunting and bring back forty men at a time,” Wilson’s vagabond from the chain gang, Herald Loomis, recalls. “And keep them seven years.”

Douglas Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name, examines in all its brutal detail the stubborn persistence of this “neo-slavery,” as he calls it, made possible by the gaping loophole in the Thirteenth Amendment. Slavery masquerading as penal sanction lasted for seventy-five years in the Deep South following the overthrow of Reconstruction, that is, right until the Second World War.

Blackmon’s work examines two closely related examples of the post–Civil War South’s interlocking criminal justice and forced labor systems. The first is the impetus given to Alabama’s nascent coal, iron, and steel industries by the provision of convict labor through the state’s convict leasing system. Convict leasing had a compelling predecessor in the system of “hiring out” slaves to industrialists, which taught antebellum businessmen “that masses of black laborers…could be powerfully leveraged in commerce.” Still, in the drive toward rapid industrialization that possessed the New South’s ambitious business class, forced industrial labor took on an entirely new dimension, now “hired out” by the state’s penal system rather than by a slaveholder. Enterprising capitalists seeking cheap and pliant labor in a hurry leased felony prisoners from the state and put them to work in coal mines, coke ovens, brickyards, and turpentine camps.

This was not just the province of petty “backward” entrepreneurs operating on the fringes of southern capitalism, but rather a strategic choice engaged in by the region’s leading corporate titans. The Alabama convict coal mines owned and opera...

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