It seems fitting that this series is being launched on the holiday to commemorate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. since the primary subject matter of this interview ended with the founding of the modern civil rights movement. Dr. King would certainly have appreciated and work of Douglas Blackmon in bringing to light a period of history that most Americans have long forgotten if, indeed, they ever were aware of it.
Douglas A. Blackmon is the Atlanta bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal and winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction for his extraordinary book, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.
It was an honor to spend an hour interviewing Douglas Blackmon at a very noisy Atlanta Starbucks a week and half ago. What follows over the next four days at martyduren.com is the substance of that interview. Any transcribed mistakes owing to lack of clarity in recording and playback are mine alone.
MD: The book, essentially, began as a story you did for the Wall Street Journal. How did you get from the article to the full story?
Blackmon: Well, honestly? I spent about a year on that original story which was very focused on this one group of coal mines outside of Birmingham and Green Cottenham was mentioned in one paragraph of that story, maybe two places altogether. The story was that and I did not have any interest in doing any more with it; I thought I was done. But after the story came out, there was a really huge reaction to it, so Doubleday, the publisher, called and said that I should write a book about this. Initially, I said, “No,” but we talked more about it. I told them that if I were to write a book it would not be the kind of book that a major publisher would want to publish, that they would not be serious enough or whatever. But, they were interested, so I agreed to do it. It was after I started working on it that I really had no idea what the book was supposed to be! Was it just an expansion of the story I had done before? Was it a story about a single person? Was it something else? So it forced me to accept that possibility that maybe whatever had ever been written about any of this before is not the gospel, maybe there is something new to say about things people thought there was nothing new to say about. So I was able to start with kind of a blank slate, which was frustrating in the sense of “Where do I go?” or “What do I start looking at?” but good to be open to come to the conclusions that I came to many years later.
MD: For those who haven’t read the book, can you give a brief synopsis of what the convict lease system was and how it operated?
Blackmon: The convict lease system operated when a person, usually an African American man, was arrested for a crime that had occurred, for instance, they burglarized a farm house, was taken before the judge and either plead or was found guilty. Or, let’s say it was a misdemeanor like stealing a chicken instead of a felony. Typically in Alabama and other states at that time people were punished with fines instead of a jail sentence. So he would be fined $1-30 for a $5 theft, plus paying back the money to the owner. In 1901, the average farm worker’s annual income, if he had an income, would have been $75-85. So a fine of $10, 20 or 30 was a very substantial thing. But on top of that, the convict would be assessed a whole series of fees, because there were no taxes to pay for the criminal justice system, so the fees that were collected paid for deputies for the sheriff and all sorts of other folks. In addition to his fine, the convict would be charged a fee for his arrest, a fee for having a warrant served on him, a fee for every witness who testified against him, a fee for the court clerk, basically a whole range of things. The fees on a $20-30 fine would typically add up to $80-100. A very common thing was to be fined the equivalent of two years work for a one or two dollar theft.
When farm workers, whether black or white, were unable to pay that and unable to pay the fines, one of two things would happen. The judge could say, “In lieu of the fines, we’ll sentence you to three years of hard labor to be performed with this company that has a contract with the court and the county sheriff to take control of all prisoners who come to the jail.” Then the prisoner would be “leased” to the company who would pay monthly, having paid at the end of three years all of his fines and fees. Or, someone from the county would come to the jail and strike a bargain with the prisoner to pay the fine for him. This was sometimes even done before the conviction; it was called, “confessing judgment.” The payer of the fine would then negotiate with the prisoner to work a year, two years or five years until the money was repaid. In these cases, the prisoners, 90% of whom were black men, would find themselves working involuntarily as a result of these arrangements.
Had this all been legitimate and only involved people who had actually committed crimes and been convicted of crimes, then we would just view that as a very tough type of putative, penal practices. It was harsh, but not necessarily immoral or criminal. But the reality was, what that system did was create a market for people. What it did was create a market for people in a society which, when this began in the 1870s, was just 10 years removed from when people owned people and the idea of buying and selling humans was still natural. This new economic market mechanism for valuing men and trafficking in them, very quickly many people realized a new way to again take possession of a black man who had been their slave only a decade before. So if a white man wanted to take control of such a man or his now grown sons, all he had to do was swear out a warrant against them, claim that they stole the overalls they were wearing from the white man’s place. The white man would be believed by the court, the black man would stand no chance whatsoever, have no way to pay the fine–especially when the white man worked out a deal with the sheriff to only pay $10 when the fine was $50. Then for a year or two years the white man had complete control over the man and his sons. At the end, the white man could say, “Well, you still owe me for that visit to the doctor,” or “You still owe me for that potato you stole,” and have him on the farm for another year or two.
As a result, you have thousands and thousands of people being kidnapped, either actual physical kidnapping being snatched up from the side of the road and forced into all of this or being kidnapped by your neighbor or the man you worked for who decides he does not want to share the crop with you anymore so he turns you into a convict. That was the corrupt aspect of this that makes it impossible to measure. Once it became this “thing” that really had no rules, had no limits, had no controls, if you were an African American in the rural part of the south, you had no defenses. That is when terror is complete. There are no rules and no defenses and no way to predict the behavior of this oppressive force. Then you are in a state of involuntary servitude whether you know it or not because you are just trying to survive.
MD: Once in the system they could be subleased and subleased over and again until someone who had entered the system in Montevallo, Alabama could wind up in north Florida with no family member or friend even knowing where they were or if they were still alive, correct?
Blackmon: Exactly. And it became such a big enterprise, as far as that goes, that it was the single largest source of revenue for the state of Alabama and nearly the largest for Georgia. This was the case for several decades in Alabama, probably from the 1800s to the 1920s. Part of that was because states collected so few taxes, but it was one of the first ways that the state of Alabama accumulated large amounts of money. What that led to also was a tremendous amount of corruption. There was so much money to be made off it that state officials were taking kickbacks to steer convicts to certain companies or people. A lot of what we know about the system, we know because of periodic investigations into the corruption side, which revealed some of these other things on the brutality side .
Also there were many, many people who got into the business of being brokers and middle men for one party who held a thousand leases for the state of Alabama who would then subdivide and broker those leases out.
There are many touching, terrible stories about mothers going on a quest to try and find where a son or somebody ended up and finding them four or five places removed from the entry point. You also have people who were just lost into the system. The prisoners themselves would not know when they supposedly were to be freed; whoever had acquired them would not know or would not care and you wind up with these stories of the people who worked for four or five years somewhere when they had been sentenced to 30 days of hard labor.
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