1865-1965: black codes, Red Summer

pogroms against black people

An End to Police Brutality
USED BY Dr. Samuel Y. Edgerton, Jr., on
August 28, 1963 in Washington, DC
With all the talk about Juneteenth 1865, it’s important to note how awful the NEXT century was for black Americans. I would posit that the century (1865-1965) was arguably worse.

My view is certainly affected by white compatriots in the 1970s and later. They would say, often genuinely, “Why are black people doing so poorly? Slavery ended over a century ago!” As though there was a light switch from enslavement to freedom. As though it were suddenly a level playing field. Here are some of the factors. Of course, they naturally overlap.

The 13th Amendment, ratified in December 1865. “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. This provision is why one should watch Thirteenth.

Reparations. The formerly enslaved people generally did not receive the promised 40 acres.

Black codes: their primary purpose was to restrict blacks’ labor and activity, including “strict vagrancy and labor contract laws… Blacks who broke labor contracts were subject to arrest, beating, and forced labor… Passed by a political system in which blacks effectively had no voice, [they] were enforced by all-white police and state militia forces—often made up of Confederate veterans of the Civil War—across the South.” The federal government turned a blind eye.

You can never get out from under

Peonage, also called debt slavery or debt servitude: a system where an employer compels a worker to pay off a debt with work. Those hundreds of White men, were hired by several southern states as police officers.

“Their primary responsibility was to search out and arrest Blacks who were in violation of Black Codes. Once arrested, these men, women, and children would be leased to plantations where they would harvest cotton, tobacco, sugar cane. Or they would be leased to work at coal mines or railroad companies. The owners of these businesses would pay the state for every prisoner who worked for them; prison labor.” In other words, it was…

Slavery by Another NameSlavery by Another Name: Douglas A. Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, made into a documentary. “Tens of thousands of African Americans were arbitrarily arrested, hit with outrageous fines, and charged for the costs of their own arrests. With no means to pay these ostensible ‘debts,’ prisoners were sold as forced laborers…" [Compare this with the current discussion on bail reform.] Thousands of other African Americans were simply seized by southern landowners and compelled into years of involuntary servitude.”

A couple of examples: “In Louisiana, it was illegal for a Black man to preach to Black congregations without special permission in writing from the president of the police. If caught, he could be arrested and fined. If he could not pay the fines, which were unbelievably high, he would be forced to work for an individual or go to jail or prison where he would work until his debt was paid off.

“In South Carolina, if the parent of a Black child was considered vagrant, the judicial system allowed the police and/or other government agencies to ‘apprentice’ the child to an ’employer’. Males could be held until the age of 21, and females could be held until they were 18. Their owner had the legal right to inflict punishment on the child for disobedience and to recapture them if they ran away."

“It is believed that after the passing of the 13th Amendment, more than 800,000 Blacks were part of the system of peonage, or re-enslavement through the prison system. Peonage didn’t end until after World War II.” And unlike a slave, who was considered property, the prisoner, if they died, could just be replaced by another prisoner to work in the factory.

Federal abandonment

The end of Reconstruction: the federal response to Reconstruction, often spotty, ended with the compromise that made Rutherford B. Hayes President.

The Ku Klux Klan: a terrorist organization of vigilantes designed “to intimidate Southern blacks – and any whites who would help them.”

Jim Crow Laws – a collection of state and local statutes that legalized racial segregation. They were meant to marginalize African Americans by denying them the right to vote, hold jobs, get an education, or other opportunities. Those who attempted to defy Jim Crow laws often faced arrest, fines, jail sentences, violence, and death.” It was codified by the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). This was the period when those hated Confederate statues were being built in large numbers.

Elaine, AR, et al.

Pogroms: “There is a long history of white terrorism destroying Black communities.” So it’s “not just Tulsa.” Here are Five Other Race Massacres That Devastated Black America. Some of the worst of it were in the …

Red Summer. Between April and November of 1919,, there were “approximately 25 riots and instances of white mob violence [and] 97 recorded lynchings.”

In the small town of Elaine, Arkansas, racial tensions turned brutally violent after African-American sharecroppers tried to unionize. A staggering 237 people were estimated to be hunted down and killed in what is now known as the Elaine Massacre. The bloodbath made its way all the way up to the United States Supreme Court.

Birth of a Nation: “D. W. Griffith’s disgustingly racist yet titanically original 1915 feature film.” It and the presence of returning black WWI vets inspired both The Red Summer and a resurgence of the KKK.

Federal wealth theft

Redlining: In 1933, “faced with a housing shortage, the federal government began a program explicitly designed to increase — and segregate — America’s housing stock.” Richard Rothstein’s book, “The Color of Law, examines the local, state, and federal housing policies that mandated segregation. He notes that the Federal Housing Administration, which was established in 1934, furthered the segregation efforts by refusing to insure mortgages in and near African-American neighborhoods.”

The G.I. Bill. It “provided financial support in the form of cash stipends for schooling, low-interest mortgages, job skills training, low-interest loans, and unemployment benefits. But many African Americans who served in World War II never saw these benefits.” And not just in the South. This lost potential for creating wealth had generational implications.

This is a very cursory view of 1865-1965. I left off the last 15 years, the “classic” Civil Rights era of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, et al. In any case, it should be clear that the century after the Civil War, black people were hardly “free.”

Black History Month and Segregation Denialism

“America struggles with ‘denialism,’ i.e., a refusal to face its grim past of racial crimes and human rights violations. ‘Other countries that have tried to recover from severe human rights problems that have lasted for decades…have always recognized that you have to commit yourself to truth and reconciliation: South Africa, Rwanda. In the United States we never did that. We had legal reforms that were imposed on some populations against their will and then we just carried on.’…

Every year for the past several, I have become the point person for the Black History Month celebration at my church. It is not a position I’ve ever sought, but it has obviously sought me. I had called a meeting of potentially interested parties in early December so that I might offload some of the responsibility. But I was so sick, not only did I not go to church, I had forgotten that I had called the meeting until after the fact. Opportunity missed; so it goes.

At the end of the first adult education hour, which featured a guest speaker, I recommended that people view Slavery by Another Name, a new PBS documentary based on Douglas A. Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, narrated by Laurence Fishburne (pictured) before the following session. Some folks did watch, and it is interesting to note that it was a piece of American history that most in the room were oblivious to. My wife and I had seen the film at an advanced showing at UAlbany a couple of weeks earlier.

From a description of the book:
Tens of thousands of African Americans were arbitrarily arrested, hit with outrageous fines, and charged for the costs of their own arrests. With no means to pay these ostensible ‘debts,’ prisoners were sold as forced laborers to coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, quarries, and farm plantations. Thousands of other African Americans were simply seized by southern landowners and compelled into years of involuntary servitude.

As it turns out prison officials in Alabama have “banned inmate Mark Melvin from reading” the book, as they, “says attorney Bryan Stevenson, felt it was ‘too provocative, they didn’t like the title, they didn’t like the idea that the title conveyed.'”

Stevenson made some cogent points as he filed suit. “America struggles with ‘denialism,’ i.e., a refusal to face its grim past of racial crimes and human rights violations. ‘Other countries that have tried to recover from severe human rights problems that have lasted for decades…have always recognized that you have to commit yourself to truth and reconciliation: South Africa, Rwanda. In the United States, we never did that. We had legal reforms that were imposed on some populations against their will and then we just carried on.’…

“Stevenson feels it’s ‘just a matter of time’ before the nation begins to minimize ‘what segregation really was,’ like a black version of Holocaust denial. That’s already happening. In 2010, former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour claimed integration in his state was ‘a very pleasant experience.’ Actually, integration in his state was marked by, among other atrocities, a firebombing, a fatal riot, the assassination of Medgar Evers, and the murders of three voting rights workers.

“The only effective weapon against such lies is to learn the truth and tell it, shout it in the face of untruth, equivocation, and denial. Bear witness.”

I also addressed issues of popular culture. I wanted to show a TEDx video by Jay Smooth, but it proved to be too technologically daunting. So I suggested that people look at his …Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race, and its predecessor, on my Times Union blog. Ah, a good use for it.

Slavery by Another Name PBS documentary

When you create a class of “the other”, not just racially, but as “the criminal”, even if it were based on a vague, trumped-up charge of vagrancy, it made it easier to think of people as less than human.

My wife and I got a babysitter last Friday night so we could take the bus – MUCH easier than trying to find parking at the uptown UAlbany campus – and watch Slavery by Another Name, “a 90-minute documentary that challenges one of Americans’ most cherished assumptions: the belief that slavery in this country ended with the Emancipation Proclamation.” Though the film will be premiering on PBS, Monday, February 13 at 9pm ET / 8pm CT (check local listings), the real draw of viewing it early on a bigger screen was to be able to see the director of the film, Shelia Curran Bernard, and the writer of the book upon which the film was based, Douglas Blackmon, who I had seen before.

Narrated by actor Laurence Fishburne, “The film tells how even as chattel slavery came to an end in the South in 1865, thousands of African Americans were pulled back into forced labor with shocking force and brutality.

It was a system in which men, often guilty of no crime at all, were arrested, compelled to work without pay, repeatedly bought and sold, and coerced to do the bidding of masters. Tolerated by both the North and South, forced labor lasted well into the 20th century.” The movie notes the failure of the federal government, both after Reconstruction, and again in the early 20th century under Teddy Roosevelt, to stem the tide of forced labor.

As both the SBAN book and the movie made clear, the peonage system was, in many ways, far worse than the slavery before the Civil War. If one had slaves, one needed to protect one’s economic investment by providing some measure of food, clothing, and shelter. If one were a business, such as US Steel, leasing convicts, one could work someone nearly to death, or sometimes fatally, and then go lease someone else.

The speakers had no prepared comments but were just doing a question and answer period. Anyone who’s seen a Q&A knows that the quality of questions is all over the place. One person wanted to know why we never heard these stories before. Blackmon noted that the further away we are from it in history, the easier it is to look at it. In any case, there will be classroom material available to talk about this previously unknown, shameful part of the American postbellum past.

A question that intrigued me was, basically, how people could be so cruel to each other. The speakers noted that when you create a class of “the other”, not just racially, but as “the criminal”, even if it were based on a vague, trumped-up charge of vagrancy, it made it easier to think of people as less than human. This tied to another question about the new Jim Crow laws, which continue to incarcerate black people in disproportionate numbers; the speakers referred to Michelle Alexander’s book and other sources for further reference.

I must admit to laughing at a recent comment from the blog of SamuraiFrog “It’s Black History Month. So if you’re one of those complete idiots going on Facebook and whining about how having a Black History Month is racism against white people, please pick up a history book. And hit yourself in the head with it. Repeatedly. Until you black out.” The fact that THIS story has largely been missing from the history books makes the continued investigation of the lost black history, a/k/a American history, still relevant.