Did slavery really end with the 13th Amendment? Gregory Kaster, in his Jan. 6 article for the History News Service, "Recent Hollywood blockbusters examine law of slavery," writes an insightful comparison of the movies "Django Unchained" and "Lincoln."
"The films' real achievement," he states, "is in highlighting slavery as a legal institution." He ends his article with these words: "It was the 13th Amendment that destroyed the legal edifice of slavery ... and ended the terrible suffering of some 4 million slaves." Oh, that this was true. Granted, the slaves were technically free, but it would be another long, dark, tragic chapter in our nation's history before it became practicably true.
The first 10 years after 1865 was a relative "honeymoon" period for people of color. Many began to dream of owning their own farms, and some 2,000 men even rose to heights of political stature from local politics to the U.S. Senate. But a swirling storm of anger, resentment, and calculated incitement of fear was rising and manifested itself in the faceless caricature of the grotesque known as the Ku Klux Klan. Even worse, the legal system would again strike a Machiavellian partnership with evil that became the Jim Crow laws, segregating, disenfranchising and legitimizing racism. A black person could not leave employment without the written approval of the employer, in essence severing the many stranded hopes of freedom and reapplying the shackles of slavery with a thunderous clang.
But the real annihilation of freedom was still to come, and come it did, with its death's-head shroud hovering over the land. The spirit of those 4 million people was effectively re-enslaved by the insidious practice known as convict leasing. This practice is richly documented in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Slavery by Another Name," by Douglas A. Blackmon, whose credibility is additionally enhanced by the fact that he is white, a Southerner, and works for the most conservative newspaper in the country as the Atlanta bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal.
Convict leasing worked like this: A man was arrested on specious charges, fined and charged for legal fees, and then leased to a farm, a coal mine, or a brickworks to pay off this debt. A standard term of conviction was one or more years at $12 a month, working under the total, and legal control of the owner and subject to whipping and other abuses as seen fit, a true re-enslavement. Not uncommonly, whole groups of men would be rounded up in direct correlation to the labor needs of these businesses. This practice not only supplied thousands of men to labor camps but struck fear in the rest of the black communities throughout the South, effectively holding them in virtual bondage.
This history was largely unknown and not discussed in any history class I ever had. Blackmon's book helps to unveil the mystery of why the black community had not been able to rise socially and economically for so many years. It was not until the beginning of World War II that these practices ended.
The North cannot be exculpated in the complicity of systematically holding down an entire people. It too is guilty. A system known as redlining was pervasive in all the large cities. Banks would draw a red line on a city map around black neighborhoods, denying mortgages for any home within that boundary. Rather, contracts would be given at the time of purchase stating that if one payment was missed over the decades-long years of said contract, the house would be confiscated with no equity due back to the buyer. This resulted in a system which precluded the building of family wealth that could then be used to help future generations with advanced education or a down payment on their own homes.
Thankfully, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, codified almost 100 years after enactment of the 13th Amendment, changed things. That was the real beginning of emancipation. Proclaiming a truth doesn't make it so, but since 1964, there has been much progress.
A new Jim Crow is rising in the form of black incarceration -- 841,000 men just in 2009 according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice -- but that's another article.
Patsy Ouellette of Bakersfield is an eighth-grade English teacher at Norris Middle School. Another View presents a critical response to a previous editorial, column or news story.