This post is part II of a series from historian James Stewart discussing the connection between slavery “then” and “now.” Part I discusses why today’s slavery is less recognizable.
Insight supplied by the African American experience brings modern slavery ever more vividly to life. Moreover, and at least as important, comparisons drawn from the African American experience make manifest the deepest truth about slavery that Americans need to know no matter its location, dynamics, or history. Inescapable in every instance, past and present, is slavery’s detestable brutality and the categorical imperative to assist those ensnared in it. Its legacies, whatever its form and however abolished, extend most painfully into the present.
To illustrate this vital truth we turn next to the history of enslavement in the United States after the ending of the Civil War and to a prescient comment by the brilliant abolitionist Wendell Phillips in response to the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865: “We have abolished the slave: The master remains.”
Scholars have exhaustively documented how former masters recreated African American slavery “by another name” after 1865, just as Wendell Phillips had warned, by instituting debt peonage and by trafficking fraudulently imprisoned black citizens as enslaved convict-lease laborers.
These practices ensnared tens of thousands. They were implemented in the 1890s and persisted well into the twentieth century. Denied effective legal representation, tens of thousands of African Americans (and a much smaller number of whites) convicted of any sort of crime (no matter how petty or bogus) found themselves shackled, transported long distances (sometimes in iron cages), and coerced at gunpoint to work long and excessively hard for not just the state, but for large private businesses. Prison officials extended sentences as it suited them. Resistance meant beatings, deprivation of food and water, extended isolation, and the risk of being murdered.
Leasing convicts to work for private corporations turned handsome profits, in which prison officials shared. Exploiting incarcerated people to work on state-sponsored projects lowered tax rates, suffocated union organizing, and suppressed wages for everybody else. As always, slavery paid the owners handsomely, and slavery surely is what debt peonage and convict leasing were. Both systems employed the pretext of punishing criminal behavior to seize dark-skinned people, sequester them, and wring profits from their coerced labor.
But how can this underreported history motivate Americans to act against slavery today? Once again, familiarity with the nation’s past cures present-day blindness.
If transported back to the 1880s, today’s enslavers and human traffickers would instantly recognize the activities of their southern counterparts and eagerly join in. Enslavement today and the post-Civil War enslavement of African Americans appear as close fraternal twins. Slavery “then” should strike today’s antislavery activists as disturbingly like slavery “now.” The crucial importance of this point cannot be overstressed. What African Americans endured in the post-emancipation era is precisely what vulnerable people the world over endure today.
Properly understood, African American history illuminates the problem of slavery today.
Traffickers the world over demand the repayment of impossible sums for supposed “services rendered” from undocumented people after smuggling them across national borders. These workers find repayment impossible and face the penalty of enslavement for sexual exploitation and/or brutalizing labor in factories, on farms, and in fishing ships. The southern convict-lease system replicates itself wherever unscrupulous governments and private recruiters enslave “guest workers” after luring them with promises of employment. What awaits them is enslavement in public works projects and private industry.
Similarities multiply once one recalls that debt peonage has paved the way for newer forms of enslavement throughout the world. The Central American nations, the British Caribbean Islands, Haiti, and the Philippines, each a major exporter of “enslavable” people today, have a significant history based in “old” slavery followed by decades of debt peonage. It is well documented that in China and India debt peonage enslaves millions, many of whom fled only to face re-enslavement elsewhere. Undocumented labor as a springboard to enslavement has hardly ended within the United States, either. Exploitative fruit and vegetable growers, for example, have made southwest Florida infamous as “‘ground zero’ for modern-day slavery,” as former Chief Assistant US Attorney Douglas Molloy notes. The African American experience illuminates the plight of enslaved people today. The enormity of the problem of contemporary slavery, conversely, lends powerful support to historical claims for justice on behalf of African Americans.
Subjecting slavery to historical questioning automatically overwhelms closed mindedness by generating questions, offering analogies, suggesting comparisons, expanding our scope of inquiry, and urging us to make moral choices.
The best historians of slavery are also deeply committed antislavery activists. When it comes to the problem of slavery today, it is crucial to be deeply engaged with slavery’s past.