Was Reconstruction Too Limited, Too Far, or Just Right?
What comes to mind when you consider the film’s title, Slavery by another Name?
What do you know about the use of forced labor in America and beyond?
The film tackles a difficult part of American history. What are ways that we can reconcile (restore friendly relations between) difficult parts of our history?
Key Terms from the film
Reconstruction: In the years immediately following the Civil War, from 1865-1877, the South entered a period called Reconstruction. During this time, the Freedmen’s Bureau was created to offer former slaves food, clothing, and advice on labor contracts and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments were passed in order to attempt to bring equality to blacks. Initially, with federal laws and federal troops offering protection, blacks began to vote and gain political power. Soon after, Southern whites responded with violence and intimidation. In 1877, because of the cost, administrative corruption, Northern exhaustion, and Southern protests, the federal government withdrew from the South, and black disenfranchisement and oppression quickly followed.
Sharecropping: Sharecropping is a system where the landlord allows a tenant to farm his land in exchange for a share of the crop. This encouraged tenants to work to produce the biggest harvest that they could, and ensured they would remain tied to the land and unlikely to leave for other opportunities. High interest rates, unpredictable harvests, and unscrupulous landlords and merchants often kept tenant farm families severely indebted, requiring the debt to be carried over 26 until the next year or the next. Additional laws made it difficult or even illegal for sharecroppers to sell their crops to others besides their landlord, or prevented sharecroppers from moving if they were indebted to their landlord.
White Supremacists and Terrorism: White supremacy is the belief that white people are superior to other races of people. After Reconstruction, white supremacists formed political and social groups to promote whites and oppress blacks, and to enact laws that codified inequality. The Ku Klux Klan (founded in 1865) and the Knights of the White Camelia were secret groups, while members of the White League and the Red Shirts were publicly known. All four groups used violence to intimidate blacks and Republican voters. Their efforts succeeded, and with the end of Reconstruction in 1877, white supremacy became the reality of the South.
Black Codes, Pig Laws and Vagrancy Statutes: In state after state, and county after county, after Reconstruction ended, new laws targeted African Americans – and effectively criminalized black life in efforts to restore power to Southern whites. The pig laws enhanced penalties for what had been previously misdemeanor offenses, to felony offenses. In Mississippi for example, theft of a pig worth as little as a dollar could mean five years in prison. With the vagrancy statutes you could be convicted if at any point you could not prove that you were employed.
Peonage (Debt Slavery): Peonage, also called debt slavery or debt servitude, is a system where an employer compels a worker to pay off a debt with work. Legally, peonage was outlawed following the Civil War. However the federal government didn’t truly commit to enforcing it until the 1940s. After Reconstruction, many Southern black men were swept into peonage though different methods.
Life in the Coal Mine: Coal mines were dangerous for all workers. Collapsing mines, suffocation, gas poisoning, explosions, and heavy machinery accidents were daily dangers. Men often worked standing in water, swinging their sharp pick axes and shoveling coal in the flickering light of their gas head lamps. For those who survived those hazards, long-term exposure to poor air caused chronic lung diseases such as black lung. For convict laborers, conditions were even worse. Poor food rations, cramped sleeping quarters, and inadequate health care led to waves of diseases. Physical punishment for not meeting the required amounts for coal collected or insubordination included whippings, being tied up and tossed into solitary confinement, and water torture. Shackles, chains, and other methods were used to prevent escape.
Judgments and Contracts: In Southern courtrooms, two main legal methods developed that ensnared men into forced labor. In many cases, defendants were often found guilty of real or fabricated crimes, and were fined for the crime and additional court fees. When the men were unable to pay, a local businessman would step forward to pay the fines. The defendant would then sign a contract agreeing to work without pay until the debt was paid off. A second method involved a defendant who, when faced with the likelihood of a conviction and the threat of being sent to a far-off work camp, would “confess judgment,” essentially claiming responsibility before any trial occurred. At that point, a local businessman would step forward to act as “surety,” vouching for the future good behavior of the defendant, and forfeiting a bond that would pay for the crime. At that point, the judge would accept the bond, without ever rendering a verdict on the crime. The defendant would then sign a contract agreeing to work without pay until the surety bond was paid off.
Chain Gangs: Chain gangs were groups of convicts forced to labor at tasks such as road construction, ditch digging, or farming while chained together. Some chain gangs worked at locations near a prison, while others were housed in transportable jails such as railroad cars or trucks. Chain gangs minimized the cost of guarding prisoners, but exposed prisoners to an array of health problems and dangerous working conditions.
Convict Leasing: Initially, some states paid private contractors to house and feed prisoners. Within a few years states realized they could lease out their convicts to local planters or industrialists who would pay minimal rates for the workers – thereby eliminating costs and increasing revenue. Soon, markets for convict laborers developed, with entrepreneurs buying and selling convict labor leases. Unlike slave owners, temporary employers had only a small capital investment in convict laborers and thus convict laborers were often dismally treated. Even so, the convict lease system was highly profitable for the states and the employers.
Jim Crow & Plessy v. Ferguson: As whites gained control of Southern states’ governments when Reconstruction ended, they began to enact laws known collectively as Jim Crow, which oppressed blacks through segregation. Though the 1875 Civil Rights Act had stated that all races were entitled to equal treatment in public accommodations, an 1883 Supreme Court decision clarified that the law did not apply to private persons or corporations. Once the Supreme Court decided that “separate but equal” was legal in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, segregation became even more ensconced in Southern law and strengthened Jim Crow. Poll taxes, literacy requirements, and grandfather clauses obstructed blacks from voting.
POST FILM VIEWING QUESTIONS (answer bolded, italicized items)
“In the five major cotton states of the deep South, nearly half of all capital, nearly half of all investment, was in human beings. So when those human beings were confiscated, when the investment was transferred, in essence, from slaveholders to the people themselves, that meant a huge loss of capital to Southern slaveholders, to the people who controlled the economy of the South.” – James Grossman, scholar
Emancipation turned the former slaveholding world upside down. What do you think life was like for the newly freed slaves? What do you think life was like for the former slaveholders?
What were you taught about the Thirteenth Amendment? Has your understanding of the
Thirteenth Amendment changed after viewing the film? If so, how?
At the end of the Civil War there was a rise in white vigilante groups in the South. What role did violence play in limiting the freedoms of blacks? How is violence used today to control groups of people?
Scholar Adam Green notes that, “Reconstruction was an attempt to create a country in which it would be possible to have a biracial and equal citizenship.” In what ways do you think that Reconstruction accomplished this goal and in what ways did it fall short?
After 1874, there wasn’t any sustained federal presence in the South, which meant that African
Americans who were trying to embark on their new freedom journey could count on less assistance from the federal government and more animosity from Southern whites. Should the federal government have done more to protect the new freedoms of blacks? Do you believe that the federal government is effective in protecting the rights of all citizens today? Why or why not?
Using the key terms above, give what you consider to be the top three reasons for a return to difficult times for African Americans in the South during Reconstruction.