Editor’s note: Join us on Tuesday, May 22nd for a film screening and discussion of Slavery by Another Name.
If you’re like me, you were taught that slavery ended with Emancipation Proclamation. Then Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus and the Civil Rights Movement began.
It wasn’t until adulthood when I realized that I had only a vague understanding of a large part of our history, and that what I was taught regarding slavery in this country was only a part of the story.
Slavery by Another Name, a documentary produced by Twin Cities Public Television and based on a book of the same name by Douglas A. Blackmon, fills in many of these blanks. The film challenges the notion that slavery ended with Emancipation Proclamation by exploring the varied uses of forced labor—including convict leasing, peonage/debt slavery, and sharecropping—that occurred for a period of eighty years after the Civil War.
I accepted the wonderful challenge to develop educational materials based on Slavery by Another Name. The curriculum, aimed at high school students, introduces this little known history and encourages students to recover, explore and document shared histories. We also developed a teacher training workshop to empower educators to teach this history to their students. As I’ve traveled the country facilitating these workshops, most teachers wonder: 1) How could this happen? and 2) Why didn’t they know about it?
The first question involves a number of factors. After slavery there was a need for a new and cheap labor force and a desire to return newly freed slaves to a position as close to slavery as possible. There was the exploitation by Southern businessmen of a loophole in the 13th Amendment. There was the use of the Black Codes and vagrancy statutes to criminalize the behavior of blacks. There were states that leased convicts (usually arrested on trumped up or false charges) to sites like coal mines and turpentine farms as our country moved towards industrialization. It’s estimated that hundreds of thousands of people, most of whom were African American, were caught in this complex system of forced labor.
The second concern points to larger issues about the flawed historical narrative that we tend to pass down to younger generations without question or investigation. And while many of our young people think that slavery happened so long ago that it doesn’t impact or affect them now, this history proves otherwise. It also helps to lessen the confusion and frustration about why we feel the way we do about our present and future. Contemporary connections abound.
It is imperative that all of us—young, old, and in between—know the full face of our history so that we understand how we got here, how we’re connected, and how we can continue to affect change by understanding exactly where and why inequities exist.