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I just watched Slavery by Another Name, and I was surprised and enlightened to learn about this chapter of American History. Thank you for having the courage and decency for showing and sharing real stories of America.
Periodically throughout this book, there are quotations from individuals who used offensive racial labels.
Willie Clarke, Leroy Bandy, Verdell Wade, interviews by the author with former miners and witnesses, January 2002. I chose not to sanitize these historical statements but to present the authentic language of the period, whenever documented direct statements are available.
Vagrancy, the offense of a person not being able to prove at a given moment that he or she is employed, was a new and flimsy concoction dredged up from legal obscurity at the end of the nineteenth century by the state legislatures of Alabama and other southern states. 12—one shaft in a vast subterranean labyrinth on the edge of Birmingham known as the Pratt Mines.
In the month before Cottenham arrived at the prison mine, pneumonia and tuberculosis sickened dozens. Forty-five years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freeing American slaves, Green Cottenham and more than a thousand other black men toiled under the lash at Slope 12. My guide that day in the summer of 2000 was an industrial archaeologist named Jack Bergstresser.
No specific record of the internments survived, but mountains of archival evidence and the oral histories of old and dying African Americans nearby confirmed that most of the cemetery’s inhabitants had been inmates of the labor camp that operated for three decades on the hilltop above the graveyard.
The brutality of the punishments received by African Americans was unjust, but not shocking in light of the waves of petty crime ostensibly committed by freed slaves and their descendants. That was a version of history reliant on a narrow range of official summaries and gubernatorial archives created and archived by the most dubious sources—southern whites who engineered and most directly profited from the system.
White animosity toward blacks was accepted as a wrong but logical extension of antebellum racial views. More than thirty thousand pages related to debt slavery cases sit in the files of the Department of Justice at the National Archives. The total number of workers caught in this net had to have totaled more than a hundred thousand and perhaps more than twice that figure. It was not coincidental that 1901 also marked the final full disenfranchisement of nearly all blacks throughout the South.
The same men who built railroads with thousands of slaves and proselytized for the use of slaves in southern factories and mines in the 1850s were also the first to employ forced African American labor in the 1870s. Her fourteen-year-old brother, James Robinson, had been abducted a year earlier and sold to a plantation. The practice would not fully recede from their lives until the dawn of World War II, when profound global forces began to touch the lives of black Americans for the first time since the era of the international abolition movement a century earlier, prior to the Civil War. But as I sifted more deeply into the fragmented details of an almost randomly chosen man named Green Cottenham and the place and people of his upbringing, the contours of an archetypal story gradually appeared. 12 to the boundaries of the burial field, considering even without benefit of his words the stifled horror he and thousands of others must have felt as they descended through the now-lost passageway to the mine, I came to understand that Cottenham belonged as the central figure of this narrative. Blackmon, explores the little-known story of the post-Emancipation era and the labor practices and laws that effectively created a new form of slavery in the South that persisted well into the 20th century. It was capriciously enforced by local sheriffs and constables, adjudicated by mayors and notaries public, recorded haphazardly or not at all in court records, and, most tellingly in a time of massive unemployment among all southern men, was reserved almost exclusively for black men. Steel Corporation—the sheriff turned the young man over to the company for the duration of his sentence.
There, he was chained inside a long wooden barrack at night and required to spend nearly every waking hour digging and loading coal. But beneath the undergrowth of privet, the faint outlines of hundreds upon hundreds of oval depressions still marked the land.

Years earlier, he had stumbled across a simple iron fence surrounding a single collapsed grave during a survey of the area.
Later I would discover atop a nearby rise another burial field, where Green Cottenham almost certainly was buried. White readers on the whole reacted with somber praise for a sober documentation of a forgotten crime against African Americans. According to many conventional histories, slaves were unable to handle the emotional complexities of freedom and had been conditioned by generations of bondage to become thieves. Altogether, millions of mostly obscure entries in the public record offer details of a forced labor system of monotonous enormity.
Sentences were handed down by provincial judges, local mayors, and justices of the peace—often men in the employ of the white business owners who relied on the forced labor produced by the judgments. The South’s highly evolved system and customs of leasing slaves from one farm or factory to the next, bartering for the cost of slaves, and wholesaling and retailing of slaves regenerated itself around convict leasing in the 1870s and 1880s.
But his voice, and that of millions of others, is almost entirely absent from the vast record of the era. The slavery that survived long past emancipation was an offense permitted by the nation, perpetrated across an enormous region over many years and involving thousands of extraordinary characters. Blackmon examines the concept of “neoslavery,” which sentenced African-Americans to forced labor for violating an array of laws that criminalized their everyday behavior. Before the year was over, almost sixty men forced into Slope 12 were dead of disease, accidents, or homicide. Spread in haphazard rows across the forest floor, these were sunken graves of the dead from nearby prison mines once operated by U.S.
Some said it heightened their understanding of demands for reparations to the descendants of antebellum slaves.
This thinking held that the system of leasing prisoners contributed to the intimidation of blacks in the era but was not central to it.
The laws passed to intimidate black men away from political participation were enforced by sending dissidents into slave mines or forced labor camps.
Repeatedly, the timing and scale of surges in arrests appeared more attuned to rises and dips in the need for cheap labor than any demonstrable acts of crime. Unlike the victims of the Jewish Holocaust, who were on the whole literate, comparatively wealthy, and positioned to record for history the horror that enveloped them, Cottenham and his peers had virtually no capacity to preserve their memories or document their destruction. Still, how could the account of this vast social wound be woven around the account of a single, anonymous man who by every modern measure was inconsequential and unvoiced? What the company’s managers did with Cottenham, and thousands of other black men they purchased from sheriffs across Alabama, was entirely up to them. Cottenham was subject to the whip for failure to dig the requisite amount, at risk of physical torture for disobedience, and vulnerable to the sexual predations of other miners— many of whom already had passed years or decades in their own chthonian confinement. He knew that African Americans had been compelled to work in Alabama mines prior to the Great Depression. Steel or the companies it had acquired.3 Here and in scores of other similarly crude graveyards, the final chapter of American slavery had been buried.
Sympathy for the victims, however brutally they had been abused, was tempered because, after all, they were criminals. The judges and sheriffs who sold convicts to giant corporate prison mines also leased even larger numbers of African Americans to local farmers, and allowed their neighbors and political supporters to acquire still more black laborers directly from their courtrooms.
Hundreds of forced labor camps came to exist, scattered throughout the South—operated by state and county governments, large corporations, small-time entrepreneurs, and provincial farmers. The anger and desperation of southern whites that allowed such outrages in 1920 were rooted in the chaos and bitterness of 1866. The black population of the United States in 1900 was in the main destitute and illiterate.

Eventually I recognized that this imposed anonymity was Green’s most authentic and compelling dimension. His grandfather, once a coal miner himself, had told him stories of a similar burial field near the family home place south of Birmingham. It was a form of bondage distinctly different from that of the antebellum South in that for most men, and the relatively few women drawn in, this slavery did not last a lifetime and did not automatically extend from one generation to the next. For most, it seemed to be an account of one more important but sadly predictable bullet point in the standard indictment of historic white racism. Moreover, most historians concluded that the details of what really happened couldn’t be determined.
And because most scholarly studies dissected these events into separate narratives limited to each southern state, they minimized the collective effect of the decisions by hundreds of state and local county governments during at least a part of this period to sell blacks to commercial interests. Their leaders changed with each generation, but the mass of black Americans were depicted as if the freed slaves of 1863 were the same people still not free fifty years later.
Revenues from the neo-slavery poured the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars into the treasuries of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, Texas, North Carolina, and South Carolina—where more than 75 percent of the black population in the United States then lived. These were the tendrils of the unilateral new racial compact that suffocated the aspirations for freedom among millions of American blacks as they approached the beginning of the twentieth century. But it was nonetheless slavery—a system in which armies of free men, guilty of no crimes and entitled by law to freedom, were compelled to labor without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced to do the bidding of white masters through the regular application of extraordinary physical coercion.
Official accounts couldn’t be rigorously challenged, because so few of the original records of the arrests and contracts under which black men were imprisoned and sold had survived.
There was no acknowledgment of the effects of cycle upon cycle of malevolent defeat, of the injury of seeing one generation rise above the cusp of poverty only to be indignantly crushed, of the impact of repeating tsunamis of violence and obliterated opportunities on each new generation of an ever-changing population outnumbered in persons and resources. Where mob violence or the Ku Klux Klan terrorized black citizens periodically, the return of forced labor as a fixture in black life ground pervasively into the daily lives of far more African Americans. I began to understand that an explicable account of the neo-slavery endured by Green Cottenham must begin much earlier than even the Civil War, and would extend far beyond the end of his life.
There is no chronicle of girlfriends, hopes, or favorite songs of the dead in a Pratt Mines burial field. I try to tell the story of many places and states and the realities of what happened to millions of people.
No wonder there is still this aura of distrust between the races; the idea that not much is expected from Black people, that we are bad behaved, criminal types and that we really are not capable of doing more than manual labor. And the record is replete with episodes in which public leaders faced a true choice between a path toward complete racial repression or some degree of modest civil equality, and emphatically chose the former.
The entombed there are utterly mute, the fact of their existence as fragile as a scent in wind. But as much as practicable, I have chosen to orient this narrative toward one family and its descendants, to one section of the state most illustrative of its breadth and injury, and to one forgotten black man, Green Cottenham. The amorphous rhetoric of the struggle against segregation, the thin cinematic imagery of Ku Klux Klan bogeymen, even the horrifying still visuals of lynching, had never been a sufficient answer to these African Americans for one hundred years of seemingly docile submission by four million slaves freed in 1863 and their tens of millions of descendants. How had so large a population of Americans disappeared into a largely unrecorded oblivion of poverty and obscurity? I began to realize that beneath that query lay a haunting worry within those readers that there might be no answer, that African Americans perhaps were simply damned by fate or doomed by unworthiness. For many black readers, the account of how a form of American slavery persisted into the twentieth century, embraced by the U.S.

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