Politics Mondays: Black Slavery in the 20th Century? Yes by Ron Walters

The recent story of a man, now 104 years old, out of rural Louisiana, asserts that his family was still in slavery in the 1960s. I believe him.

In 1997, there was a story in the Washington Post by Len Cooper, a Black journalist, who said that he remembered stories in his own family about people who were still in slavery in the South in the 20th century. This prompted him to go to the National Archives to try to find some information on this hunch. He found it in the boxes of materials on the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

I was shocked when I read the story, so I went to the National Archives in downtown Washington, D.C., and asked for the NAACP boxes for 1920-1940. In them I found letters from Black people in several places in the South saying, in effect, that they were still in slavery: They were being brutalized, they could not get away, they were not being paid. In their own words, some said that the sharecropper system had them in a situation "worse than slavery."

Apparently, some of these cases were passed on to the U.S. Justice Department for investigation. Now, the Justice Department field offices in the South have often functioned in collusion with the racist county sheriffs who ran the convict-lease system. Under this system, the sheriffs would charge a Black person with a crime, lock him up, then lease him out to the nearest plantation owner, who would often put the prisoner back in slavery, legal slavery. By the way, thisias permitted in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed slavery "except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted."

In any case, the Justice Department did investigate and indict some slavers in the 20th century. To find it, you have to look in another set of boxes of the Justice Department 1920-1950, where the files are labeled "Slavery/Peonage." The last case that I saw was the prosecution and sentencing of the Dial brothers who ran a plantation 35 miles outside of Birmingham, Ala., and kept Blacks in slavery in 1946. Len Cooper says that the last case he found was in 1950. So, the fact that some Blacks were still in slavery in the 1960s is not far-fetched.

This means that in some areas in the South in the 20th century, even during the Civil Rights Movement, Whites were still practicing slavery, because if one or two cases were discovered you can be sure there were many others that were not. But even this mild evidence also says that we have to stop this lie that "slavery ended in 1865" that so many people are telling, just because they are ignorant of the facts. Legal slavery might have ended, but if you can enslave Blacks legally by criminalizing them, when did that end?

Common sense says that you can't instantly stop a practice that existed for 246 years, from 1619 to 1865. It takes a long time. And so it did with slavery.

I can't help wondering how widespread this was. When did slavery actually end and how many people can say that they know where people were kept in slavery in 20th Century America? We need to talk to our old timers to see how much of this is true and whether their stories can be substantiated in various localities.

Some of the organizations working on African-American reparations, such as the National Coalition for Blacks for Reparations in America (N'COBRA), or the Famer-Pellman group or the Reparations Coordinating Committee, have developed law suits against the government or private corporations. In many cases, the evidence rest on the experience of our old timers they have found. Will more of them now come forward to tell their story?

A modern corrective on this story is important because the lie that slavery ended 138 years ago is being used by opponents of reparations and in general by conservatives to block this movement. But Blacks themselves need to know that the link between slavery and their lives in 2003 is much closer than they think. If true, and it is, how does that explain the life circumstances of many Blacks with respect to wealth, employment skills, education, and the like?

Ron Walters is Distinguished Leadership Scholar, director of the African American Leadership Institute and professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland-College Park. His most recent book is "African American Leadership," with Robert Smith.

Note: This article first appeared at BlackPressUSA.com

Monday, June 23, 2003