When Professor Mary Ellen Curtin was in graduate school studying the history of segregation in America and apartheid in South Africa and was looking for a way to link them in her dissertation, she found that both black populations had been heavily employed in mining. “What I discovered as I was reading about mining in the United States, specifically Alabama, was that a lot of the mining force was actually not a free labor force and not a slave labor force, but a prison labor force,” she says. Her finding led to what would become a lifelong interest and niche of study.
She shares her expertise in an upcoming documentary film airing on PBS on February 13 called Slavery by Another Name, based on Douglas A. Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same title. The documentary connects three aspects of forced labor beginning when slaves were emancipated after the Civil War up until the start of World War II: the convict leasing system, peonage (also known as debt bondage), and chain gangs. “The interesting thing about Blackmon’s book is the way he takes this concept of unfree labor and links together prison labor, sharecropping, peonage, and the chain gang,” says Curtin.
Blackmon, reached out to her when it came time to recruit historians for the film, in which she weighs in on the convict leasing system, mainly in Alabama. Curtin focused on one piece of unfree labor, black prisoners in Alabama after emancipation, in her book published in 2000, Black Prisoners and Their World: Alabama, 1865-1900. “The vast majority of individuals convicted of any crime in Alabama, no matter how insignificant, was sent to work in a coalmine,” Curtin explains. “It was like slave labor, but some people have called it worse than that because people were sometimes worked to death.” Prisoners were driven by whips and held with chains.
Approximately 90 percent of prisoners during the time period covered in the film were black, and were often charged with vagrancy (they couldn’t prove at that moment that they were employed) or grand larceny (usually defined as theft of property worth more than $1). “When you put the concept of who is considered a criminal in the historical context of the nineteenth century—well, it tells you a lot,” says Curtin. “Lynching and murder were ubiquitous. Whites who murdered blacks weren’t considered criminals, but African American men who couldn’t prove that they were employed at that moment were regarded as criminals.”
Private companies rented prisoners from the state for a monthly fee and worked them at their own discretion. “They dictated how much coal people were supposed to mine every day,” says Curtin. “If the inmates didn’t maintain that quota, they were whipped, tortured, or beaten. The conditions were horrendous.”
The practice lasted well into the twentieth century; the last prison coalmine in Alabama didn’t close until 1928. “Prison labor was extremely profitable for the state and for private companies, which was one reason why it lasted so long,” says Curtin.
While the brutality of prison labor ceased after the New Deal, prison labor itself hasn’t necessarily gone away. That system has grown since the more recent privatization of some prisons. Corporations like the Corrections Corporation of America now run prisons, and the state pays them for it. “In some ways, it’s comparable to convict leasing,” says Curtin. “The profit motive still dictates prison policy and conditions.”
More than two million people are incarcerated today, and there are another five million on probation, parole, or in jails awaiting trial or release because they can’t afford bail. On top of that, the balance of ethnicities in U.S. prisons is uneven; blacks are six times more likely to be arrested than whites. “There is an association between race and criminality that I think goes back to this period after Emancipation, and that’s hard to break,” says Curtin.
The stereotype isn’t completely broken yet, but Curtin believes progress is being made. “The number of people in prison is so high that it’s more common for people to know someone who’s been put in prison for a drug offense or unjustly or for something that they wouldn’t be put in prison for anywhere else in the world. I think that’s opening people’s eyes a little bit and helping them to peel back those layers of stigma. But those layers of stigma run deep.”
Curtin hopes that the film shines a light on this often-overlooked period in history. “There’s one thing I learned,” she says. “There’s black and white and there’s lots of shades of gray.”
She’s seen the final film and acknowledges how powerful and well made it is, but not in the way she expected. “To me, what’s most moving about the film is the testimony of the descendants of the perpetrators and the victims that director Sam Pollard was able to interview,” says Curtin. “That was the most moving, because that shows its relevance. It’s not just the past; the past is never dead. It’s still with us, and it’s still with these families. If it’s still with them, it’s still with us a nation.”
Slavery by Another Name premieres on PBS on February 13 at 9 p.m.