Slavery By Another Name

Relearning history

On Sunday, Sept. 13, Jeanne and I walked from our home in North Newton, Kansas, over to the Bethel College campus to attend a showing of the documentary Slavery by Another Name, which premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and had its national broadcast on PBS on Feb. 3, 2012. KIPCOR (Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution) sponsored the showing and the discussion that followed.

President Teddy Roosevelt looked the other way, not wanting to displease his wealthy supporters. After all, this penal servitude, unpaid labor, was good for business.

Slavery by Another Name is a powerful film, based on the 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Douglas Blackmon. It challenges one of our country’s most cherished assumptions: the belief that slavery ended with Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. The documentary recounts how in the years following the Civil War, insidious new forms of forced labor emerged in the American South, keeping hundreds of thousands of African Americans in bondage, trapping them in a brutal system that would persist until the onset of World War II.

The film uses archival photographs and dramatic re-enactments to tell forgotten stories of both victims and perpetrators of this neoslavery and includes interviews with their descendants. It also features interviews with Blackmon and leading scholars of the period.

The film recounts how, since slavery was unconstitutional, local authorities in the American South arrested African Americans, often on trumped-up charges, and sent them to prison farms, where they served years in hard labor, to the profit of local businessmen. And when courageous people brought this practice of penury to the attention of the U.S. government, President Teddy Roosevelt looked the other way, not wanting to displease his wealthy supporters. After all, this penal servitude, unpaid labor, was good for business.

Only during World War II, when someone pointed out to President Franklin Roosevelt that this practice would provide the Japanese with propaganda, did the government act to end it. Still, its practice continued for some time.

Slavery by Another Name is hard to watch and elicits strong emotions. In a discussion after the film, Galyn Vesey, Ph.D., director of the Research on Black Wichita Project, asked people about their feelings, their thoughts and their own experiences.

In the audience were many people from Wichita, Kan., most of them African Americans, and what they had to say was as moving as the film. A pastor said that our nation is cursed because of its racism, which he defined as prejudice plus power. A woman pleaded for some kind of change in a society where her son is arrested by police and held in jail when he did nothing illegal. One man told of his experience as a veteran who was arrested at a gas station while simply sitting in the car while his friend pumped gas.

An eloquent man who said he will turn 83 in December recounted how talented blacks are leaving Kansas because jobs are closed to them. He said he has three daughters, all of whom have doctorates, as does he. Two are architects. One of them works at a firm in Atlanta that designed buildings for the 1996 Olympics and the Atlanta airport. Yet when Wichita decided to do a major expansion of its airport, she couldn’t even get an interview.

A white woman in the audience asked what many felt? What do we do? What will help?

A good question. One thing we can do is relearn our nation’s history, like this period that is ignored by most textbooks.

More on film at its PBS-sponsored website.