"In the United States one cannot sell himself."
Two years after the last convicts emerged from Flat Top prison, a white writer named John Spivak visited the offices of the state Prison Commission in Georgia in September 1930. Presenting himself in Atlanta as a journalist seeking to document reforms in the convict system, Spivak was given a letter of introduction from none other than the state's top penal officer, directing the wardens of every prison camp in Georgia to give him full access to their stockades and inmates.
Spivak, born in Connecticut, had worked as a police reporter for a newspaper in his home state and as a writer of pulp fiction stories. His strong socialist leanings made him sympathetic to the plight of blacks held against their will in the South. His skill with the jocular techniques of insinuating into the comfort of sheriffs and wardens gave him the tools to render an astonishingly sharp portrait of what he found.
Contrary to the congratulatory pronouncements that followed Georgia's "abolition" of the practice of selling black prisoners in 1908, the state had more forced labor slaves than ever by 1930. In excess of eight thousand men—nearly all of them black—worked in chain gangs in 116 counties. Of 1.1 million African Americans in the state that year, approximately half lived under the direct control and force of whites—unable to move or seek employment elsewhere under threat that doing so would lead to the dreaded chain gang.1
Two years later Spivak published Georgia Nigger, a 241-page fictionalized account of his finds—built around the harrowing narrative of a young black boy drawn inexorably and cynically into a lifetime of slavery—on a county chain gang, as a debt slave to farmers, as a possession bought and sold by white plantation men. The episodes that make up the narrative could have just as easily been firsthand accounts of the fiery lynching disaster in Pine Apple, Alabama, the brutish violence and perversion of Lowndes County three decades earlier, or the "murder farm" of John S. Williams.
Unlike the plethora of chain-gang-themed novels and movies that followed in the next four decades such as the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke—nearly all of which assiduously labored to depict the southern penal barbarism as something directed equitably at both whites and blacks—Spivak made no effort to blunt the overtly racial character of involuntary servitude. He unstintingly portrayed a system designed to enslave or intimidate black men into obedience. That a small minority of white men were drawn in as well was peripheral and inconsequential.
Spivak created a character named David Jackson, a black sharecropper's son first sentenced to the chain gang of fictional Ochlockonee County for no apparent crime. Still a teenager, he was released from the traveling camp—in which prisoners were, as in actual life at the time, held in rolling cages similar to circus wagons transporting exotic animals. The men were perpetually chained to one another—eating, sleeping, working, bathing, and defecating together, never freed from their heavy iron links.
After the character's release from the chain gang, David watched a game of dice in an alleyway during a Saturday visit to town. A fight breaks out: "A steel blade glinted in the yellow light. The burly nigger grunted and clutched at his neck. The assailant dropped the knife and fled. Someone scooped up the money and ran. Only the knife was left by the time the restaurant proprietor and his two customers rushed out. David instinctively turned to the lighted streets, hoping to lose himself in the crowds. Dark forms scurried by. A strong hand grasped the boy's arm and a voice demanded: ‘What's yo’ hurry nigger?’
" ‘I didn't do nothing,’ " he protested frantically.2
Rounded up with four other young black men, none of whom was connected to the fight, Jackson is convinced by the sheriff that he must allow the county's largest landowner to buy him or sit in a vermin-infested jail for a year, awaiting trial. Sold to the white plantation farmer for $25—ostensibly to pay a fine for disturbing the peace—David is taken in chains to Jim Deering's remote plantation. There he is worked as a slave, and witnesses how Deering handles those blacks who resist any order—flogging men on their naked buttocks with straps dipped in syrup and sand, beating men with fists and clubs. As the farm falls behind during picking season—raising the prospect that some of the cotton in the field could be lost—Deering's methods of compelling the slaves to work harder grow even more sadistic. To teach others a lesson, he orders a man nicknamed "High Yaller" for his lighter skin to be whipped for stopping to get a drink of water.
A guard slipped handcuffs on him. Another appeared with a long, leather strap of knotted thongs. With a quick movement the guards threw him face down. One sat on his shoulders and the other on his feet. Charlie slipped the niggers overalls down until the buttocks were exposed, took the strap and stepped back. It swished through the air and cracked like a pistol shot on the brown flesh.
High Yaller screamed and squirmed, rubbing his face in the soil. The guards dug their feet into the earth to keep from being thrown off.
Red welts showed on the skin.
The strap swished through the air again. High Yaller ceased screaming before the twentieth stroke. He moaned and his body jerked spasmodically. His face was scratched and bleeding. He tried to spit the red clay from his mouth but it stuck to his lips and chin. The exposed flesh was a mass of welts and criss-crossed lines of blood…. Flies settled on the raw buttocks.3
Another morning a sick prisoner named Limpy—for his injured hip— begs in the road to be allowed to rest. Ordered to begin picking cotton again, Limpy has the audacity to resist. He accuses the farmer of trying to work him to death, of treating the prisoners worse than "real" slaves before the Civil War. "If I was yo’ slave an’ you paid a t'ousan’ dollar fo’ me you'd tek care o’ me when I git de mis'ries but you kin git plenty mo’ niggers cheap if I die,’ " Limpy yelled from the pages of the book.
Deering turned on him white with fury. His fist smashed against the nigger's face. Limpy sank to the ground, blood running from his nose and mouth….
"Get up and go to work!" Deering ordered tersely. "Get up, or I'll give you something to get sick over!"
"Sho," he growled, "why doan you kill me now instead o’ sendin’ me out in de fiel's to die!"
The planter's face turned apoplectic. For a moment he tried to restrain himself. Then with a swift movement his hand darted to his hip and drew his pistol.
With a hoarse scream Limpy tried to scramble to his feet, his hands half raised in supplication.
"Mist’ Deerin’—" he cried.
Deering fired twice. Limpy slumped to the ground, his head on his chest….
"You asked for it, you black bastard! …I want no impudence around here!" he shouted to the terrified niggers at the tables. "Remember that!"
He turned to the gigantic nigger beside him. "Weight the son of a bitch and bury him in the swamp!"4
Spivak's protagonist eventually escaped Deering's farm, but his freedom leads only to a series of pathetic and ever more desperate efforts to avoid returning to his slave status under Deering or another white man. Finally finding a way out of his home county and the feudal dominion of Deering and the sheriff he controlled, Jackson discovers that every other town in Georgia is another vortex of police coercion and involuntary servitude. He is quickly arrested and sold to other white men. Hunted down by bloodhounds after another escape—betrayed by a prisoner who had been "stretched" on a rack by guards—-Jackson is finally resigned to his fate. Spikes riveted to his ankles and an iron collar padlocked to a five-foot chain, Jackson accepts that he will die a slave.5
To underscore the veracity of Spivak's description of black life in Georgia, the author published as a visual epilogue to the book a series of photographs taken in Georgia's labor camps. He reprinted reports detailing whippings, extra chains, and "put in barrel"—a variation of the sweatbox. One document—titled "Official Whipping Report"—listed fifty beatings at one camp in August 1930. A gallery of photographs showed bloodhounds baying at an escapee in a tree. Guards proudly demonstrated to their visitor the latest techniques of punishment and torture—colonial-era stocks, black men trussed around pick handles like pigs ready for slaughter, the "stretching" rack.67
Across the South, despite claimed reforms in many states, more prisoners than ever before were pressed into compelled labor for private contractors— but now almost entirely through local customs and informal arrangements in city and county courts. The state of Alabama was no longer selling slaves to coal mines, but thousands of men continued to work on a chain gang or under lease to a local owner. The total number of men arrested on misdemeanor charges and subject to sale by county sheriffs in 1927 grew to 37,701. One out of every nineteen black men over the age of twelve in Alabama was captured in some form of involuntary servitude.
The triviality of the charges used to justify the massive numbers of people forced into labor never diminished. More than 12,500 people were arrested in Alabama in 1928 for possessing or selling alcohol; 2,735 were charged with vagrancy; 2,014 with gaming; 458 for leaving the farm of an employer without permission; 154 with the age-old vehicle for stopping intimate relations between blacks and whites: adultery.
Roughly half of all African Americans—or 4.8 million—lived in the Black Belt region of the South in 1930, the great majority of whom were almost certainly trapped in some form of coerced labor like that described in Spivak's chilling account.
Two Mississippi sheriffs reported making between $20,000 and $30,000 each during 1929 in extra compensation for procuring black laborers and selling them to local planters. After a plea for more cotton pickers in August 1932, police in Macon, Georgia, scoured the town's streets, arresting sixty black men on "vagrancy" charges and immediately turning them over to a plantation owner named J. H. Stroud. A year later, The New York Times reported a similar roundup in the cotton town of Helena, Arkansas.8
Otto B. Willis, a forty-six-year-old white farmer living near Evergreen, Alabama, deep in the Black Belt, wrote the Department of Justice in 1933, describing the desperate system under which black families were held as de facto serfs on the land of the county's white landowners. Why Willis— an Alabama-born farmer with a wife and six children, living on land they owned—would be moved to defend the plight of the tens of thousands of black laborers who shared rural Hale County with him is a mystery. But in an elegant longhand, he described point by damning point how black men and their wives and children were compelled to remain at work for years upon years to retire so-called debts for their seed, tools, food, clothing, and mules that could never be extinguished, regardless of how much cotton they grew in any year. Little had changed since Klansmen in Hale County shipped R. H. Skinner to the Alabama slave mines in 1876.
"The negro is worse than broke…. His family goes ragged and without medical attention and the women are attended by ignorant colored midwives at childbirth and many die from blood poison," Willis wrote. "The negro is half starved and half clothed, yet he sees no hope of ever being out of debt, cause many landowners tell them if they move off his land he will have them put in jail or threatened bodily harm. Colored people have little standing in court here. So he is afraid to move. So they are forced to remain on and start another crop for the landlord…. These are the facts…. Is it right?"9
Whatever motivation Willis had in penning his detailed litany of the mechanics of slavery in the 1930s, federal officials weary of the issue had little interest. Writing on behalf of the attorney general, Joseph B. Keenan replied with the timeworn explanation for why slavery was not a matter meriting the attention of the Department of Justice—that only narrowly defined debt slavery would be examined by federal agents.
"Peonage is a condition of compulsory service based upon the indebtedness of the peon to the master; the basal fact being indebtedness," Keenan wrote, in bored, boilerplate language. Ignoring that Willis's letter explicitly described a system of holding laborers against their will until claimed debts were paid off, the Justice Department official dismissed Willis with a patronizing bureaucratic directive. "If you have any specific facts showing that the matter falls within the above definition, it is suggested that you report the same." The case was closed.10
By the middle of the decade before World War II, federal investigations into peonage all but stopped except in the most egregious cases. Even those resulted in the rarest convictions. Even more rare was meaningful punishment. On October 13, 1941, Charles E. Bledsoe pleaded guilty in federal court in Mobile, Alabama, to a charge of peonage for holding a black man named Martin Thompson against his will. Using the same technique as John Pace in 1903, Bledsoe didn't resist the charge and trusted that federal officials and the U.S. District Court judge would not deal harshly with a white man holding slaves. He was correct. Bledsoe's punishment was a fine of $100 and six months of probation. The status of new black slavery appeared complete. The futility of combating it was clear.
Less than two months after the slap on the wrist of Charles Bledsoe, the naval forces of imperial Japan launched their attack on Pearl Harbor. Caught flat-footed and unprepared for war, U.S. officials frantically planned for a massive national mobilization. President Franklin D. Roosevelt instinctively knew the second-class citizenship and violence imposed upon African Americans would be exploited by the enemies of the United States. Attorney General Francis Biddle called together his top assistants and shared the president's concern. Biddle was informed that federal policy had long been to cede virtually all allegations of slavery to local jurisdiction—effectively guaranteeing they would never be prosecuted. Biddle—favorite son of an elite Northern family in Philadelphia—was shocked. He could not comprehend that forced labor continued in America on more than "a few plantations."11
Nonetheless, Biddle knew that in an all-out war, in which millions of African Americans would be called upon to sacrifice in a struggle to protect freedom and liberty in Europe and Asia, the U.S. government had to make clear that anyone who continued to practice slavery, in violation of 1865's Thirteenth Amendment, would be prosecuted as a criminal.
Five days after the Japanese attack, on December 12, 1941, Biddle issued a directive—Circular No. 3591—to all federal prosecutors acknowledging the long history of the unwritten federal law enforcement policy to ignore most reports of involuntary servitude. "A survey of the Department files on alleged peonage violations discloses numerous instances of ‘prosecution declined,’ " he wrote. "It is the purpose of these instructions to direct the attention of the United States Attorneys to the possibilities of successful prosecutions stemming from alleged peonage complaints which have heretofore been considered inadequate to invoke federal prosecution." Biddle proceeded to lay out a series of federal criminal statutes that could be used to prosecute slavery—all of which had long been available to federal officials.
He ordered that instead of relying on the quirks of the old anti-peonage statute as an excuse for not attacking instances of forced labor, prosecutors and investigators should embrace "building the cases around the issue of involuntary servitude and slavery"12
Biddle descended from extensive antebellum Virginia slaveholders in his mother's family and from the most pedigreed line of lawyers in the country on his father's. His great-great-grandfather, Nicholas Biddle, had served as president of the Bank of the United States under President James Monroe. Like virtually every white American who considered themselves racially moderate in 1941, Biddle was more than a petty racist as well. In his memoirs, Biddle chuckled at the speech of a "colored boy" testifying in a trial early in his legal career. His "vocabulary, from a generous estimate, could not have contained more than a few hundred words." He described black babies born in a clinic for unwed mothers as "exhibiting, like Indians, the glowing beauty of primitive children." His "colored man, Benjamin …polished brass with the ardor with which his race always approaches brass and with a grave friendly dignity helped our guests with their coats and hats after a dinner party"13
Yet Biddle—especially when faced with the harsh but truthful depiction of black life as it would be suddenly projected through the propaganda of Japan and Germany—fundamentally grasped that African Americans, no matter how condescendingly he viewed them, had been denied the compact of freedom forged in the Civil War. "One response of this country to the challenge of the ideals of democracy made by the new ideologies of Fascism and Communism has been a deepened realization of the values of a government based on a belief in the dignity and rights of man," Biddle said in one major wartime speech.14 He mounted the first modest legal attack on the southern states’ successful expulsion of blacks from political participation. Unlike any prior U.S. attorney general, he recognized the federal government's duty to admit that African Americans were not free and to assertively enforce the statutes written to protect them. "We determined to breathe new life" into the dormant civil rights laws, Biddle later wrote.15
The Justice Department's recently formed Civil Rights Section, created primarily to investigate cases related to anti-organized labor cases, began shifting its focus to discrimination and racial abuse.
Less than a week into the ravages of World War II, Biddle explicitly repudiated the legal rationale laid out by Judge Thomas Jones in the 1903 trials that had unwittingly facilitated so much slavery across the South in the intervening half century.
"In the United States one cannot sell himself as a peon or slave—the law is fixed and established to protect the weak-minded, the poor, the miserable. Men will sometimes sell themselves for a meal of victuals or contract with another who acts as surety on his bond to work out the amount of the bond upon his release from jail. Any such sale or contract is positively null and void and the procuring and causing of such contract to be made violates [the] statutes," argued Biddle in his memo. Henceforth, he ordered all Department of Justice investigators to entirely drop reference to peonage in their written reports. They were to instead label every file as related to what it truly was—what it had always been for the past seven decades: "Involuntary Servitude and Slavery."16
In August 1942, a letter from a sixteen-year-old black boy arrived at the Department of Justice alleging that Charles Bledsoe—the Alabama man who received a $100 fine for peonage prior to Biddle's memo—was still holding members of the boy's family as slaves. Despite the Biddle directive, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover initially saw no need to mount another aggressive investigation. The U.S. attorney in Mobile, Francis H. Inge, was similarly disinterested. "No active investigation will be instituted," Hoover wrote to Assistant Attorney General Wendell Berge, attempting to close the file.17
That would have been the end of the matter even a year earlier. But seven months into World War II, with the nation anxious to mobilize every possible soldier and counter every thrust of Japan's and Germany's propaganda machines, Berge directed Hoover to look further. "In accordance with the request of the Attorney General that we expedite cases related to Negro victims, it will be appreciated if this matter is given preference," Berge wrote in a terse letter ordering Inge into action.18
"The matter complained of in the instant case is but one of many in which members of the Negro race have been the victims. Enemy propagandists have used similar episodes in international broadcasts to the colored race, saying that the democracies are insincere and that the enemy is their friend," Berge wrote. "There have been received from the President an instruction that lynching complaints shall be investigated as soon as possible; that the results of the investigation be made public in all instances, and the persons responsible for such lawless acts vigorously prosecuted. The Attorney General has requested that we expedite other cases related to Negro victims. Accordingly, you are requested to give the matter your immediate attention."19
Biddle's civil rights lawyers began to reassess fundamentally the legal breadth of the constitutional amendments ending slavery, the Reconstruction-era statutes passed to enforce them, and other largely forgotten laws such as the antebellum Slave Kidnapping Act, which made it illegal to capture or hold forced laborers in U.S. territory where slavery was prohibited.
As the war progressed, the Department of Justice vigorously prosecuted U.S. Sugar Company in Florida for forcing black men into their sugarcane fields. Sheriffs who colluded with the company were brought to trial. Before the end of World War II, the federal courts would rule that slaveholders could be prosecuted for peonage, even if the debt they claimed a worker owed them was fictitious. It was a subtle change. But the decision eliminated what had been a standard defense against the crime—the assertion that no evidence of a debt between the slave and slave driver existed.
Finally, early in September 1942, a team of FBI agents, highway patrolmen, and deputies descended on a remote farm near Beeville, Texas, to arrest a white farmer, Alex Skrobarcek, and his adult daughter, Susie Skro-barcek. They were initially charged in a state court with maiming a mentally retarded black worker named Alfred Irving. But a month later, lawyers at the Department of Justice drew a federal indictment alleging that the pair had held Irving in slavery for at least four years. They were accused of repeatedly beating the man with whips, chains, and ropes—so much so that he was physically disfigured from the abuse.20
Signaling the special significance of the case, a special assistant to Attorney General Biddle actively participated in prosecuting the trial. He later wrote that investigators found "overwhelming" evidence that the Skrobarceks "repeatedly horsewhipped the victim …starved him and otherwise held him in fear."21
The attorneys argued that the century-old Slavery Kidnapping Act applied to this case of abject involuntary servitude, in apparently the first such prosecution since the Civil War. The defendants were found guilty and sentenced to federal prison. Federal officials made clear that the case was intended to send a message that despite any claims by U.S. enemies, the federal government was finally serious about ending involuntary servitude for African Americans.
"The Skrobarczyk [sic] trial and its conclusion undoubtedly will be said … to have given a decisive setback to the enemy propaganda machine …urging …negroes that their proper place in this conflict is with the yellow race," editorialized the Corpus Christi Times.22
Two years later, President Harry Truman's Committee on Civil Rights recommended bolstering the anti-slavery statute to plainly criminalize involuntary servitude. In 1948, the entire federal criminal code was dramatically rewritten, further clarifying the laws against involuntary servitude. Finally, in 1951, Congress passed even more explicit statutes, making any form of slavery in the United States indisputably a crime.
Reports of involuntary servitude continued to trickle in to federal investigators well into the 1950s. But America—however deeply racist it remained—had begun a profound change. Millions of soldiers—black and white—had witnessed the horror of racial ideology exalted to its most violent extremes in Nazi Germany. Thousands of African American men who returned as fighting men, unwilling to capitulate again to the docile state of helplessness that preceded the war, abandoned the South altogether or joined in the agitation that would become the civil rights movement. Throughout the region, tractors, new chemicals, and cotton pickers began to radically reduce the need for manual labor in fields of cotton, soybeans, and tobacco. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education desegregating public schools and reversing the cynical logic of 1896's Plessy v. Ferguson, sealed forever that the terror regime which had dominated black life over the previous ninety years was ending.
It was a strange irony that after seventy-four years of hollow emancipation, the final delivery of African Americans from overt slavery and from the quiet complicity of the federal government in their servitude was precipitated only in response to the horrors perpetrated by an enemy country against its own despised minorities.