It was a shocking reality that often went unacknowledged, then and now: A huge system of forced, unpaid labor, mostly affecting Southern black men, that lasted until World War II. Based on the Pulitzer-Prize-winning book by Douglas Blackmon, Slavery By Another Name tells the stories of men, charged with crimes like vagrancy, and often guilty of nothing, who were bought and sold, abused, and subject to sometimes deadly working conditions as unpaid convict labor. Interviews with the descendants of victims and perpetrators resonate with a modern audience. Christina Comer, who discovered how her family profited from the system, comments that “the story is important no matter how painful the reality is.”
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By 1865, despite the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth Amendment, and the Confederate defeat in the Civil War, many former slaves did not in reality experience “a new birth of freedom.” The Republican-controlled Congress enacted the Fourteenth Amendment (enshrining birthright citizenship and equal protection of the law) in 1868 and the Fifteenth Amendment (guaranteeing the right to vote for all men regardless of race) in 1870. However, states and communities across the South ignored these federal mandates by passing “black codes,” laws that served to essentially re-enslave African Americans. Local law enforcement officers cited regulations against vagrancy, loitering, or walking near railroads to arrest, incarcerate, and sentence African American men to work as forced convict laborers in factories, mines, and farms. This immense system of forced, unpaid labor was a shocking reality that has often gone unacknowledged. It was primarily imposed on African American men in the South and lasted until World War II. Drawing public attention to some of the victims and perpetrators of this forced labor system, the film Slavery by Another Name presents a story that has been largely ignored in history books.