Magazine article Humanities


Magazine article Humanities


Article excerpt

IN 1908, GREEN COTTENHAM, TWENTY-TWO, was arrested outside a train station in Columbiana, Alabama. There was not much of a crime scene, just some men dressed in shirtsleeves and bowler hats pitching dice, smoking cigarettes, and passing a flask.

Though he had committed no crime, (Tottenham, the son of a farmer, was charged with riding a freight train without a ticket and then convicted of vagrancy. He was sentenced to hard labor at the notorious Pratt coal mine on the edge of Birmingham.

Cottenham, who was diagnosed with syphilis, also contracted tuberculosis in the disease-ridden mines. He was dead four months after his arrival. His family never learned what had happened to him. He simply vanished in what has been called one of the most shameful and little-known chapters of American history. For nearly eighty years, between the end of the Civil War and World War II, across a belt of the South that includes Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, Texas, North Carolina, and South Carolina, more than a hundred thousand black Southerners were arrested and forced into labor against their will for years at a time.

Even before Reconstruction ended in 1877, many Southern states began enacting a series of laws intended to re-enslave newly freed blacks and provide cheap labor sources. Vagrancy, loitering, riding or walking near the rails, unemployment, even talking too loudly in public, carried heavy penalties or stiff jail sentences. The laws, or "Black Codes," resulted in a large influx of blacks into the criminal justice system and the forced labor pool.

Arrest records uncovered in Alabama show that many convicted African Americans had not actually broken any laws. Yet many, like Cottenham, died while working under harsh rule and conditions in places like the Pratt Mines. For them and their families, there were no funerals, pictures, or amulets, only faded memories and blank spaces on the family tree.

But some of their stories have been brought to life in Slavery by Another Name, which premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and had its national broadcast last year and was rebroadcast on PBS in February. The film was directed by Sam Pollard, produced by Catherine Allan and journalist Douglas Blackmon, and written by Sheila Curran Bernard. The tpt National Productions project is based on Blackmon's 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning book.

Slavery by Another Name shines a spotlight on victims and the perpetrators of crimes against them. The film also includes interviews with some of their descendants, noted scholars, Blackmon, and Pollard.

The book and film directly challenge the notion that slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. They highlight a clause in the Thirteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which was ratified in December 1865: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

That slavery didn't end with the Civil War is a hard truth, and, as history, it was not easy to document or dramatize. The victims were frequently illiterate, their court records spare, and the breadth of this historical tragedy was spread across counties, states, small farms, and big industries, over months, years, and decades.

Pollard said the goal of the documentary was to bring the stories of victims to life, and for this reason he turned to reenactments. Shots of actors include men toiling away on railroads, working in coal mines, and traveling with chain gangs through swamps.

"We knew we were going to use stills, but we also felt that we needed to hear the words of some of the people that Doug had researched and found," Pollard said. "We decided how to do it with actors to represent the period. We spent time in Georgia and Alabama and scouted some locations."

The story of Carrie Kinsey is featured in the film. …

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