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May 21, 2009

Sometimes journalists produce both the first—and the best—draft of history.

By Cameron McWhirter

Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name won this year’s Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction by ferreting out an ugly truth that America wanted to ignore.

As a career reporter, Blackmon was entirely comfortable writing stories based primarily on what he could learn from contemporary sources—the basic job of journalism, often called “the first draft of history.”
As a son of the Mississippi Delta, he could never quite get comfortable with the story of slavery he learned in school.
If slavery had really been outlawed with the Confederacy, how was it that, more than a century later, whites and blacks were so economically and educationally disparate?
“All of us were pretty explicitly taught that the reason African-Americans remain so poor today relative to whites was because slaves were so poor and uneducated at the end of the Civil War,” he says. “It just doesn’t make any sense—the idea that the poverty of 1865 explains why someone is not part of the middle-class today.”
Last year, Blackmon’s journalistic instincts and skill were vindicated by the publication of Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. Last month, his book was given the Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction for telling a story that historians had all but completely missed.
In a book whose seven years of reporting and research would stretch even the most diligent police reporter’s patience for poring over courthouse records, Blackmon disclosed the evidence for a new, de facto form of slavery that had taken hold in the decades after the Civil War and persisted long into the 20th century.  
“Whenever we have a conversation [about race] in America,” he says, “someone in that conversation will say…‘why do black people have to keep complaining about this? It was all over 150 years ago.’ That sentiment is actually historically and factually wrong.”
Far beyond the depredations of Jim Crow laws and even the outrages of the KKK, what Blackmon found was a vast economic and legal system set up in the South to produce a steady supply of cheap labor for Southern businesses. Race was the pretense. Greed was the motive.
In excruciating detail, Blackmon’s book shows how whites in the South used the criminal justice system not simply to segregate and oppress blacks, but also to arrest them by the thousands on a range of minor charges.
Once convicted, they were not imprisoned but sold by the county sheriffs into involuntary servitude on large farms, mines and steel foundries.
Routinely rounded up to meet quotas set by local farms and factories, the victims of this system of “neo-slavery” had little chance of a fair trial before local judges, who sentenced them to years working under debilitating, often life-threatening conditions.
Subject to beatings and even torture for minor infractions, many died in service to their assigned company and ended up in unmarked potter’s fields. Across the South, black men by the thousands—the actual number will never be known—were consigned to this terrible fate.
Meanwhile, the North turned a blind eye—and reaped the profit.
Neo-slavery ended only with the advent of World War II, when the mistreatment of blacks in the South was seen as a ripe target for anti-American propaganda, and when, not incidentally, new technologies of mining and farming were cutting into the incentives of the system.  
What followed was a conspiracy of forgetting, with whites motivated by guilt and blacks by humiliation and the fear of inspiring anger in their children.
Beyond that, as Blackmon puts it, “there is no Anne Frank of the black experience in South Georgia of 1910…This apocalyptic event was perpetrated against a population of people who were overwhelmingly indigent and illiterate.”
Historians missed it because history favors the written record, and the writers of this story at the time were white. Who says we don’t need journalists anymore?

Biography

Over the past 20 years, Douglas Blackmon has written extensively about the quandary of race in America, exploring the integration of schools during his childhood in a Mississippi Delta farm town, lost episodes of the civil rights movement and, repeatedly, the dilemma of how a contemporary society should grapple with a troubled past. Many of his stories in The Wall Street Journal have explored the interplay of wealth, corporate conduct and racial segregation.
As The Wall Street Journal’s bureau chief in Atlanta, he manages the paper’s coverage of airlines and other major transportation companies and publicly traded companies and institutions based in the southeastern U.S.
Blackmon’s stories and the work of his team have been widely acclaimed, including their coverage of the subprime meltdown, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Florida hurricanes in 2004 and a 2001 examination of slave labor in the 20th century. His article on U.S. Steel was included in the 2003 edition of The Best Business Stories. The Journal’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina received a special National Headliner award in 2006.


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