We all learned in school that slavery was finally abolished by the 13th Amendment adopted in 1865 following the Civil War. Or was it? A lawyer looking at the 13th Amendment would see a gaping loophole:
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.Following the Civil War, many southern states adopted "pig laws," designed to criminalize black life. According to PBS's explanation of the documentary:
".. after the failure of Reconstruction in 1877, and the removal of black men from political offices, Southern states again enacted a series of laws intended to circumscribe the lives of African Americans. Harsh contract laws penalized anyone attempting to leave a job before an advance had been worked off. “Pig Laws” unfairly penalized poor African Americans for crimes such as stealing a farm animal. And vagrancy statutes made it a crime to be unemployed. Many misdemeanors or trivial offenses were treated as felonies, with harsh sentences and fines."Douglas A. Blackmon, author of Slavery By Another Name, explains:
By using the criminal law, African-Americans were routinely rounded up by law enforcement authorities in the South. They were then leased to companies and plantation owners who used the prisoners as slave labor while they served their sentence. The companies employed overseers who had the authority to discipline the prisoners as they saw fit. The movie notes how the treatment of the slave prisoners was often more harsh than it was under the old slavery system. While slave owners saw the slaves as a permanent investment and thus were disincentized to cause their "property" harm, those leasing slave prisoners were less reluctant to hold back on harsh punishment for fear of injuring the convicts they were leasing as slave labor.
The movie also talks about the widespread use of "peonage," a system whereby debtors are held in servitude by creditors. This was also a system used to perpetuate the institution of slavery...although by a different name. One of the most interesting parts of the film discusses how a creditor had used peonage to enslave a number of African-Americans. When they tried to prosecute him under anti-peonage laws, he successfully offered an interesting defense. He claimed he had lied about the debts that were owned to him and thus he wasn't guilty of peonage. Rather he had held the African-Americans as slaves and even though the 13th Amendment was in effect, there were no laws making slavery a criminal offense.
Whether it be through the 13th Amendment loophole or via peonage, slavery didn't go away in 1865. It in fact remained with us until well into the 20th Century. With the start of World War II, President Roosevelt finally instructed the Justice Department to root out all vestiges of slavery and forced servitude.
The hour and a half PBS program can be watched on line.