[18 May 2008]
The Dallas Morning News (MCT)
Imagine you’re a black person living in the South during the first half of the 20th century, several decades after the end of slavery. You are supposedly free.
Yet at any time and any place you could meet with a trumped-up criminal charge: vagrancy, leaving your job without permission or something even flimsier. Then you could be locked up, face a sham trial and get leased to a mining company or farm. Once there you might be worked to death.
These are the conditions described in Douglas Blackmon’s chilling, doggedly reported and researched Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.
Now imagine that the constant threat of such de facto slavery has made you desperate to find greener pastures, even if it means leaving the only region you’ve ever called home. Tantalized by word of a place where urban black culture is coalescing into a genuine movement, you join thousands of others and pick up and journey to Harlem.
Once there you find a magnetic West Indian street orator with huge ideas, including repatriating to Africa. As Collin Grant writes of the determined migrants in his sweeping biography Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey, “At first they’d searched nervously for the familiar strictures of `whites only’ and `for colored’ facilities, but before long were testing the boundaries of their new-found freedom, taking up seats beside white passengers who did not flinch.”
No two books can give a comprehensive look at what it was like to be a black American near the turn of the century. The subject is too vast, the experiences too varied. But Slavery by Another Name and Negro with a Hat combine for an excellent place to start. Full of surprises both haunting and revelatory, they also form a sort of bridge to the present day, when old Southern justice can rear its head in small Texas towns, and echoes of Black Nationalism can affect a presidential campaign.
Even those who have studied the period will gasp and do double takes as they carve through Blackmon’s book. The Atlanta bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal and a white son of the Mississippi Delta, he writes and accumulates details with the seriousness of purpose that suggests a desperate but controlled need to put the unfathomable on paper. He describes an extremely profitable system in which sheriffs, judges, governors and factory and farm owners were complicit. Countless black men, women and children were caught in the web.
Take the story of John Davis, who took a walk down a long Georgia road to see his ill wife, Nora, in September 1901. He was stopped by a constable and owner of a dry goods store, Robert N. Franklin. Franklin insisted that Davis, whom he had never met, owed him cash for goods.
Soon another constable appeared, talking of an arrest warrant that was never produced. Davis was arrested on a charge that was never specified, then leased to a powerful farmer, John Pace. He was also assessed fines for the cost of his conviction. How could he pay it all off? Hard labor, of course. And once that labor was completed, another trumped-up charge could keep him toiling for perpetuity. Davis, however, survived to testify against Pace before a federal grand jury.
Racism was hardly confined to the South. As Grant points out in his kaleidoscopic portrait of Garvey and his times, the “Red Summer” race riots of 1919 went as far north as Chicago, and Philadelphia had its turn the year previous. But the streets of New York were still a cultural universe away from the roads of Alabama and Georgia. They had room for a Jamaican-born firebrand to reach prominence preaching black power and Pan-African identity atop a Harlem street-corner soapbox.
Grant, an independent historian who also works for BBC Radio, tackles the whole Garvey, from tireless entrepreneur (he made waves throughout the international black community by launching his Black Star shipping line) to agitator (his ideological beef with the more moderate W.E.B. Du Bois is covered in several contexts) to demagogue.
But like most dedicated biographers he also paints a lively picture of a time, a place and its people. The century’s first Red scare provides a backdrop for much of the story, as agents from the BOI (Bureau of Information, the precursor to the FBI) zero in on Garvey’s UNIA as a suspected hotbed of Bolshevik activity.
Garvey’s master plan of mass immigration to Liberia never came to pass, and charges of financial malfeasance dogged him until his death in 1940. But his ideological influence was enormous. Without Garvey’s example as an orator and organizer it’s difficult to imagine the emergence of Malcolm X, or, for that matter, Jeremiah Wright. Black nationalism was around before Garvey, but it was never as visible.
Sadly, the echoes of Slavery by Another Name also ring loud and clear. Southern racism may not be as sanctioned or institutionalized as it once was, but it’s still possible for police in the Texas Panhandle town of Tulia to imprison 39 black residents on bogus drug charges. That was just nine years ago. The convictions were overturned. The scars linger.