I come away from each research session infuriated. I rant and rave to everyone within ear-shot. I’ve learned that written into the 13th amendment is the road map to continued forced unpaid labor. It says: neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Once you are convicted of a crime, you can be put into involuntary service. Legally. Vagrancy laws were passed after the civil war. If you couldn’t prove you had a job you could be leased out for labor. Ninety percent of leased convicts were of African descent and ninety percent were men.
Slavery by Another name is a book that documents the practice. I thought the title must be hyperbole. But there is a good argument to be made that the forced labor that replaced legalized slavery was actually worse.
In 1855 the cost to ‘purchase’ an unskilled young man was around $1,200. That was a huge financial investment that gave the enslavers incentive to preserve the well-being of the enslaved. In contrast, leasing a convict cost as little as $8 per month. There was no longer a financial reason to adequately feed, shelter, or protect the forced labor. They could be, and often were, literally worked to death, and their friends and family had no recourse.
This went on for decades. And in some perverse ways it continues in our current system of mass incarceration.
I want the magic wand that will make all this be over. I want the United States to actually be the just and fair country that I was taught it was in 5th grade U.S. history. But it’s not. We have so far to go before we reach the place Dr. King called the Beloved Community. I still hold onto hope humans can get there someday. Sadly I no longer believe it will be in my lifetime. But I’m still going to work for the Star Trek future for my descendants.