by Brian E. Muhammad and Richard B. Muhammad
Though called by other names, poor Blacks are kept in bondage today in the United States
COLUMBIA, S.C. (NNPA) – Nearly 150 years after Emancipation, trapped by extreme poverty, isolation, fear and shame, some Blacks remain victims of neo-slavery in rural areas of the South, locked into work in fields, factories and assorted industries.
While not bought and sold at auction block, these poor Blacks are forced to work, live in shacks, often have no indoor plumbing and are often trapped in peonage, tied to land where they owe owners debts that are never repaid, according to an activist and researcher. Some Blacks are even forced to pay rent to White landowners for dilapidated housing but are fearful of identifying landlords and owners.
“Slavery never ended and that’s the point, it never ended. It just disguised itself in other forms,” says Antoinette Harrell, who is based in Louisiana and has documented the plight of people she describes as modern slaves in America.
Harrell has been tracking this problem for the past decade. She knows it is hard for many to accept abusive conditions that amount to slavery exist today. Blacks don’t want to believe this is happening in 2010, she adds. But people are forced to stay on plantations in Glendora, Miss., Webb, Miss., Roseland, La., and other places where landowners use isolation and threats of violence to keep these Black workers under control, she says.
Though others would define the conditions as peonage, which was outlawed by the 13th Amendment in 1865, or as sharecropping, where agricultural workers live on and work on land owned by someone else for a share of the fruits of their labor, the researcher is adamant the bottom line is slavery inextricably tied to debilitating poverty.
It’s slavery because people are forced to stay against their will, worked, controlled and dehumanized, she stresses. In some cases people have been murdered, charges Ms. Harrell, reciting accounts told to her over the years. In addition to extreme poverty and no opportunity, other essential elements make people vulnerable: There is no transportation, workers don’t have cars, dogs are used to track people who try to run away and many feel there is nowhere else to go, says Harrell.
Ron Walters, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, explains that after Emancipation, new systems were instituted to exploit Blacks and to keep Blacks essentially enslaved. Over the years, whenever federal officials were asked to intervene, one problem was proving that Blacks were indeed suffering from slavery prohibited by the Constitution, he says.
Plantation owners, understanding the law, would argue that there was no slavery and the Justice Dept. was unable to declare what was happening illegal because of “vague” Constitutional language, he adds. Another problem was the lack of political will and a concern about confronting and exposing the continued problem of slavery and Blacks in America, Dr. Walters explains. From 1865 onward, the problem has cropped up at different times, but it has never been entirely resolved, he adds.
Harrell, a genealogist, became aware of modern manifestations of slavery while exploring the issue of reparations. Based on conversations with workers, Harrell says she found many did not know they could actually leave. Harrell is unsure of how many people may be in this condition inside the United States. She has been able to access these areas by networking, researching plantation histories and locations and through the story of Mae Miller.
Miller, whose life as a modern slave in Mississippi and Louisiana has been documented, escaped captivity in 1961. The problem exists today, she declares. Miller, who says she was raped by a slave master beginning at age five, told The Final Call her family and others who moved from one plantation to another where they worked and were kept in horrible conditions and weren’t regularly fed. We were beaten and barely fed table scraps, she recalls.
Miller says she didn’t realize she had been kept illegally as a slave until 2001. She recalls that her father, her mother, her siblings, her grandfather were with her. She says she didn’t know anything about other family members or what was happening in the outside world.
Miller says she knows people that are still on these plantations—and who still live under the fear and conditions that she suffered from. Her story was told in 2007 in People magazine, as well on ABC Nightline and CNN. She declines to talk about her family’s experience—it brings up painful memories loved ones would like to forget. Her family’s plight was called peonage in the People article.
Slavery in all its forms
According to the Florida-based Coalition for Immokalee Workers the problem of real slavery exists today—in particular among tomato pickers and agriculture workers in the Sunshine State. “Slavery in Florida today is not separate from the past—indeed its roots extend deep within our state’s history. Farm workers have always been, and remain today, the state’s poorest, least powerful workers,” says Gerardo Reyes of the coalition.
Reyes says, “If we are to abolish slavery once and for all in Florida agriculture, we must pull it up by the roots by addressing farm worker poverty and powerlessness.”
Adds Dr. Kevin Bales of Free the Slaves, an international organization, “There is real slavery in the fields of Florida. This is not about lousy jobs, but violent control, vicious exploitation, and the potential for serious harm and even death.”
The coalition is kicking off a July 25-Aug. 14 tour of its Modern-Day Slavery Museum, which will visit the northeast. The exhibit consists of a cargo truck designed as a replica of trucks involved in a 2008 slave operation in Florida. Dozens of farm workers from Mexico and Guatemala were kept in trucks and shacks, beaten, forced to pay for food and showers, and plied with alcohol. Some of victims suffered in bondage for years and were forced to work fields in Florida and other locations in North Carolina and South Carolina.
The Coalition for Immokalee Workers, a farm worker justice group, says the upcoming tour is also an attempt to raise awareness of conditions in the tomato supply chains for Ahod’s USA supermarket brands, which it says includes Giant, Stop & Shop, and Martins.
Since 1997, the coalition says it has helped the Justice Dept. prosecute seven farm slavery operations and helped free over 1,000 people.
“I am not surprised with that because it’s the same system and Florida was one of the 16 states that really heavy peonage cases came from there,” says Harrell. “The new slaves that they are focusing on in 2010 are the immigrants.”
The 16 states that Harrell’s research has shown were once involved in post-Emancipation slavery included Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas, Florida, Alabama, Missouri, Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Arizona, New York, Illinois and Georgia. Today the problem exists in Louisiana and Mississippi, she says.
Calls to the U.S. Department of Justice about allegations of modern slavery in the South went unanswered at Final Call press time, however cases of slavery involving immigrant workers have been prosecuted by the federal agency. Attempts to reach state officials in Louisiana were unsuccessful, Mississippi officials, however, did respond. “No one has complained of this to our office. If you have specific allegations, we’d be happy to hear them and see what we can do or help refer to the appropriate agency,” says Jan Shaffer, a public information officer with the Mississippi state attorney general’s office.
While the plight of immigrant workers, sexual bondage, holding women against their will and forcing them into prostitution; human trafficking, in which immigrants pay for passage to America and are forced to work in factories, prostitution or restaurants;
or child labor, where children are exploited and abused to make products, are acknowledged and called forms of slavery, calling poor Blacks in the South “slaves” remains distasteful and is seen as almost impossible.
Harrell traces the connections to slavery and post-slavery practices through the U.S. National Archives, Justice Department records, local court records and interviews victims living on plantations to understand and document its existence.
“The documents are there from the slave holders; companies that insured our family members, our ancestors and once you start to look into records, you find something a little bit deeper,” Harrell says.
She says she met people in St. Johns and St. Charles parish in Louisiana who were on sugar cane plantations well into the 1960s and 1970s.
According to Harrell, letters appealing for investigations into the claims, filed at the National Archives expose that no fewer than three U.S. presidents knew of post-Emancipation slavery during their terms—Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Digging through U.S. Department of Justice records in Washington, D.C., Walters, who is also director of the African-American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland, found the extent to which the federal government was aware of post-Emancipation slavery and its challenges with addressing the problem.
Mayor Johnny Thomas of Glendora, Miss., agrees that bogus debt schemes like peonage and sharecropping were used to exploit Black people well into the 20th century. This was his experience growing up as a sharecropper in the late 1950s.
“It’s pre-meditated,” Mayor Thomas explains. “You were kept indebted to the point where you couldn’t leave.” In these cases the plantation owner pays the debt, then the “debtor” and—in most instances—his entire family work the plantation to repay the money. Only the debt is never caught up.
Mayor Thomas says as far as he knows sharecropping is going on, albeit hurt by the economy, but not slavery.
Both Harrell and Walters told The Final Call that the deplorable conditions people are living under on the plantations is nothing short of slavery regardless of the label.
“They are in deep rural areas, miles off the main highways, back off into cotton fields where you got 2,000 acres; how can they get away?” asks Harrell.
“I was born into slavery, I guess because my father was in slavery. I don’t know if it was generational or only us,” Mae Miller says. “As far as I can remember back when I was a little bitty girl it was happening to us.”
Talks with Miller expose the extent of isolation experienced with no exposure to the world outside of the plantations. She later learned to read and write and worked following her literal escape from a White landowner under, she says, a death threat.
According to Harrell, two things must happen as awareness of slavery in modern America grows: The language of what is understood as slavery in the history books must be expanded and there must be a legal injunction against the U.S. for allowing slavery to continue illegally.
Eradication of slavery in America is an issue for the World Court because the practice is a crime against humanity, argues Harrell. She also sees the atrocity as another example of why Blacks deserve reparations.
Harrell argues, “It is necessary for the attorneys to come and further the case for reparations, not only for the 19th century but the 20th and 21st century.”
Special to the NNPA from the Final Call