Lincoln freed the slaves. How many times were we taught that in school? I can’t count. Can you? Except he didn’t. Slavery didn’t effectively end in this country until 1942. OK, I know your reaction: “David, what the (fill in your own expletive – ‘heck’ works if you want to stay PG-13) are you talking about? 1942? Really? What about the 13th Amendment to the Constitution?” Ah…. But there was a loophole. We’ll get back to that. But let’s start with Lincoln….
On September 22, 1862 President Abraham Lincoln issued what we know as “The Emancipation Proclamation” (officially “Proclamation 95”). There are two problems with what we’ve been taught. The first is that a presidential proclamation has no legal standing. It’s really no more than an opinion statement from the president. As an example, President Joe Biden could declare, via proclamation, June 1, 2022 to be “National Bald Guy’s Day.” It’s about as meaningful as the pardoning of a couple of turkeys.
Problem number two is what the actual text of the proclamation says. It specifically applied only to states, or portions of states, that were “in rebellion against the United States”. Lincoln limited his statement to areas where the government of the United States had no effective authority, areas in rebellion. This was done as a political compromise, first, because it was really meaningless as other than an opinion of presidential thought. Second, and probably more importantly, Kentucky and Maryland were slave states that remained in the Union. Lincoln feared that these two states would succeed from the Union and join the Confederacy if all enslaved people were included, whether or not the document legally freed anyone.
Lincoln decidedly did not free those who were enslaved, anywhere, ever. Yet we were taught he did. I suspect there are children still being taught this lie. But 1942? Really? Didn’t the Thirteenth Amendment free those who were enslaved? The best answer is, sort of, it depends on where. For that, we need to break down and understand the full amendment.
The text of Section 1 of the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution states:
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.
And because of a single phrase, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”, the enslavement of Black Americans continued in some areas long after December 6, 1865, when Thirteenth Amendment was ratified. In fact, for many what happened was even worse than being enslaved.
After the end of Reconstruction in 1877, the former slave owners and leadership in the South started building a new structure to control Black people and steal labor from them. Most of what was created we now know as “Jim Crow”. Laws were enacted requiring Black people to either enter into labor contracts or sharecropping agreements. Failure to do so was criminalized. These laws were extended so that the contracts renewed each year, creating a virtual version of slavery. A requirement to be in a contract on January 1 each year was enforced. Laws existed requiring Black people to maintain contracts with the same holders. Freedom of movement and the ability to truly negotiate were legally denied. Those who failed to comply with these enforced contracts were arrested. Additionally, any Black person in areas in Southern states (primarily Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida) could be arrested for vagrancy if they didn’t have sufficient cash in their pocket or couldn’t provide proof of a labor or sharecropping agreement. Pretty much the status of being Black was criminalized. And this gets us to convict leasing….
From Wikipedia: “convict leasing provided prisoner labor to private parties, such as plantation owners and corporations”. In essence, Blackness was criminalized, people were imprisoned, and their labor sold to private parties. From Douglas Blackmon, who wrote of the history of convict leasing:
An unintended distinction between antebellum slavery and the new forced labor system became increasingly clear – and disastrous for the men captured into it. Slaves of the earlier era were at least minimally insulated from physical harm by their intrinsic financial value. Their owners could borrow money with the slaves as collateral, pay debts with them, sell them at a profit, or extend the investment through production of more slave children. But the convicts of the new system were of value only as long as their sentences or physical strength lasted. If they died while in custody, there was no financial penalty to the company leasing them. Another black laborer would always be available from the state or sheriff. There was no compelling reason not to tax these convicts to their absolute physiological limits.
Could something be worse than slavery? Yes, convict leasing was. Free citizens of the United States were re-enslaved and worked to death. Re-enslaved Black men were sent to build and maintain railroads, into mines, onto plantations, and to wherever cheap labor was required. Significant portions of the budgets of several Southern states were funded through selling convict labor. Arrest rates went up when seasonal labor was needed. The “convictions” were often by a magistrate or other “official” who would not pass as part of any legal system as we generally consider it. The arresting “officer” was granted a fee for the arrest as well as one to the convicting “judge”. A fine was imposed, then the “convict”, if unable to pay the fines, was sold, their labor being the form of repayment of the penalties. One form of legal enslavement ended and another was created, both having the same objective: stealing labor from Black people. And this went on until 1942. So what changed this system? World War II.
The Roosevelt administration focused on convict leasing after the United States entered World War II. It wasn’t done out of a concern for those re-enslaved. It wasn’t about enforcing the laws of our nation or the Constitution of the United States. It was about propaganda, a fear that the system of convict leasing could be used to negatively impact United States in world opinion as we fought the war. How could the United States stand as a paragon of virtue, a symbol of liberty, in the fight against Nazism and Fascism, if we allowed this abomination to happen at home? So finally, it was ended. Did it really free Black people? Only a bit. The rest of Jim Crow still existed. After the war Black veterans returned to find a country that was pretty much unchanged from the world they left behind, that still considered them to be of little value as human beings. But we’ll leave that, and the story of Isaac Woodard, Jr. for another time….
For more information consult Douglas A. Blackmon’s book Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. His work was the primary source for the convict leasing portion of this essay.