By Lynette Holloway
In 1908, Green Cottenham, twenty-two, was arrested outside a train stain in Columbiana, Alabama. There was not much of a crime scene, just some men dressed in shirtsleeves and bowler hats pitching dice, smoking cigarettes, and passing a flask.
Though he had committed no crime, Cottenham, the son of a farmer, was charged with riding a freight train without a ticket and then convicted of vagrancy. He was sentenced to hard labor at the notorious Pratt coal mine on the edge of Birmingham.
Cottenham, who was diagnosed with syphilis, also contracted tuberculosis in the disease-ridden mines. He was dead four months after his arrival. His family never learned what had happened to him. He simply vanished in what has been called one of the most shameful and little-known chapters of American history. For nearly eighty years, between the end of the Civil War and World War II, across a belt of the South that includes Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, Texas, North Carolina, and South Carolina, more than a hundred thousand black Southerners were arrested and forced into labor against their will for years at a time.
Even before Reconstruction ended in 1877, many Southern states began enacting a series of laws intended to re-enslave newly freed blacks and provide cheap labor sources. Vagrancy, loitering, riding or walking near the rails, unemployment, even talking too loudly in public, carried heavy penalties or stiff jail sentences. The laws, or “Black Codes,” resulted in a large influx of blacks into the criminal justice system and the forced labor pool.
Arrest records uncovered in Alabama show that many convicted African Americans had not actually broken any laws. Yet many, like Cottenham, died while working under harsh rule and conditions in places like the Pratt Mines. For them and their families, there were no funerals, pictures, or amulets, only faded memories and blank spaces on the family tree.
But some of their stories have been brought to life in Slavery by Another Name, which premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and had its national broadcast last year and was rebroadcast on PBS in February. The film was directed by Sam Pollard, produced by Catherine Allan and journalist Douglas Blackmon, and written by Sheila Curran Bernard. The tpt National Productions project is based on Blackmon’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning book.
Slavery by Another Name shines a spotlight on victims and the perpetrators of crimes against them. The film also includes interviews with some of their descendants, noted scholars, Blackmon, and Pollard.
The book and film directly challenge the notion that slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. They highlight a clause in the Thirteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which was ratified in December 1865: “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.”
That slavery didn’t end with the Civil War is a hard truth, and, as history, it was not easy to document or dramatize. The victims were frequently illiterate, their court records spare, and the breadth of this historical tragedy was spread across counties, states, small farms, and big industries, over months, years, and decades.
Pollard said the goal of the documentary was to bring the stories of victims to life, and for this reason he turned to reenactments. Shots of actors include men toiling away on railroads, working in coal mines, and traveling with chain gangs through swamps.
“We knew we were going to use stills, but we also felt that we needed to hear the words of some of the people that Doug had researched and found,” Pollard said. “We decided how to do it with actors to represent the period. We spent time in Georgia and Alabama and scouted some locations.”
The story of Carrie Kinsey is featured in the film. A reenactment shows the young Georgia woman dressed like a character out of a Zora Neale Hurston novel as she reads her haunting plea to President Theodore Roosevelt. She is seeking his help to find her brother.
“Mr. pressident, I have a brother a bout 14 years old,” says an actress, reading from the1903 letter, which is in the National Archives: “A colerd man came hear a hird him from me . . . an I heard of him no more. He went an sold him to Macree an tha has bin working him in prison for 12 month an . . . tha wont let him go.”
Kinsey’s letter was found by Blackmon amid scores of letters written by family members to President Roosevelt after U.S. attorneys prosecuted several prominent landowners in Alabama for peonage, or using forced labor to pay off a debt. In that case, the defendants were convicted, but none of them served any time.
Blackmon’s book, in part, grew out of a desire to look at corporations that used forced labor in the early twentieth century and were never punished. But, in doing so, he caught the scent of a much broader injustice against African Americans, one that was known without being widely known, a large historical episode that had been summarized but had never been as thoroughly documented or considered as slavery.
“This was a thing that was done to a group of people who could be dehumanized and rendered into just names,” Blackmon said. “So you ended up with thousands of people who had been forced into labor and about whom there was almost no record. Those voices, those characters are almost completely absent from the historical record because of whom it was done to. One of the reasons it is easy to forget all of this happened is because it was ignored that these were real people with full, three-dimensional lives, loves, interests, ambitions, extraordinary talents, and who were hard workers. That is why there wasn’t so much outrage about it even as it was going on.”
One story Blackmon and the filmmakers use to humanize the victims is Cottenham’s. He was born nearly two decades after the end of slavery, but died, essentially, re-enslaved. After his arrest by Shelby County sheriffs, he spent three days in the county jail. He was then sentenced to three months of hard labor and ordered to pay a $38.40 fine. Because he was unable to pay, he received an additional three months and six days in the mines. In exchange, the mines, a subsidiary of Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co., gave the county $12 a month to pay off his fines and fees.
Tonya Groomes, a distant cousin of Cottenham’s, said that the family did not know what had happened to him until the release of Blackmon’s book. She sought out Blackmon to discuss his findings, and eventually became a part of the film project.
“No one in the family remembered Green’s name,” she said of her distant cousin. “What was needed at that time was labor, and they needed workers. Our relatives were the work force, the physical laborers. Many of them were re-enslaved and died while enslaved even though they were free. It’s not just African-American history, it’s American history. You can’t separate the two.”
The beauty of the documentary, Groomes said, is that it gives life to men like her cousin.
“It was important to have each component so that the story doesn’t just become a fairy tale,” she said. “It’s important to help you visualize the experience, including Doug [Blackmon] speaking and [Ezekiel Archey] speaking as he writes his letter. My hope is that these stories and the film will continue to have an impact on the lives of everyone who views it. We had the fortune of finding one of our long lost relatives.”
Ezekiel Archey, a twenty-five-year-old convict, is also featured in the documentary. Archey wrote a series of remarkable letters to Alabama’s new inspector of prisons from the Pratt Mines dating back to 1884. “We as convicts, is somethin like a man drowning,” the actor playing him says directly to the camera. “We have bin convicted of felonies, and because of that, we have lost every friend on Earth.”
Archey continues: “All these years of how we suffered, we have looked death in the face, worked hungry, thirsty, half-clothed and sore.” He had become one of hundreds of men who worked against their will in the growing network of mines and factories around Birmingham, the new industrial center of Alabama.
Braxton Bragg Comer was a prominent Alabama statesman who was an integral part of this same thriving hub. Elected governor in 1907, he descended from one of Alabama’s prewar slave-owning families. He and his brother J.W. were two of six sons of Lucinda Comer, a widow, whose well-known relations were cotton planters and owners of lumberyards and corn mills. J. W. Comer was known to have managed forced labor at Eureka Iron Works, which thrived on a mix of primitive drilling and the brute physical strength of laborers.
Christina Comer, the great-great granddaughter of Governor Comer and the great-great niece of J. W., said that she discovered her family’s involvement in the history of forced labor by reading Slavery by Another Name. Miss Comer, who appears in the documentary, contacted Blackmon after reading the book to get more details because the newfound information shook her to her core. Growing up, she had heard stories about how the governor was such a wonderful man and had built schools in every county in Alabama— albeit all-white ones.
“The narrative that I grew up with glorified the Comer family and the legacy that our family had in the South and even in this country,” she said. “It was just this really unstained image, not what Doug revealed. Some of my family members do not agree with the information Doug has proposed in the book. I don’t know how you can argue with it. He’s a journalist, and it’s history.”
But, she said, watching the documentary made her queasy. “I think every time I watch it, there is a sense of it making me feel a little sick to my stomach,” she said. “I still get upset and emotional about the material and about the role that my family has played in this history and the fact that a lot of things are still being played out today in different forms. It’s the same idea, but different players. It’s just really sad to me. I definitely feel sadness when I watch it.”
Comer said she also feels a tremendous sense of pride because of her involvement in the project. “The whole team of people who put this together, they are really wonderful people,” she said. “I would never be ashamed of anything they presented.They were sensitive to my interview. But this information is so crucial that it’s important for people to know about it. It’s built on this historical landscape that nobody knows about. They know about Reconstruction, the Civil War, and the civil rights movement, but they don’t know about forced labor after the Emancipation Proclamation, and it’s important for people to know. That story is so important no matter how painful the reality is.”
*This piece was last updated on July 12, 2013.