PASADENA, Calif. -- American history often gets passed on in a too-simple narrative, especially in pop culture. It's presented as black and white; there were good guys and bad guys.
PBS's "Slavery by Another Name" (9 p.m. Monday, WQED-TV), directed by Sam Pollard and based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name by co-executive producer Douglas Blackmon, reveals a largely hidden history that belies the popular narrative that the enslavement for African-Americans ended with the Emancipation Proclamation. This 90-minute documentary film recounts -- through recreations and interviews -- how emancipation was a bitter economic pill for former slave owners to swallow. So they found a substitute.
A loophole in the 13th Amendment worked in their favor: Slavery was abolished except as punishment for a crime. "Slavery by Another Name" recounts efforts to retain the practice of slavery by enacting contrived laws that made it a crime for a black man to walk beside a railroad, to speak loudly in the company of white women or to be unable to prove his employment on a moment's notice.
This led to "convict leasing" in which the state would lease prisoners to be used as laborers by plantation owners and even corporations. It provided a new revenue stream for the state and inexpensive, union-free labor for companies.
"Slavery by Another Name" explains how conditions for these forced laborers were often worse than conditions for slaves in the pre-Civil War era.
"It was never in the economic interest of a slave owner to kill his own slaves or abuse them so terribly they couldn't work anymore," Mr. Blackmon explains in the film. "Their economic value protected them in certain ways. After the Civil War, someone working their forced laborers would push them to the very limits of human endurance."
At a PBS press conference last month, Mr. Blackmon said his book grew out of a story he wrote for the Wall Street Journal -- excerpted and published by the Post-Gazette in July 2001 -- about the use of forced labor in Alabama's Pratt Mines by Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co., which was purchased by Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel in 1907. The use of convict labor continued there until 1912, Mr. Blackmon reported.
U.S. Steel receives only a brief mention in the "Slavery by Another Name" documentary, which shows the impact of this practice that wasn't investigated by federal authorities until 1922 with no prosecutions for it until 1942. In 1951, the U.S. Congress finally passed more explicit laws making any form of slavery a crime, Mr. Blackmon writes.
"A lot of people, particularly younger African Americans, really realize, at a very fundamental level, that there's something about the standard version of American history that doesn't add up," Mr. Blackmon said. "That this 80-, 90-year period of time between the Civil War and the civil rights movement that generally is taught to us as having been just this sort of difficult Jim Crow era when blacks are called a bad name and they live in poverty and they can't vote and every now and then there's violence against an African American here or there, that super-simplistic version of that period of time doesn't really explain why it was the case that, by the time you get to the 1970s, there's still this gigantic gap between whites and blacks in terms of wealth and education and all those other sorts of measures. To really understand why the country was the way it was then and is the way it is now, you have to realize that something much bigger, something much worse happened in that period of time. And people actually want to know that story."
That includes descendants of both African-American forced laborers and the white men who leased them. Representatives of both are interviewed in the film, including Dr. Sharon Malone, wife of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, whose uncle was a victim of forced labor.
Mr. Blackmon calls it "mind-boggling" that the slavery that existed before the Civil War, "the greatest moral failure of the history of our country," was followed by another form of slavery immediately afterward. "[It] is a sort of astonishing failure on the part of an entire society."
Mr. Pollard, the filmmaker, offers another realization from this newly uncovered history.
"The phenomenal, positive thing that you should all take away from this is that through all this oppression that black people had to face, what did they do? They fought in World War I. They fought in World War II. They were in the Korean War," he said, "because -- no matter how horrible America has treated them -- they believe in America. I had three uncles who were in World War II because, even though they came from Mississippi and they were glad to get out of Mississippi, they fought for America."
Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook. First Published February 12, 2012 5:00 AM