On March 30, 1908, Green Cottenham was arrested by the sheriff of Shelby County, Alabama, and charged with “vagrancy.”... Cottenham’s offense was blackness.... [After a brief trial] Cottenham... was sold. Under a standing arrangement between the county and a vast subsidiary of the industrial titan of the North — U.S. Steel Corporation — the sheriff turned the young man over to the company for the duration of his sentence.... he was chained inside a long wooden barrack at night and required to spend nearly every waking hour digging and loading coal. His required daily “task” was to remove eight tons of coal from the mine. Cottenham was subject to the whip for failure to dig the requisite amount, at risk of physical torture for disobedience, and vulnerable to the sexual predations of other miners.... Forty-five years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freeing American slaves, Green Cottenham and more than a thousand other black men toiled under the lash at Slope 12.— from the Introduction to Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II. The book's website includes reviews of the book, an excerpt of the Introduction, and an extensive photo gallery that includes disturbing images of enslaved and tortured prisoners.
The camp had supplied tens of thousands of men over five decades to a succession of prison mines ultimately purchased by U.S. Steel in 1907. Hundreds of them had not survived. Nearly all were black men arrested and then “leased” by state and county governments to U.S. Steel or the companies it had acquired.3 Here and in scores of other similarly crude graveyards, the final chapter of American slavery had been buried. It was a form of bondage distinctly different from that of the antebellum South in that for most men, and the relatively few women drawn in, this slavery did not last a lifetime and did not automatically extend from one generation to the next. But it was nonetheless slavery—a system in which armies of free men, guilty of no crimes and entitled by law to freedom, were compelled to labor without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced to do the bidding of white masters through the regular application of extraordinary physical coercion.
Instead of thousands of true thieves and thugs drawn into the system over decades, the records demonstrate the capture and imprisonment of thousands of random indigent citizens, almost always under the thinnest chimera of probable cause or judicial process. The total number of workers caught in this net had to have totaled more than a hundred thousand and perhaps more than twice that figure. Instead of evidence showing black crime waves, the original records of county jails indicated thousands of arrests for inconsequential charges or for violations of laws specifically written to intimidate blacks—changing employers without permission, vagrancy, riding freight cars without a ticket, engaging in sexual activity— or loud talk—with white women. Repeatedly, the timing and scale of surges in arrests appeared more attuned to rises and dips in the need for cheap labor than any demonstrable acts of crime. Hundreds of forced labor camps came to exist, scattered throughout the South—operated by state and county governments, large corporations, small-time entrepreneurs, and provincial farmers. These bulging slave centers became a primary weapon of suppression of black aspirations....
By 1900, the South’s judicial system had been wholly reconfigured to make one of its primary purposes the coercion of African Americans to comply with the social customs and labor demands of whites. It was not coincidental that 1901 also marked the final full disenfranchisement of nearly all blacks throughout the South. Sentences were handed down by provincial judges, local mayors, and justices of the peace—often men in the employ of the white business owners who relied on the forced labor produced by the judgments. Dockets and trial records were inconsistently maintained. Attorneys were rarely involved on the side of blacks. Revenues from the neo-slavery poured the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars into the treasuries of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, Texas, North Carolina, and South Carolina — where more than 75 percent of the black population in the United States then lived....
That the arc of Green Cottenham’s life led from a birth in the heady afterglow of emancipation to his degradation at Slope No. 12 in 1908 was testament to the pall progressing over American black life. But his voice, and that of millions of others, is almost entirely absent from the vast record of the era. Unlike the victims of the Jewish Holocaust, who were on the whole literate, comparatively wealthy, and positioned to record for history the horror that enveloped them, Cottenham and his peers had virtually no capacity to preserve their memories or document their destruction. The black population of the United States in 1900 was in the main destitute and illiterate. For the vast majority, no recordings, writings, images, or physical descriptions survive. There is no chronicle of girlfriends, hopes, or favorite songs of the dead in a Pratt Mines burial field. The entombed there are utterly mute, the fact of their existence as fragile as a scent in wind.
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