Documentary explores 'slavery by another name'

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A powerful documentary premiering tonight challenges the widely held belief that the enslavement of African-Americans ended with President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

The 90 minute film, Slavery By Another Name, based on a book by journalist Douglas A. Blackmon, chronicles how hundreds of thousands of blacks in the South continued to exist in a form of quasi-slavery well into the 20th Century.

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The documentary, to be broadcast on PBS stations nationwide, tells the disturbing story of how, even after the end of chattel slavery, new forms of involuntary servitude, including convict leasing, debt slavery and peonage, took its place.

WATCH A PREVIEW: Slavery by Another Name

According to Slavery’s co-executive producer, Catherine Allan, “a loophole in the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, except in the case of punishment for a crime,” she said.

“And within that loophole, it became a crime in the South to be unemployed, to leave one job for another one, to sell cotton after sundown, to speak too loudly in the company of white women.”

It was a system in which men were imprisoned, often on trumped-up charges, and leased to the owners of factories, farms and mines as slave laborers to meet the South’s demand for cheap labor.

“So many people tell me they were uncertain about, or never believed, accounts passed down by forebears which seemed to suggest that families were still being held as neo-slaves in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s,” writes Blackmon on his website,

“Then they read the book and realize that in fact the old stories are very likely to be true — that thousands of people were living in a state of involuntary servitude well into the lives of millions of Americans who are still alive today,” continues the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Slavery by Another Name and co-executive producer of tonight’s documentary.

Filmed on location in Alabama and Georgia using archive material and re-enactments, the film tells the overlooked stories of both victims and perpetrators of neo-slavery and includes interviews with their descendants living today.

One of the main protagonists is man named Green Cottenham, who, as a black American in the early part of the 20th century, was arrested for being unemployed and black, and sold by the government to an American corporation to work in a mine.

Hank Klibanoff, a veteran journalist and co-author, The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, told theGrio the documentary helps explain the legacy of mistrust in the African-American community that continues even to this day.

“It’s impossible to read and see Slavery By Another Name and not come to better understand why African-Americans might still carry pain, distrust and even anger about the insidious efforts to undermine their freedom in this nation, long after its promise seemed assured,” says Klibanoff.

The program, which spans eight decades, from 1865 to 1945, also features interviews with Blackmon and with leading scholars of this period.

Writer Blackmon has said he believes this extension of slavery helps explain why African-Americans made so little economic progress between emancipation and the civil rights movement.

Slavery By Another Name airs tonight at 9pm ET / 8pm CT on PBS