In teaching about race at a community college in introductory American history courses, you get used to students saying that they are learning things that they had never encountered before in their previous history classes. This is even more true for issues of race in American history, especially in teaching at a majority white institution (although that has actually become less true than when I started 14 years ago).
I wanted to give an example here of one assignment that I give my students in my hybrid courses. It introduces students to a portion of American history that is usually left out. I will admit that I had not even heard about it through my own undergraduate and graduate education. However, I have come to believe that you cannot understand any of the ongoing racial issues in our country today, especially those between African Americans and police, if you are unaware of what happened in the period after emancipation and especially after Reconstruction.
As a side note, for those of you who might not be interested in looking at a full assignment, I urge you to go and either watch the documentary Slavery by Another Name and/or read the book Slavery by Another Name. It is such a fundamental part of understanding American racial history, but I find that I am introducing it for the first time to most people who I mention it to. So, even if you don’t want to delve into what I have below here, do yourself a favor and go watch it. I cannot link it directly, as PBS has made the decision not to offer it streaming on their website anymore. However, a quick YouTube search will give you numerous places to watch it. I am not endorsing bypassing the source of the documentary itself, but I have never understood why they can’t offer their documentaries on their website for viewing, especially one as fundamental as this one. I had our library purchase it so that my students can always have a stable place to see the documentary.
For those of you who would like to see what one of my assignments looks like for my hybrid course, I have included the one that is based around Slavery by Another Name here. This is what my students see for their first week of my HIST 1302 hybrid course. I am leaving out the link to the documentary that is in the assignment, and you can see the previous paragraph as to why.
Week 2 Activity
Skills for Week 2
For Week 2 of HIST 1302, we are going to start with a continuation of the last topic in HIST 1301. We will look at what happens in the South with the end of Reconstruction and how slave-like conditions would continue well into the twentieth century.
Week 2 is aimed at the following core competencies for history as developed by the American Historical Association:
- Build historical knowledge.
- Gather and contextualize information in order to convey both the particularity of past lives and the scale of human experience.
- Recognize how humans in the past shaped their own unique historical moments and were shaped by those moments.
- Develop a body of historical knowledge with breadth of time and place—as well as depth of detail—in order to discern context.
- Develop historical methods.
- Recognize history as an interpretive account of the human past—one that historians create in the present from surviving evidence.
- Practice ethical historical inquiry that makes use of and acknowledges sources from the past as well as the scholars who have interpreted that past.
- Develop empathy toward people in the context of their distinctive historical moments
- Recognize the provisional nature of knowledge, the disciplinary preference for complexity, and the comfort with ambiguity that history requires.
- Describe past events from multiple perspectives.
- Explain and justify multiple causes of complex events and phenomena using conflicting sources.
- Use historical perspective as central to active citizenship.
- Apply historical knowledge and historical thinking to contemporary issues.
Overview of the Week’s Assignment
For a period of nearly eighty years, between the Civil War and World War II, Southern blacks were no longer slaves, but they were not yet free. Generations of black Southerners lived in the shadow and under the threat of being forced to labor against their will.
Legally, slavery was outlawed by the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, “except as a punishment for crime,” and even before Reconstruction ended in 1877, many Southern states began enacting a series of laws intended to re-subjugate newly freed blacks and provide cheap sources of labor. Vagrancy, loitering, riding the rails, changing jobs, even talking too loudly in public — these behaviors and more — all became crimes carrying stiff fines or sentences. Although these statutes made no mention of race, Southerners knew that they were intended as instruments of white control. The result was a huge increase in the numbers of blacks arrested and convicted.
Peonage or debt slavery, an illegal but widespread practice, flourished. Many black men were picked up for these minor crimes or on trumped-up charges. When faced with staggering fines and court fees, these men were then forced to work for a local employer who would pay their fines for them.
Others were victims of laws that made it a crime to leave employment for another job, keeping many blacks working under intolerable conditions as sharecroppers or elsewhere, rather than face the terrifying possibility of being arrested and sent to a forced labor camp. In other cases, workers would become indebted to planters (through sharecropping loans) merchants (through credit) or company stores (through living expenses). The workers were often unable to re-pay the debt, and found themselves continuously forced to work without pay.
Convict leasing, a form of forced labor that was legal, occurred in concert with Southern state and county governments. These governments realized they could lease their convicts to local planters or industrialists who would pay minimal rates for the workers and be responsible for their housing and feeding — thereby eliminating costs and increasing revenue. Soon markets for convict laborers developed, with entrepreneurs buying and selling convict labor leases.
The victims of forced labor were disproportionately black and poor. Ostensibly developed as a social solution to prison costs or insolvent debtors, in reality, forced labor was tightly bound to systems of racial oppression, and its abolishment accompanied the growth of a greater public concern for fairness and equality.
Additionally, the history of forced labor in the South is connected to a number of major events in American history ranging from Reconstruction to the New Deal. Today, forced labor, in various forms, continues to exist around the world.
While all of Chapter 18 is assigned for reading this week, the Weekly Activity is specifically focused around the sections on the South. You should reread and concentrate on pages 356-61 as a general background before viewing the video linked below. You also should read the lecture for this week, especially the first three lecture points, “The End of Reconstruction,” “The New South,” and “Jim Crow.”
For more specific background on the ideas discussed in the video, you can also refer to the following webpages for more information:
Here is the documentary: (documentary link removed)
The documentary is 90 minutes long and will stream directly through your browser.
While you are watching the video, I would like you to consider the following questions. You do not have to submit answers to these questions to me, but they will help you be prepared for what we are going to discuss in class.
- In what forms has forced labor been practiced in the past?
- How is the forced labor that was practiced in the American South after the Civil War connected to broader American history?
- What impacts did the use of forced labor have in the American South? Do these impacts continue to affect us today?
Before-Class Writing Assignment
To prepare for class, you need to submit a 250-word response to the Canvas classroom. You can find the submission link on the Week 2 Assignments page. You can either enter the response in the text box or upload a response in one of the following formats: .txt, .rtf, .doc, or .docx.
Access the following short videos to guide you in writing your submission:
- Reflections on Peonage – This video is from a StoryCorps oral history that features Kate Willis and her cousin Susan Burnore, descendants of John Williams, a plantation owner who practiced peonage. In this clip Willis, who wrote a high school paper about peonage and her family’s connection to it, defines the practice as well as discusses how it operated and how it differs from slavery. The clip is about a minute and a half long.
- Reflections on Robert Franklin – This video is from a StoryCorps oral history that features Robert Corley, a descendant of Robert N. Franklin, a white shop owner who benefited from forced labor. Here, Corley, an historian, talks about how he felt to find out about his great-grandfather’s role in the illegal practice. Corley discusses John Davis, a 23-year-old black sharecropper who after encountering Franklin, was fraudulently charged, imprisoned, and subsequently forced into labor while traveling in Alabama. As an historian, Corley also provides context regarding forced labor and racial attitudes of the time. The clip is about five minutes long.
- The System at Work – In this book excerpt from the book Slavery by Another Name, author Douglas A. Blackmon writes about how an intricate system of forced labor, supported by local criminal justice systems, operated in the American South, by examining the inner workings of the farm of John Pace, who used forced labor. The audio excerpt is about two and a half minutes long.
Using the materials presented here, your response for this week is on the following topic: I am fairly certain that you have never heard of any of this before, as it is not a topic generally covered at all (outside of sharecropping). What is your initial reaction to it? Why do you think it is something that is generally not discussed or remembered? How has it affected racial relations in the American South through today? Please use specific examples from the background information, documentary, and/or supplementary videos to illustrate your thoughts.
We will discuss the following:
- What was the system of peonage and contract labor like?
- What conditions in the South led to the development of the system?
- What have the consequences been for the US through the period of time we will be studying and through today?
- What does this change about the way we think about the US and the American South?
- How does it help us understand racial issues that still face the US today?
I am going to talk about teaching about race as a relevant topic in today’s world. Teaching about race has been a primary part of my own American history classes and of both my undergraduate and graduate studies.
I was first introduced to discussions of race in American history during my time studying history at Rice University. The courses taught by Dr. Edward Cox there opened my eyes to a whole new sense of the world that I simply did not have from my K-12 experience. Although I went to diverse schools overall in K-12, being in the honors/gifted program meant being primarily around whites. I had never even thought of why that was or what might be wrong with that model until my undergraduate studies.
Courses in the history department at Rice in the African American experience, in Caribbean and Latin American history, and in the history of the Civil Rights Movement all served to provide me with a broader understanding of the history of race. History put me on that path to understanding, and it is a path that I am still on today.
While Dr. Cox was certainly not the only one at Rice from whom I learned about the history of race and racial issues, his courses were so crucial to my growing understanding that I still look back fondly on him and his classes today (over 2 decades later). I took every class that he offered while at Rice and only wish I could relive some of those classes now, knowing what I do, as I think I could get even more out of them in the current era.
In graduate school at Penn State, I did not have as much exposure directly to African American history or the history of race overall, but I still was able to read a diverse set of materials in my classes, and the Civil War focus of a number of my graduate courses did give me a good background in the ideas of slavery and emancipation.
While I had many strong history professors as a graduate student at Penn State, the one who still sticks out to me is Dr. Thavolia Glymph, who is now at Duke University. Her Slavery and Emancipation class was transformative for me. It was certainly one of the most difficult classes I had at Penn State, with a reading load that was astoundingly high on a weekly basis (think between 600-800 pages a week with over 1000 pages a week a couple of times). It was also a strange class, as there were five of us in the class, all white men from the South and West, who were taking a class on slavery from a black woman. I admire her patience and understanding with us, and I still remember the class today as a key one in my education. The amount of information in the class was so high, that I do wish that I could go back and take the same class a second time, this time without the time pressure and cramped setting of a full graduate semester, just so that I could delve deeper and understand the concepts, theories, and ideas with more time for consideration.
I did not set out to be a historian of African American history (although I strongly considered that as a focus while an undergraduate), and I still am learning all the time about issues of race and ethnicity in the United States. I feel moderately educated in African American history, and I have often regretted not going into that as a specialty going into graduate school, as it has become more and more of a field of strong interest for me. I am still woefully undereducated in many other fields of the history of race, have taken almost no courses on Mexican-American or even broader Latin American and South American history. I also never once took a course on Native American history or many other specific ethnic groups in the American history experience. So, for much of what we might consider the history of non-white American history, I am still very much a beginner.
I wish I knew more, but I bring what I do to my courses and to my life. In the context of a national conversation about race, I do my part by staying current and applying the lessons of history to what is going on around us today. I hope to show some of these things about how I think about and teach race in American history as I move forward in this series.