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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.|
It also became apparent how inextricably this quasi-slavery of the twentieth century was rooted in the nascent industrial slavery that had begun to flourish in the last years before the Civil War. The same men who built railroads with thousands of slaves and proselytized for the use of slaves in southern factories and mines in the 1850s were also the first to employ forced African American labor in the 1870s. The South's highly evolved system and customs of leasing slaves from one farm or factory to the next, bartering for the cost of slaves, and wholesaling and retailing of slaves regenerated itself around convict leasing in the 1870s and 1880s. The brutal forms of physical punishment employed against "prisoners" in 1910 were the same as those used against "slaves" in 1840. The anger and desperation of southern whites that allowed such outrages in 1920 were rooted in the chaos and bitterness of 1866. These were the tendrils of the unilateral new racial compact that suffocated the aspirations for freedom among millions of American blacks as they approached the beginning of the twentieth century. I began to understand that an explicable account of the neo-slavery endured by Green Cottenham must begin much earlier than even the Civil War, and would extend far beyond the end of his life.
Most ominous was how plainly the record showed that in the face of the rising southern white assault on black independence—even as black leaders increasingly expressed profound despair and hundreds of aching requests for help poured into federal agencies in Washington, D.C.—the vast majority of white Americans, exhausted from the long debates over the role of blacks in U.S. society, conceded that the descendants of slaves in the South would have to accept the end of freedom.
On July 31, 1903, a letter to President Theodore Roosevelt arrived at the White House from Carrie Kinsey, a barely literate African American woman in Bainbridge, Georgia. Her fourteen-year-old brother, James Robinson, had been abducted a year earlier and sold to a plantation. Local police would take no interest. "Mr. Prassident," wrote Mrs. Kinsey, struggling to overcome the illiteracy of her world. "They wont let me have him. . . . He hase not don nothing for them to have him in chanes so I rite to you for your help." Like the vast majority of such pleas, her letter was slipped into a small rectangular folder at the Department of Justice and tagged with a reference number, in this case 12007. No further action was ever recorded. Her letter lies today in the National Archives.
A world in which the seizure and sale of a black man—even a black child—was viewed as neither criminal nor extraordinary had reemerged.
Millions of blacks lived in that shadow—as forced laborers or their family members, or African Americans in terror of the system's caprice. The practice would not fully recede from their lives until the dawn of World War II, when profound global forces began to touch the lives of black Americans for the first time since the era of the international abolition movement a century earlier, prior to the Civil War.
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.
That silence was an agonizing frustration in the writing of this book— especially in light of how richly documented were the lives of the whites most interconnected to those events. But as I sifted more deeply into the fragmented details of an almost randomly chosen man named Green Cottenham and the place and people of his upbringing, the contours of an archetypal story gradually appeared. I found the facts of a narrative of a group of common slave owners named Cottingham and common slaves who called themselves versions of the same name; of the industrial slavery that presaged the forced labor of a quarter century later; of an African ancestor named Scipio who had been thrust into the frontier of the antebellum South; of the family he produced during slavery and beyond; of the roots of the white animosities that steeped the place and era of Green Cottenham's birth; of the obliterating forces that levered upon him and generations of his family. Still, how could the account of this vast social wound be woven around the account of a single, anonymous man who by every modern measure was inconsequential and unvoiced? Eventually I recognized that this imposed anonymity was Green's most authentic and compelling dimension.
Retracing the steps from the location of the prison at Slope No. 12 to the boundaries of the burial field, considering even without benefit of his words the stifled horror he and thousands of others must have felt as they descended through the now-lost passageway to the mine, I came to understand that Cottenham belonged as the central figure of this narrative. The slavery that survived long past emancipation was an offense permitted by the nation, perpetrated across an enormous region over many years and involving thousands of extraordinary characters. Some of that story is in fact lost, but every incident in this book is true. Each character was a real person. Every direct quotation comes from a sworn statement or a record documented at the time. I try to tell the story of many places and states and the realities of what happened to millions of people. But as much as practicable, I have chosen to orient this narrative toward one family and its descendants, to one section of the state most illustrative of its breadth and injury, and to one forgotten black man, Green Cottenham. The absence of his voice rests at the center of this book.