PBS doc shines light on shameful period in American history
Malone, an obstetrician, is a sixth-generation Alabaman married to U.S. Attorney General
The peonage system was how slavery continued.
Douglas A. Blackmon's
They were slaves.
And this was all done under the thinnest veil of legality. Though the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, there was a loophole: except in the case of punishment for a crime.
And crimes for blacks included talking loudly in the presence of a white woman, leaving one job for another, selling cotton after dark and walking along railroad tracks.
Even the film's director and producer, Sam Pollard, whose first assignment as a documentarian was "Eyes on the Prize II," was not steeped in this period.
"Most of us -- black and white -- think of Reconstruction as a period of black empowerment," Pollard says. "The whites were saying, You are not really free. How can we control them? How can we get cheap labor to work in the mines?' It becomes systematic oppression."
The documentary does a magnificent job of showing the nameless men and women forced to work in mines, drink foul water and endure face lashings and abuse. The film uses photos, actors and interviews with descendants to tell the story.
It also features a moving interview with Susan Tuggle Burnore, whose great-grandfather John S. Williams owned a plantation worked by slave labor that was sanctioned under the peonage system.
Even after federal agents inspected his plantation and saw the shackles in the slave quarters, they gave Williams a pass because he had paid for the men's bonds and gotten them out of jail, and they now were supposedly working off their debt. This was not out of the ordinary in that place and time. But Williams, fearing his world would change, decided to destroy the evidence and murder the 11 men working for him. In so doing, in 1921 he became the only white man convicted of killing a black man in Georgia since 1877. He died in prison in 1966.
"I always knew my grandfather died in prison," Burnore says at a Pasadena, Calif., press conference. "My family told a story that was, forgive the pun, whitewashed -- that he had, along with a lot of other men in Jasper County, Georgia, killed some escaping prisoners. These were supposedly hardened convicts who had done terrible things and were being worked on the plantation."
What was terrible was how the men lived and died. Some were thrown alive, tied to farm machinery, off a bridge.
The film is filled with such stories. Though this is not an easy topic to read about or watch, it is an important one. The documentary was just shown at
"Vestiges remain, the industrial prison complex," Pollard says. "Even when you go to the South today, you go down to Alabama and Mississippi," it's apparent. And it's not just buildings where attitudes and the former law of the land linger.
Pollard recalls visiting an aunt in Mississippi in the summer of 1975, who still went the back way into stores.
"She was so used to it," he says. "No black person would come through the middle of the street. It is not to say that life has not changed in the South, but there are still remnants."
Though PBS documentaries about history don't generate the sort of attention that antics on a reality show does, Pollard considers how to entice people to watch.
"You've got to say to people you will see the drama of how American history unfolds," Pollard says.
"You have got to know from whence you came to know where you are going," Malone says in a separate interview. "It makes the progress of the African-Americans all the more remarkable."