The Unpleasant Truth: Slavery After the War

Although the North had won the war and the ratification of the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, the “peculiar institution” continued on, even after the end of the 19th century. At least 30,000 pages of complaint letters have been found in the National Archives, chronicling stories of forced labor and continued enslavement after the passage of the 13th Amendment. Written by former slaves, sympathetic Southern whites, and indignant Northerners, these letters, addressed to the White House, have gone unread for decades. Further records reside in basements, old buildings, and local archives, registering many more cases of the violation of blacks’ rights. One circumstance comes from an African American woman named Carrie Kinsey. Asking for help from the president – since no white official would take notice – she tells of the abduction of her fourteen year old brother, who had been sold into involuntary servitude. Although it was addressed to Teddy Roosevelt, it never reached him personally. Immediately sent to the archives, it and other stories of further enslavement escaped the immediate attention of the government, who wanted no responsibility for these occurrences. Because these stories were disregarded, slavery was allowed to continue until well into the beginning of the 20th century.

Abduction wasn’t the only way that blacks could be forced back into slavery. Southern states created laws which made it almost impossible for a free black to not be convicted of a crime of some sort, condemning him to involuntary labor and cruel servitude to rich whites once again as punishment for his “misdeeds”. Other times, free blacks were duped into the equivalent of slavery by misleading contracts and deceitful employers. A black worker in 1904 told of how he started work at a farm as a free laborer. When his contract expired after a decade, he was told that he could leave the plantation – as long as he could pay back his accumulated debt of $165, which was about two years’ worth of labor. Unable to do so, he had to sign a contract which forced him to work on the farm until the debt was paid, but as a convict. Many other stories of involuntary servitude have been found, each one showing how the issue of slavery after the 13th Amendment was not a priority of the government at the time.

One thought on “The Unpleasant Truth: Slavery After the War

  1. I thought this was interesting as I’ve also read a bit about slavery after the war. I know that some were forced into sharecropping contracts and forced into endless cycles of debt, like you mentioned, and were basically enslaved. I wasn’t aware that slavery continued on that scale though. I also found it sad how many thought slavery was wrong but didn’t strongly oppose sharecropping even thought it resembled slavery extremely closely.

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