Birmingham Confronts a Dark Chapter in Its Penal History
Slavery by Another Name (Doubleday, 2008), by Wall Street Journal reporter Douglas Blackmon, exposes and meticulously documents the complicity of Corporate America with the efforts of Southern states in the aftermath of the Civil War to essentially re-impose slavery via convict labor. Throughout the South, between Reconstruction and World War II, tens of thousands of black men were arrested on trumped-up or minor charges and then leased out as laborers to companies ranging from small-town entrepreneurs to major corporations such as U.S. Steel. The Pulitzer Prize winning book is being adapted into a documentary film to debut on PBS in 2011.
The Birmingham (Ala.) News has this interesting article about the reception of the book in that Southern city. Although Birmingham is well known for its central role in the Civil Rights Movement, the former steel town has yet to fully confront this aspect of its troubled racial past:
Reading the book, Robert Corley, director of [the University of Alabama at Birmingham]’s Global and Community Leaders Honor Program, was shocked to discover something he’d never known about his great-grandfather, Robert Franklin.
Franklin, a constable and shopkeeper in Goodwater, was convicted of rounding up blacks and essentially selling them to a plantation owner. Franklin was fined $1,000. Corley said no one in his family knew the story and they have been struggling to comprehend it.
Franklin continued in business. When he died in 1946, Franklin’s estate was worth about $1 million. Corley said his own ability to go to college and obtain advanced degrees was in some part due to Franklin’s prosperity.
Corley, who helped design the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and was a founding member of its board, wonders about the damage done to the men his great-grandfather arrested.
“My great-grandfather was a real criminal,” Corley said. “These others he arrested were not, and yet he didn’t suffer any real consequences.”
Odessa Woolfolk, the BCRI’s former board president, said more attention should be paid to the period between Reconstruction and the civil rights movement. Some worry about bringing up the story, but the facts need to be faced, she said.
“We have a tendency to want to sweep unpleasant facts under the rug,” she said. “I hope that there gets to be more public discussion about the book and the history that the book recalls.”