I was hot, I was tuckered, I was angry. I was a little boy, picking cotton for my grandfather on his 360-acre farm in Alabama, and I was feeling like a slave. Lincoln freed the slaves a hundred years ago, I informed my grandfather sourly.
"Mister Lincoln ain't freed no slaves," he said. Slavery lasted well into the 20th century, he said, to his personal knowledge.
My brothers and I were on break, sitting in the shade of towering oaks, stupid with exhaustion, sipping sweet lemonade from dented tin cups. Daddy-Yo, which is what we called our grandfather, had us transfixed and terrified as he sat and stroked his old gold pocket watch and told us how white folks stole black children off the streets of Alabama and took them to plantations as far away as the Mississippi Delta. How this was done entire generations after the Emancipation Proclamation. How black people were held in bondage. Daddy-Yo had seen it happen, he told us.
I wondered if those white men might someday come for me. I was 10.
By and by I grew bigger and stronger, and Daddy-Yo grew smaller and feebler, but the tale he told never got less vivid or more benign. As a bent old man, he wept with each word as if ghosts had returned from the past to feast on his soul.
Those summers on his farm were the cruelest and the kindest of my life. The spiny points on the cotton buds ripped our cuticles, making our fingers bleed. Once the skin toughened, the pain would leave, replaced by something dark and gnarled and protective.
The scars on my hands have faded. The demons of the past revisit me as they did my father and grandfather. Daddy-Yo is dead and his gold pocket watch belongs to me now. Today I find myself stroking it, and telling my own children my grandfather's story, pretty much the way he told it:
It was 1918, and he was near 7 years old. Daddy-Yo and his friend Cleveland and two other boys were playing along a dirt road in Sumter County. They were big kids, and strong looking. Suddenly, up pulled a brand-new automobile. Lot of dust hanging behind. Two fancy-dressed white men settin' in the front. Hey y'all nigra boys, have y'all ever seen the likens of such a beautiful machine?
"I can't reckon we have, suh," my grandfather replied, removing his cap and lowering his eyes. It was considered a sign of disrespect for Negroes to meet the stare of a white person. In some parts, Negroes were thrown in jail and fined $25 for "reckless eyeballing," which meant they made eye contact with a white woman.
I'll tell you boys what. How about hoppin' in for a ride down to York? We'll be back before you know it.
Poor Negro boys riding in such elegance was unheard of. They were more accustomed to traveling on splintery cross boards on the back of mule-drawn wagons. My grandfather was wary:
"We sho' do appreciate it, suh', but I reckon we'd better be headed on back to the house now," he said. "We're much obliged, though."
Suddenly the driver jumped from the car, cursing and swearing.
The four boys broke toward the wooded area along the roadside. My grandfather didn't stop running until he was on the front porch of his house. He waited for a few minutes, praying the others would soon join him. They never did.
My grandfather told his father what had happened. Within minutes, a dozen men on mules and wobbly old field wagons were on the roads, searching for the three stolen Negro children. But the boys were gone. Authorities were notified. Authorities said nothing could be done, if anything at all had happened. Negro boys sometimes get ideas into their heads, and just plumb run away.
The story didn't end there. It ended 20 years later. My grandfather was sitting on his front porch, when he saw a family of derelicts emerging from the back of a delivery truck.
He blinked and stared, then slowly rose to his feet. The oldest derelict, with the grizzled face and the watery eyes, was his old friend Cleveland, who had been by his side that day 20 years before but was not as fast on his feet.
"When Cleveland saw us, it took more than an hour to settle him down," said Daddy-Yo. "We had to try to get him pacified from that. There were two or three children standing out there not far from him. When he learned his father had passed on, Cleveland cried."
Cleveland told Daddy-Yo he had been taken to the Mississippi delta, sold into slavery and held for 20 years on a plantation surrounded by two rivers and protected by armed guards, barbed wire and dogs. He said he eventually escaped with the help of a white laborer, who drove him off with the woman who had become Cleveland's wife on the plantation. There were other plantations, all over the South, Cleveland said. Men kept under lock and key. Men whipped for insubordination, men killed on a whim.
Anyway, that was Daddy-Yo's story.
Story like that stays in your head.
In high school during Negro History Week, I took issue with students and instructors who considered President Lincoln the ultimate emancipator of the Negro people. I objected when slavery was presented as an atrocity lost in the distant past. When challenged for an explanation, I stammered that my grandpa knew, and my grandpa wouldn't lie.
This would result in an indulgent silence. Back to Sumter
What I remember of rural Alabama are lush fields of swaying emerald-green corn and endless rows of linen-white cotton. What I am looking at right now are overgrown mud fields. Loggers are at work, stripping the remaining timberland for pulp wood.
I've come back, carrying my grandfather's tales in my head, to see what I can find.
Sumter County is nestled in the flatland of west-central Alabama; its lushness has been ruined, but its people have not. Civility abounds. White children show great respect to black elders and racial tension seems to be an aberration of the past.
The past, it was very different.
At Livingston University, social science professor Louis Smith tells me that after the Civil War and well into the 20th century, more black people were lynched in Sumter County than anywhere else in the state of Alabama, more than most anywhere in the South. Smith says that when blacks returned here from World War I, some were hauled from the trains and hanged in their military uniforms; it was payback for what black soldiers had been known to do in France. This is what they had been known to do in France: talk to French women.
But what about modern-day slavery?
Smith doesn't know. He says there were some egregious cases of what he called "debt labor," blacks working in plantation-like conditions to pay off debts. And there was, of course, sharecropping, in which blacks toiled endlessly in other men's fields in the usually futile hope of one day owning land of their own. Smith urges me to seek historical records under slavery at Ole Miss, at various local historical libraries and at the county probate court. I do. The records are riveting but irrelevant; there are ancient property conveyances, births and deaths, and there are chilling oral histories, the testimony of former slaves. Black men in Alabama were chained and whipped and many were worked to death. But these are stories from the 1830s through the early 1860s. After that, nothing.
Kate Nicholson is a splendidly ornery woman who lives with her blind husband in a small house on a rural road outside of York. She is my great-aunt. She is 83. Sews quilts in her living room and raises chickens in her back yard, sells them both for profit, takes guff from no man. I ask her about slaves during her lifetime, and she says she doesn't know what I am talking about. I tell her what my grandfather -- her brother -- told me, and she says she heard the same story from him, but she doesn't remember it herself, and can't speak to its truth. She is so dismissive I do not pursue it.
I returned to Washington, wondering whether my grandfather's story was nothing but talk, a campfire tale embellished by bitterness and marinated in superstition, a myth that became real over time and retelling. I began to visit the Library of Congress manuscript division, asking for files on servitude in America after the Civil War. I spent weeks in the stacks inspecting records on black economic privation, on sharecropping, on the decades of economic inequality that went unchallenged until the civil rights movement of the 1950s. Sad stuff, but nothing I hadn't known. Finally, a librarian brought me another cart of yellowed documents. It was labeled "peonage." I hadn't seen that word before.
The first sheet was unlike the others I had been reading. There was nothing official about it. It wasn't typed. It had no letterhead. It was in laborious longhand, so unschooled as to be nearly unintelligible. Beneath it was a pile of 20 more just like it.
Beneath that were a dozen more piles.
Hours passed. Twice, the librarian returned to ask me if I was okay.
I suspect the Library of Congress research room doesn't get many large black men who sit there, crying. Omaha, Neb., Oct. 8, 1923
Gentlemen as I can not read or write I got a friend to write this I never in school in my life. I worked on this man's farm all my life I didn't get a cent for my labor until I run away. I am 35 years old, all we Negroes got to eat was corn bread and bacon and few clothes and forced to 10-12 lived in rooms. His over seers carried sticks and whip and gun. They whipped children and women and men. They would make men and women strip their clothes down and get on their knees and some time tie them to place and whip them from 25 to 100 lashes at time. You dare not to ask for money or any thing else . . . The over seers suduced any young girls they wanted and parents could not help them. I would send my name but I don't want to go back to this farm. I did never commit a crime. Coffee, Ga., Aug. 10, 1919
. . . I am in slavery. What I want to do now is leave this place. I am here at this place and my husband are working turpentine and the poor men here are only getting something to eat, and not very much of that, and when a man gets ready to leave he are not allowed to go. We got to show what these wicked men and women do, but the boss man will not allow no officer to come in here. I saw with my own eyes this past week a colored woman packed her clothes and sold her chickens to get money to pay a man to let her go home and when she got to the depot the boss man taken her luggage and brought it back to the quarters and she had to stay. Danville, Va., June 12, 1933
God knows there are some out in West Va. now that needs help they have been writing such pittiful letters to theire wives and mothers. . . . A man came here over two weeks ago and said he wanted men to work in a mine at a place called Oiminar but he took them on to a place called Shirrat West Va. where they found to thire horror and dismay they were surround by guards and forced to go in the new mine they are opening up and some have been out there two months and have not been paid one cent. Most of them never saw a mine before and that they have to brace up the mine and they are being killed five and six at the time and they have to stay in there all the time the white man that owns the place is named Jones and he told them men out there were making three four and eight dollars a day and he just lied to them and I am afraid they will all be killed be fore they can get away. . . . They are five hundred and eighty miles from home and some refused to go in that death trap and they had them put in jail and then they are going to force them back in again . . . A National Shame
Mississippi. Nebraska. Tennessee. Arkansas. Virginia. Georgia. Florida. South Carolina. West Virginia. The letters were from everywhere, written furtively, smuggled out of cotton plantations and turpentine farms and coal mines. Some were addressed to the U.S. Justice Department, but most were sent in desperation to the New York headquarters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The NAACP did what it could, investigated where it could, issued indignant press releases, demanded justice. But the fact is, these files are not filled with follow-up. Mostly, they contain heartbreaking one-way correspondence, in fat folders marked "peonage," held for posterity. Peonage meant holding people against their will to pay off an alleged debt. It was against federal law, but it was only fitfully prosecuted.
The letters are too scattered, and too painfully naive, to be a conspiracy of propaganda. They are what they are: a case-by-case chronicle of incomprehensible inhumanity lasting from the Civil War up to World War II.
For days in the Library of Congress I sifted through the testimony of the damned, men and women of my grandfather's generation who never knew life as free people. Slowly, the broader story took shape, not from any scholarly overview or detailed congressional study -- peonage never really became a hot-button social issue -- but from the slow accretion of detail, one sickening tragedy at a time. Darien, Ga., March 10, 1922
I a poor widow woman will tell you my trouble and if the Good Lord be willing I am asking you to help me if you can. My name is Nona Harris. I worked for a man in Forest Glen, Ga. a white man, farming on his place. . . . I married in January and left the farm in September and came to Darien and that was 1919, now today my poor boy who worked with this man two years after I had left and made two crops for him and he never got anything from him but food and lodging and one pair of shoes and $10. Now in January my son was here with me in Darien and this white man sent the sheriff for him and they carry my son back to Forest Glen and make him work for this same man til a debt of $329.50 is paid and he say he will send back and get the whole family of us and put us all on the chain gang or back on his farm if I don't pay him the money to him by the first of April. The Caldron
Fear ruled the South in the years after the Civil War. Blacks feared the wrath of whites, whites feared financial ruin from the sudden dearth of free labor. Blacks were technically emancipated, but they were benumbed by ignorance and cowed by generations of servitude. In this caldron of desperation, the unscrupulous could thrive. By manipulating the ledgers, some swindled the sharecropper into debt so permanent he could never work himself out of it.
But for other Southern whites, creative accountancy was hardly necessary. Protected by sympathetic local law enforcement, many farmers kept their plantations operating much as they had before Lincoln -- with armed overseers, "whipping bosses" for discipline, and stockades to place the insubordinate worker. Sometimes people were born and died on these plantations, never knowing they were legally free. These brutal places seemed to thrive everywhere in the agricultural belt from Florida to Nebraska.
How did these places get their slaves? Any way they could. In Southern city courtrooms, plantation owners were known to place what was called a "watcher," someone who kept an eye out for black men against whom fines were levied for minor crimes. The watcher paid the fine, allegedly in return for the accused working off the debt on his plantation. It was a common ruse: The man arrived and found himself a prisoner. Others were recruited in bus stations and train depots and other public places to which the indigent gravitate. Coerced by the promise of work, they were then given a sandwich on their way to the plantation. Upon arriving, they were billed for the food -- a bill they would never seem to repay. For years, they tried to work that sandwich off.
The public, by and large, was ignorant of these farms. The files contain the occasional bemused newspaper story about someone arrested for vagrancy in one Northern town or another, who claimed to have escaped from slavery. From an affidavit by an escaped slave, obtained by the NAACP in Philadelphia, concerning a farm outside Vicksburg, Miss.:
. . . I remained on this farm for a period of about thirty days when I approach Mr. A. F. Hamilton with reference to payment of my wages. At that time Hamilton was sitting on a box on the porch of the comissary. He state that he would give me my pay in a few moments. He was talking to some of the colored foremen at the time and I continued to stand and wait in expectation of receiving my money. Hamilton then ordered four of these colored guards to seize me, which they did, and stripped me of my outer clothing and gave me a severe beating. When they had finished, he stated this was my pay . . .
One undated newspaper clipping reports the curious case of a Georgia farmer named Pascell who wrote to the governor of Honolulu asking for 300 slaves. "If there is no danger of the savages eating me up over here," Pascell wrote, "I will come and pick my choice from the drove you have on the market and pay you good money . . . "
The governor answered indignantly, saying that although Hawaii was only a territory it was a civilized place, and dryly noted that Honolulu does not lynch people the way Georgia does. There is no indication that any authorities ever investigated what use the good farmer Pascell had for slaves.
"This peonage system was the dying gasp of that reign of terror called slavery and the people didn't want to let go of it," Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, professor of history at Howard University, told me. "Southerners were committed to the subjugation of the African American," she said. "The social reformers in Washington and throughout the country weren't necessarily writing and keeping records on African Americans in the peonage system. Who cared about African Americans?"
In fact, some people of conscience did, and eventually, they would help bring this system down. The files at the Library of Congress contain the occasional letter from free people, white and black, appalled at what was going on in the countryside.
Peace, Ark., Feb. 6, 1922 Gentlemen:
I live in the county of Cleveland. We have no law to protect us. The system of debt slavery rules in this county. If a Negro is arrested he is taken to jail, kept there a while then he is taken to a big man's farm and put to work with out any trial whatever. When ever a white man kills a Negro he is taken and (the Negro) buried and that is all there is to it. . . . I am writing what I know, not what I think.
I am willing to testify to these things any where if it cost my life for I know the miserable conditions of my people here.
Yours truly, Rev. W. H. Booker And this, from a white woman to the NAACP:
On last Thursday, June 21, 1923, I was on my way to Harwell, Ga. I had to wait over about three and one half hours in order to make the proper connection, at a very small place called Calhoun Falls, S.C. While sitting there an old grandmother came up to me and she was terribly distressed. She had a daughter in New York who had sent for her but she had two very dear grandchildren that she was so anxious to see before leaving the place.
The mother of the children is dead and they are kept as slaves under a man by the name of John McCollie (White). He is located ten miles from the little town, running a big farm. He has an over seer by the name of Peach Alexander with one eye, who is indeed cruel. There are more than one hundred Negroes in absolute slavery. They are half clothed, half fed, and have no money. . . . If they show at any time the least resentment, they are whipped severely, very often shot and at times killed and thrown into the river. They are well guarded at all times so that no one will know of their whereabouts. . . .
When ever the mother and father of a family become too old to work, the children have to be given over and they remain there until they become too old. They are perfectly ignorant.
There was a girl quite young an unmarried who became a mother. When the baby was between four and five months old, she was forced to go to the field at the dawn of a day and work till night with her baby in a box. She was so far from the baby at one time that it fell out of the box and the ants ate little holes in the sides of its nostrils, gnawed its ears and around its mouth . . . This is only one case. . . .
What can be done? Please see after this matter at once and if it is investigated, be very careful on entering the place for it is well guarded at all times.
These are true facts. Official Inaction
During the early part of the century, the Justice Department aggressively prosecuted a number of cases of debt peonage, but its prosecutions soon flagged. In some of the worst cases, where the allegations were of simple slavery -- where debt was not at issue, and federal peonage law did not apply -- the federal government often referred the case back to the states, where wealthy landowners were protected by corrupt or coerced law enforcement officers.
From time to time, largely through lobbying efforts of the NAACP, charges of slavery were filed. Often they went nowhere. In Southern towns, it was next to impossible to convict a white man solely on the testimony of blacks, particularly poor blacks.
If there was one case that summarized the pervasive horror of peonage and slavery, it was the one that came to light in Jasper County, Ga., in 1921. Federal agents entered the farm owned by respected local landowner John S. Williams and began questioning him about the allegedly inhumane conditions of the workers there. The agents informed Williams that it was illegal to "work a nigger against his will."
Williams was dumbfounded. If that is the case, he told the agents, "I and most all of the farmers in this county must be guilty of peonage."
The extent of Williams's brutality became evident in the next year, when he was tried for running a "Murder Farm." The newspapers called him Simon Legree.
Williams's overseer, a 27-year-old black man named Clyde Manning, expressionlessly testified to having killed as many as 11 black workers on Williams's orders, shortly after the visit of the federal agents. He said he had drowned several, after binding their hands, weighing them down with rocks and dropping them off a bridge into the Alcovy River as they begged for their lives. Others Manning beat to death with an ax. The motive: self-protection. Williams was concerned that if he had been tried for peonage, those men might testify against him.
Indeed, some of the slaves from the plantation testified that they spent their adult lives on the Williams farm, never having left even for a day, not knowing the name or the location of the nearest store, five miles away.
Williams was convicted and sentenced to a long prison term.
It was the start of a series of public trials that began to get significant attention in the press. Peonage Farm "Didn't Use Force," Merely Whipped Negroes.
June 10, 1922 New York, June 10: Although Dr. W.R. King, proprietor of an alleged peonage farm in Oglethorpe County, Ga. admitted he struck and whipped Negroes, he denied having used force to keep them on his plantation and was acquitted of the peonage charge by a federal court jury in Athens, Ga. . . . Flogged to Work, Negroes Testify Pensacola, Fla., 1925
DeWitt Stoner admitted that he was forced at the point of revolvers in the hands of the defendants to beat Henry Sanders, Galvester Jackson and George Diamond with large, rough oak sticks or black jacks' after the Negroes had been intercepted in the attempt to leave the county.
He testified the white men looked on as he whipped the three other Negroes, one at a time, after they had been stripped of their clothing and made to lie on their stomachs in the road.
The two accused white turpentine farm operators were convicted. Things were moving forward, but at a glacial pace. This was, after all, the American South in 1925. For the crime of having ordered the flogging of workers who had dared to try to escape their farm, the two men received sentences of 60 and 90 days in prison, respectively. The Shadow of Slavery
After three weeks, I walked out of the Library of Congress, and left the peonage files for the next man. I had not read them all, but I had read enough.
Mine were not the first set of eyes on these documents. They had been pored through a quarter century ago, by a young Tennessee professor named Pete Daniel, working on his doctoral dissertation. Daniel's research resulted in a powerful, elegant, heart-wrenching book, "The Shadow of Slavery: Peonage in the South, 1901-1969" published by the University of Illinois Press. I found it shortly before finishing this article.
It is all in there, all the Library of Congress and Justice Department files, dispassionately analyzed in all their bleakness. In his introduction, Daniel calls his book "the record of an American failure." He is talking about a system of institutional apathy, and casual racism, that permitted peonage to exist unchecked for so long.
According to the publisher, over the past 25 years Pete Daniel's book has sold 8,200 copies. That is about what Danielle Steel moves on a slow Thursday.
Pete Daniel is now the curator of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. I phoned him, asked how he felt when he first read those letters.
"Outraged," he said. "It was amazing material. Day after day I read these things, many of which were not followed up on. I was outraged that this could have happened in the 20th century. A lot of people didn't believe me when I told them about it. At an interview once for a teaching job, a prospective employer, an academic, told me this couldn't have happened. He called everything I had fraudulent." Daniel laughed. "I didn't get the job." Back to Sumter
I had one more question, and it involved something a haunted old man had told me a long time ago.
The story my grandfather had told me now rang true. It must have been true. But what I could not understand was how it could have been forgotten. How could children have been stolen off the road of Sumter County, Ala., and no one remembered? Or did no one want to remember?
I went back to visit my feisty great-aunt Kate, and I told her what I had learned from my research. She listened intently, sat back in her chair and smiled sadly. I don't know if she suddenly recalled something, or if she suddenly decided that, through my labors, I had earned her trust. Daddy-Yo and his sister Kate always did have a fierce work ethic.
Ever hear of the Dial family? she asked me.
I guess I had. They are a prominent family in the area, to this day. They are neighbors.
Well, the Dials had been slave owners, Kate said. Right up to the 1950s. In the little sleepy Sumter County town of Boyd. They whupped black people.
I raced to the local library. It was there, in old newspaper clips. Two Guilty of Slavery
Birmingham, Ala. -- Two prosperous Alabama brothers were found guilty tonight of holding Negroes in slavery. Fred N. Dial, 25 years old, and Oscar Edwin Dial, 34, were . . . convicted of conspiracy to hold Coy Lee Tanksly, 25, of Klindike, Miss., and Hubert Thompson, in voluntary servitude by acts of violence.
Fred Dial also was convicted on a peonage count involving Mr. Thompson. The jury held that Dial forced him to work in payment of an alleged debt.
The government charged that Mr. Thompson died three days after he was beaten when he attempted to escape from the brothers' farm in West Alabama last year.
. . . Witnesses said Thompson was tied by the neck, feet and waist with ropes to a bale of hay and beaten by eight men with ropes.
The date was May 14, 1954. It was one of the last slavery convictions in the United States. The brothers Dial, of Sumter Co., Ala., received prison sentences. Eighteen months apiece.
One of the most prominent families in town. Still respected.
I began to understand something about the silence of my great-aunt Kate, the silence of Sumter County, the specter of slavery. I am writing this on a day in 1996 when yet another black Southern church was burned to the ground.
Daddy-Yo's old friend Cleveland is still alive, still living in rural Alabama. I spoke to an old friend of his, Booker T. Larkin, who told me that in the years he has known him, Cleveland never talked about his time in the Delta. Never said a word. Never confirmed its truth. Larkin explained that old black people in those parts still have a fear of the plantation, and it mutes them.
Sure enough, when I phoned Cleveland and told him what I wanted to talk about, he hung up on me.
Then his wife took the phone, and said he would have nothing to say about this. Nothing. Ever.
I wanted to pursue it, to go to his door, to explain what I was doing, to urge him to say how he had suffered so we could all understand and benefit. To demand that he tell his story. That is what I wanted to do, as a writer.
But as a black man, I decided to let him be. CAPTION: A scene during the 1921 trial of John S. Williams, Georgia peon master convicted of murdering plantation slaves. CAPTION: Above and below, newspaper articles from the 1920s and '30s chronicle the scandal of slavery long after the Civil War.