Sharon Malone is already well known in certain circles: Ivy League-educated IBM systems engineer turned Ob/Gyn to some of Washington's best-connected women. Wife of Eric Holder, the nation's first black attorney general. Sister of the late Vivian Malone Jones, the first African American to graduate from the University of Alabama, class of ’65, segregationist Gov. George C. Wallace be damned.
Now she is making her public television debut as a niece of the long-departed Henry Malone. Arrested in 1910 in rural Alabama when barely 21, for Lord knows what, her father's older brother was jailed for a year and a day. Apparently he was never the same thereafter.
“As best as I can put the story together, it was alcohol-related, a really minor thing, selling it, or he was drunk.” But the punishment totally dwarfed the alleged offense, said Malone, who as a child knew her uncle only as “a very churlish and sour old man” in his 70s.
Although she never saw him smile, and she never learned what he had endured, Uncle Henry could arguably be counted among the lucky. At least he survived his unspeakable, unspoken ordeal.
Now, along with a number of historians and descendants of post-Emancipation victims and victimizers, Malone adds her own family story to “Slavery by Another Name,” which airs Feb. 13 on PBS.
Henry Malone's real crime, of course, was being black in the Deep South between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War II. Over that time, a shocking 800,000 African Americans were run through corrupt courts that jailed a majority of them on false or flimsy charges, imposed sky-high fines they could not pay and then leased them into forced labor.
By the late 1800s, tens of thousands of vulnerable freed blacks were made to work in white-owned coal mines, turpentine camps, steel mills, road gangs and farms, explains Douglas Blackmon, co-producer of the film, which is based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning history of this little-known part of American history.
“The number of people arrested never had anything to do with how much crime was being committed, but how much labor was needed,” Blackmon told me. The convicts, including a small percentage of black women, were underfed, overworked, tortured, sold or murdered with impunity, all in the name of replacing former slaves with the cheapest possible workers.
“It wasn't just that bad things were done to black people, but the level of highly synchronized brutality stripped them of all opportunity for 70 years,” he said.
Malone signed onto the project to add historical context to the grim and prolonged struggle faced by African Americans from Virginia to Texas. “I want people to understand the engine that fueled the mass migration out of the South. My parents never, ever, ever told me about how terrified they must have been growing up on farms in the rural ‘black belt’ of Alabama before they came to Mobile. But the effect was chilling on everyone around you. Talk to any African American and everybody has a story about some family member who had to get out of town in the middle of the night.”
What Malone — whose parents left the farm for menial wartime jobs in Mobile and stayed to raise eight children — also brings to this wrenching narrative is “an astonishing historical irony,” says Blackmon, who grew up in Mississippi and still has family in Louisiana.
“The system that victimized her uncle and produced a whole string of U.S. attorneys who wouldn't touch these cases had her marrying a man who became the first black attorney general.”
To promote “Slavery” before it airs, Malone has appeared on panels with others who bare their ancestral secrets onscreen. That includes Susan Tuggle Burnore, the white great-granddaughter of John S. Williams, who went to prison in 1921 for the murder of 11 black prisoners who worked on his Georgia farm.
Until Burnore learned the truth 15 years ago through another book, the story “had been whitewashed by the family, no pun intended: That he worked hardened criminals on the farm and some of them tried to escape, and in attempting to recapture them he accidentally killed one.”
In truth, when suspicious feds confronted Williams about reports that he was holding his convicts in peonage, he panicked. Then he arranged to destroy the human evidence. Some men were bludgeoned with axes, others weighted down with chains or bricks and thrown off bridges. One was made to dig his own grave.
“It was amazing that justice was actually done,” Burnore told me, though real change was slow in coming. Williams's imprisonment was “an anomaly, absolutely freakish, not because people were killed but that someone was held accountable.” Indeed, her great-grandfather was the only white man in Georgia convicted of murdering a black in some 90 years, from 1877 to 1966. He died behind bars.
Later this month, Malone goes to Atlanta to talk about her Uncle Henry, and the sense of loss that comes from knowing almost nothing about her parents' forebears. And yet she sees progress.
“My story is interesting because 100 years ago, the American government was, I wouldn't say complicit, but at least indifferent to the plight of African Americans. A mere century later, we have an African American president and an African American attorney general.”
Annie Groer is a former Washington Post reporter who writes about politics, culture and design. Her work has appeared in PoliticsDaily, Town & Country, More, the New York Times and TheAtlantic.com. She is at work on a memoir.