Source: Library of Congress
Thembi Duncan, a Teaching Artist at Ford's Theater, tweeted the picture yesterday. I had never seen it before and analyzing it was chilling. These young men are the same age as the students I teach. It's title: Juvenile Convicts at Work in the Fields and was taken around 1903.
I have a student who is researching Jim Crow and so I showed it to him and several other students. Their reaction was similar to mine. These are their age-mates. It made segregation and sharecropping and peonage real to them. The fact that this was some 40 years after the Civil War is as unsettling.
When we say slavery ended in 1865, we have to add an asterisk. It ended formally, but the sharecropping system and black codes reconstituted it into a legal status quo that we wouldn't address for another almost hundred years. It is always interesting for my students to realize that there was one group of people who could still be held as 'slaves'. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery except in the case of incarceration-where it was not uncommon for convict to be given 'hard time'. Southerners used that loophole to use the legal system to enslave generations of free blacks, whose only crime was being in the wrong place when a work crew was needed.
A great documentary on peonage--Slavery By Another Name. I've talked about this film before in a previous post.
Now, in regards to the title of this post... I know some of you are going to say that slavery then needs to end during the modern Civil Rights era--when most of the Jim Crow laws were struck down and peonage ended. We can argue that the affects of peonage and economics oppression of free blacks still has repercussions today, but that's not where I want to go. These are import issues about which to have a conversation, but I want to move out of the affects of the past to the affects of present.
In a post from a couple summers ago, I introduced Slavery Footprint. Slavery Footprint is a quiz you can take to assess how modern day slavery and human trafficking affects you by looking at what you buy, what you eat, what you drive and where you live. The goal of the website is not to shame but to educate. I took the quiz again just now and I currently have 45 slaves working for me. That is still too high, but I am a work in progress... What I like about the website is that, in addition to challenging us to look in the mirror as consumers, it gives us steps to take. I can't change my past, but my actions can change the future.
Slavery isn't done with me ... and I am okay with that. Thembi's picture reminded me that I still have work to do in this area. Its hard to admit and even harder to change, but I honestly believe that, by confronting a painful past and a present laced with landmines I sometimes (in my short-sightedness and apathy) don't know even exist, I grow.