Slavery Today

Episode 14

Enslavement didn’t end with Emancipation. Historian James Brewer Stewart discusses modern-day slavery happening across the world—and right here in the U.S.—showing educators how to connect the past with the present.


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Hasan Kwame Jeffries: On December 4, 1947, Elmore Bolling, a 30-year-old Black businessman in Lowndes County, Alabama, was murdered in cold blood near his home. An NAACP report documenting the lynching described Bolling's body as having been "Riddled by shotgun and pistol shots." Clarke Luckie, one of Bolling's white neighbors admitted publicly to having orchestrated the murder, and justified his actions by claiming that Bolling had insulted his wife over the telephone. 

But NAACP investigators uncovered the truth behind the killing. They found that Bolling was simply, and I quote, "Too prosperous as a Negro farmer." 

The lynching of Elmore Bolling was neither the first nor the last that occurred in Lowndes County during the century after emancipation. Whites lynched Theo Calloway in 1888. Will Jones in 1914. The brother Will and Jesse Powell in 1917. 16-year-old Neal Guin in 1931. Jim "Buck" Seles in 1933. Organizer Jim Press Meriwether in 1935. And Roosevelt Thompson in 1942.

I discovered these lynchings while conducting research for my dissertation about the civil rights movement in Lowndes County, and I was struck by the fact that none of the white people who had committed these atrocities hid their identities. No one wore a mask when they killed Black people in Lowndes County. And no one went to jail. So I swore that I would not only identify in my dissertation, the victims of racial terror in Lowndes County so that people would have to say their names, but I would also identify their murderers, so their names would be said, too. It was a promise I kept. I also promised a local grassroots activist that I would send her a copy of the dissertation when I was done. I kept that promise, too. 

Several years after I finished the dissertation, I received an email from Mrs. Jo McCall, the daughter of Elmore Bolling, who wrote to thank me for my research. Apparently, copies of my dissertation had been floating around Lowndes County like some kind of underground mixtape. And a friend of hers who knew she was looking into the death of her father, shared my work with her. 

Mrs. McCall explained, she was only three years old when her father was murdered. And that her only memory of him was seeing him shot dead. Her family never spoke of the killing, so she grew up not knowing what had happened. In her retirement though, she decided to discover the truth. And when she read my dissertation, she reached out for a copy of the NAACP report that I had found. This led her on a journey of discovery that culminated in her family dedicating a plaque at the site of her father's murder that documents his death as well as his life. 

The Elmore Bolling marker is less than a half-hour's drive from the newly-unveiled National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, which is dedicated to the victims of racial terror in America. Both the marker and the memorial tell a crucial part of the story of Black life in the century after emancipation. The story of the persistence of racial terror. Indeed, for a century after the end of the Civil War, the pattern and practice of exploiting Black labor to generate white wealth, which had been at the heart of the institution of slavery, continued unabated, albeit in new forms. And violence, which had been the cornerstone of slavery, continued to be the cornerstone of these new forms of slavery such as sharecropping and convict-leasing. Even today, violence is at the heart of the most common forms of un-freedom, such as mass incarceration.

The story of American slavery does not end with the ratification of the 13th Amendment, but continues into the next century and beyond. This is because a slaveholder mentality persisted. Whites throughout the South continued to believe that they were entitled to free Black labor, and had no problem using violence to get their way.

So today, we speak the names of those who were the victims of the most extreme forms of white supremacy. In Lowndes County, they were Theo Calloway, Will Jones, Will and Jesse Powell, Neal Guin, Jim "Buck" Seles, Jim Press Meriwether, Roosevelt Thompson, and Elmore Bolling.

We speak their names so we never forget what happened to them. We speak their names so we know what happened to slavery once the war was over and the constitution was amended. And we speak their names so we understand the new forms of slavery that exist today.

I'm Hasan Kwame Jeffries, and this is Teaching Hard History: American Slavery, a special series from Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. This podcast provides a detailed look at how to teach important aspects of the history of American slavery. In each episode, we explore a different topic, walking you through historical concepts, raising questions for discussion, suggesting useful source material, and offering practical classroom exercises.

Talking about students about slavery can be emotional and complex. This podcast is a resource for navigating those challenges, so teachers and students can develop a deeper understanding of the history and legacy of American slavery.

Slavery didn't just disappear in 1865. It evolved into other economic and legal systems, the legacy of which can still be seen today. And the outright practice of slavery continues throughout the world on a far greater scale than one might imagine. In this episode, historian James Brewer Stewart uses the pre-emancipation history of American slavery to make sense of modern enslavement. I'll see you on the other side. Enjoy.

James Brewer Stewart: Hey, my name is Jim Stewart, and I'm a retired professor of history who has studied the problems of slavery for a very long time, like about 40 years. Mostly interested in how slavery systems get abolished, and the more I studied that subject, the more it began to disturb me that slavery systems sometimes transform themselves without necessarily becoming abolished.

That became a realization that I thought I would work on real hard after I retired a few years ago, so I founded an organization called Historians Against Slavery. So what Historians Against Slavery does is try and take historical knowledge, perspective, and bring it to bear so that we can see this big, contemporary problem in the United States and all around the world that's really hard to focus on, which is called contemporary slavery.

And contemporary slavery has a lot of different definitions to it. It has a lot of different systems or forms connected with it. It's very complicated. It doesn't look at all like the old plantation slavery that you have been spending a lot of time coming to terms with. It does on the other hand, especially in the United States, have a great deal to do with the legacies of plantation slavery, that is segregation, marginalization, and some would argue the legacies of that slavery show up today in the discussions about the school-to-prison pipeline, in the prison-industrial complex, in a lot of issues having to do with criminal justice and law enforcement that probably are very much on the minds of your students. You've done a great deal of work working with your students to develop all kinds of knowledge about slavery in the American past and its resonance in the 21st century. And my job is to invite you to capitalize on that knowledge, their knowledge, as much as you can to be able to wrap your arms and get your students more to wrap their arms around the fact that today, across the world, there are more enslaved people than there have been in any other time in human history. That's a pretty staggering statistic. That's debated, but it's a statistic that, for the past decade, has been rising in increments of 10 to 15 percent annually.

The best analogy that you can make between the external costs of slavery, what slavery does to a society, what slavery corrupts in society, what slavery wastes in society, what slavery poisons in society, is very, very much like thinking about living next to a chemical plant. Shortened life expectancies. Loss of talent pools that normally create productive and abundant societies. Inefficiency. Driving down of wages of free people.

The whole idea that enslavement finally makes life miserable for everybody, is just like living next to a hog-slaughtering plant, or drinking polluted water, or living in Flint. The analogy between environmental consequences of the corruption of nature in the environment and the analogy to slavery as a corruption of human relationships with health consequences, production consequences, investment consequences, day-to-day living consequences, law enforcement consequences. The whole net effect of enslavement on the rest of society is like an environmental disaster. Because you've done so much work on American slavery, you do really have an opportunity when you come to this topic, to engage your students as to why history matters. You know a lot about slavery in the past, what does that tell you about now? How can we begin to tie together all kinds of information to be able to understand the current dilemma that really is one of the most important human rights issues, and one of the most difficult to deal with in the entirety of our time.

So what I'm going to do today is, present a few reasons why studying this subject can engage your students in a valuable and deep and participatory way, and also to suggest a few methods for doing that. And let's start by taking probably what would be the simplest road into the problem of contemporary slavery, which is to simply ask the question: what does it look like? And there are many, many ways that people are enslaved today. I mean, there were lots of occupational diversity in the old slavery, too. There were skilled artisans. There were field hands. There were people who were cooks. There were people who were sewers. There were people whose skills were so highly valued that they were rented out to other people to be able to do high-end craftsmanship and things like that.

In modern slavery, there's a tremendously large diversity of job descriptions as well. I mean, you can think about—a lot of it is just plain old hand-stoop labor. The idea of having to dig in the dirt with primitive tools, and tending crops or mining things, or turning raw material into crude building materials like building bricks, or mining the various products that go into making cement. The idea that this is low-end brute force industrial labor that, maybe under other conditions if you were living in a high-tech modern industrial agricultural system, would be mechanized.

These are the tasks that enslaved people will do with picking crops, harvesting cacao, going into the rainforest and tearing down trees and getting rid of the ecology, chicken plucking. The whole business of working in assembly lines and animal disassembly plants. The whole idea of working long hours over a sewing machine. You can begin to get an idea of all these different forms of semi-skilled labor that are involved with doing the work that no one else wants to do, and that can be done far more cheaply if you take labor costs and drive them down to zero.

These are disposable people. When they've run out of what they can wring out of their hands and their muscles, they're gone. So there's a lot of just brute force labor of that kind. A second kind of enslavement that you can find in a number of different places is the kind of enslavement that is involved basically with sex. The same problems that create the vulnerability to this brute labor with your hands kind of slavery that I'm talking about, that is warfare, environmental displacement, natural disasters. The fact that well, right now one out of every three people in the world lives in a condition of food insecurity. That means that you're one meal away from being able to not to have enough calories to survive. There are lots of different forms that that takes that makes you vulnerable to being enslaved in the ways that I've described, or can make you desperate enough to volunteer to go into enslavement—and this happens a lot in Central Europe—volunteer yourself to go into sexual enslavement, sell yourself to somebody, become the agent of that particular master, or to sell your children this way. There is plenty of opportunity to envision conditions where people voluntarily say "Enslave me, or I die." That's pretty wicked.

There is also a form that has a lot to do with China and India called debt peonage or debt bondage. The idea is that 10 generations ago, the great family who lived on the hill lent a bunch of money to a family that lives way down in the gully. And it was promised that, until that interest and principal was paid on that loan, those lower people would work constantly for no pay until the loan was paid off to these higher people. Debt bondage in that way is a form of slavery that can be traced, since the principal of the loan is never paid off and the interest always compounds over a period of five and six generations. That's a traditional form of slavery that takes exception to everything else that I've said about now having to do with the kind of slavery that gives you no sense of community, no sense of family, no sense of tradition.

People who are in debt peonage in China and India have the ability to create a kind of communal bond that does seem very much like what African Americans were able to accomplish in slavery in the United States.

Another way that enslavement happens, and this is sort of the horror of parents across the United States and a lot of other places, is simply by the seduction of children through the internet, through captivity, through gradual addiction, through one drug after another to the point that you become homeless, streetless. There are a good number of sexual enslaved adolescents who have been kicked out of their household because of their sexual preference. Sex work is the way to be able to survive when there's not anything else that you can do. That vulnerability makes enslavement for sex work the easiest thing for exploiters who want to be in this kind of business to do.

There are a lot of people in the world who fit the technical and legal definitions of being enslaved, and you'll find them in all kinds of places. And a great deal of the enslavement that you'll find in the world is located in several very obvious places. One of the places where it's been traditionally embedded forever and ever and ever is in India. And in Southeast Asia. And in Pakistan. And in Mainland China.

Those are places that have long, long traditions of suppressing labor through a whole set of family hierarchies, clans. In India, it's castes, where certain people are innately interpreted as being the servants of other, stronger people. These are societies that have huge hierarchical bases, and so you'll find a tremendous amount, for example, of the contemporary enslavement of people in clothing factories for example. In brickyards. In mining. And in a lot of what happens in hotels and on the streets that has to do with sexual enslavement. That basically covers Southeast Asia, India, China and so forth.

Of our 46 million people that we're talking about all together, that is maybe 25 percent of that. But if you remember that China and India are also the big industrial, post-industrial engines of a global economy, and they're the places that are exporting to us a tremendous percentage of what's in everything from our cellphones to our tires, to the clothing that we're wearing, to a great deal of the food that we eat. One of the big places where slavery is very predominant in Southeast Asia and in China, is in shrimp farming. And the whole idea of going to sea with enslaved labor to catch fish. That's a very old form of slavery that you can find in lots of places in the world. But take your first chunk and that would be it.

A second place that you'll find a tremendous amount of enslavement is in different parts of Africa. Now, Africa, as you and I like to talk about, is really a western invention. Nobody who lived in that continent ever called themselves Africans until we did. There are a tremendous number of nations. If you talk to somebody from that continent, they're first of all, going to tell you that they're a Ghanaian, not an African, or they're going to tell you they're a Nigerian.

Nevertheless, there's a great deal of enslavement that goes on there in agriculture, in cacao plantations with the whole business of chocolate. The whole business of creating a lot of different sweets that come from sorghum, from a lot of other different agricultural products, that get built into stuff that we eat off the grocery shelf every day.

One of the biggest and most difficult parts of certain regions within Africa's enslavement is child soldiers. Now, this is some of the most horrible stuff that you can think of. These are children that are captured by rebel armies, religious fanatics, indoctrinated, drugged, abused, beaten, forced to kill other people, systematic rape, 'til finally you have the zombie that you want that can walk through the woods and systematically annihilate other people and burn villages.

You hear the flipside of all that with the occasional big headline about the disappearance of several hundred Nigerian girls from a school. Those are all people who've been turned into sex slaves. And there's a lot more going on in Africa than that. There's a good deal of mercantile or fishing slavery that takes place off the Horn of Africa, in Ethiopia. And you'll find the same kind of problems happening where you begin to see areas of—regions of the world deeply displaced by warfare. You've created an untold number of Middle Eastern people who are now enslaved for labor and sex in many different parts of the world. Consequence of what's happened to the Middle East since the US invasion of Iraq way back in 2003. Much of that labor has ended up in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Bahrain, and places like that are using enslaved labor to create their big cities, and to create all the wonderful amenities that go along with wealth.

To give you an example. New York University decided that they would build a campus in Qatar. They would have a Qatar campus where all the oil gazillionaires could send their kids. They began building a campus, and all of a sudden, labor investigators are coming back accusing New York University of employing slave labor. And they did. Did they know it? No. Did they try and get rid of it? Yeah. But what we're seeing then is another form of enforced labor that has to do with public works projects, has to do with private construction. Move further into Western Europe and into Eastern Europe, and you'll find—especially coming out of places like Romania, Bulgaria, Southeast Europe, Hungary, after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the tremendous amount of disruption that happened there, there's a tremendous out-migration of really impoverished peasants, women mostly. Some of whom are children who have been sold by their own parents into the sex trade in order to find temporary income for momentary survival.

I mean, we're getting down to things that are really raw, really crude, but the whole sex trade coming out of Southern Europe is really large, and it's mostly subsumed into Western Europe and into Italy. In the western hemisphere, in Brazil, one of the principal ways of being able to make steel is by making charcoal that's hot enough to be able to take metal and begin to heat it and bend it.

Making charcoal means chopping down trees, which means getting rid of rainforest, which means working with other forms of agricultural labor to strip the forest canopy away from the land, and create places where you can basically grow agricultural products at the expense of the ecology. The people out there with chainsaws doing that labor are usually overseen by guards with machine-guns.

The relationship between ecological devastation and enslavement, that's about as good an example as I can show you of that. And it gets you into a lot of other issues once you begin to start thinking about how different forms of enslavement. Labor enslavement of course has everything to do with the migration northward of displaced people from violent nations like Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. Which is all involved with this whole question of what we see at the border and unaccompanied children and families fleeing, seeking refugee status. There's a tremendous amount of enslavement that goes on along the way, where people are peeled off and turned into exploited labors, sex slaves, so forth and so on.

In the United States, you have all these forms of slavery going on right now, working in jobs that you wouldn't want to have in hotels, in laundromats, in fields, in factories, in agricultural labor, stoop labor, find people picking strawberries or tomatoes in the Panhandle of Florida, where the Justice Department will intervene and say, "That's slavery." Who are they working for? They're working for somebody who's called a boss, but who's actually finally implicated in working for say, Burger King.

I think the best site to look for in the United States, if you want to look at it, is the Polaris Project, and to see what forms of slavery are reported. There is a hotline number, which I should have memorized, where anybody who sees something that looks suspicious about slavery can use to call through the Polaris Project number and notify local authorities to do investigations.

As a consequence of that, Polaris has developed a series of maps of the kinds of slavery cases that have been prosecuted, how many, and where. You can get a real good profile of what slavery in the United States looks like, both as a system of exploited industrial and agricultural labor and as sex slavery by looking in sources like that.

It's a big sprawling subject that makes it very hard for you to simply assign a book. Especially if you're teaching high school kids. Which immediately raises the question, how do you find about contemporary slavery? There are terrific books, but if I had one single author to suggest to you, it would be a guy named Kevin Bales, who's written a number of really important books for general audiences introducing the problem of slavery globally, locally, in relationship to its implication in environmental disasters, tragedies and warfare, all over the world. Good English. Easy for you to read, easy for me to read. He's a great educator, but you can't assign Kevin Bales's book to an 11th grader.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This is Teaching Hard History: American Slavery. And I'm your host Hasan Kwame Jeffries. Now that we have a better sense of what contemporary slavery looks like, Dr. Stewart is going to talk about how students can use a comparative analysis of slavery then and now to better understand both the past and the world today. Once again, here's James Brewer Stewart.

James Brewer Stewart: Slavery past. Slavery present. How can the present and the past work together in order to be able to give us an idea of how we're grounded and how we shape the future? Can what we know about the past illuminate the present directly?

Think about it for just a minute, if you can. You've been studying a system that's called a system: plantation slavery. It's got a lot of different forms. It's got a lot of different connotations, but the idea that one way or another, this is or was a system. It was located in a series of very clear places, and it was run by people who were considered perfectly respectable human beings. They became presidents of the United States for example. They became members of Congress, they were leading clergymen. And the fact of the matter today is that slavery we're finding all around us, is for the large part for most of us—except if we're participating in it—invisible. Back then, it was easy to presume, with as much racism as you want to apply to the situation, that when you saw Black people you saw enslaved people, or people who had to prove that they were free.

Today, race matters, colors of skin matter, but there is no direct correspondence at all between being enslaved and being of any particular skin color. Visibility, invisibility. How do you make the invisible visible? The way to make the invisible visible is to do, well, basically a set of comparisons. And it's revealing to think about the day-to-day living conditions of enslaved people today, as opposed to the slavery that students have been studying. The secret to the old slavery from the standpoint of living conditions was the fact that in the United States, the enslaved population reproduced itself. And this is very unusual, because this didn't happen in other Africanized enslaved systems in places like Brazil and Cuba. Parents had children. Children had to be taken care of. Older people had to be looked after.

In other words, while there's no recognition of enslaved marriage, there's a deep recognition by the master class that there is such a thing as slave families, and that families can be systematically either rooted up if you can make money off them, or kept together if you can make money off them. The idea back then was that slavery was profitable because it involved reproduction. And you found people concentrated together having the opportunity to create enslaved communities. The idea therefore, is that there is a stable place for enslaved people to live for a long enough period of time to create relationships, to develop an informal economy, to develop their own expressions of spirituality, to create their own understanding of the relationship between work and society and nature and so forth. And by the time you're done, you've created the origins of African-American culture, which is one of the biggest, most creative, most thriving and dominant things that we have in the United States, period. Sorry, but that's just true.

And that all comes from the idea of the rootedness of the enslaved experience in the United States. Absolutely different for enslaved people today. Enslaved people are on the move, they're under the radar, they're moved from place to place. They go where the person who is trading them sells them to. They are set up in such a way as to be masqueraded to avoid authorities, except in places where enslaved prostitution is so obvious like Bangkok, where enslaved people are basically selling their bodies behind glass windows on the street.

For the most part, enslaved people live lives that are completely fractured, totally marginalized. Where there is no real strong sense of collective ability to resist. There's no way to be able to show in contemporary slavery, any form of mass upheaval against slavery, great slave insurrections like Nat Turner's or Gabriel Prosser's, because slavery is so highly fragmented and so—or agitated, so under the radar and so widely distributed.

And in that way, slavery is no respecter of skin color. The fact that African American people knew one another from the fact that they had African backgrounds, that they had become African Americans, that they were an ethnicity, that they were a new ethnicity. The first generation of enslaved people came to these shores seeing themselves as Africans. Two generations later, these are African Americans, who have a completely different collective orientation about how to deal with the world and with one another and with people who are going to oppress you.

There's no sense of that kind of ethnicity really at all, unless you take very clear exceptions like the caste system in India, where the untouchables know that they're untouchable. That's one you can set to aside. But for the most part, enslaved people live on the margin of starvation, on the margin of being completely overworked and isolated. The common problem in the United States are isolated enslaved people from one part of the world who are working as enslaved house servants, never getting out of the house, for some rich other person who comes from another country who's accustomed to having that kind of labor. So, it's a difference really between collaboration and isolation. The idea of being able to create a historical memory of your people, as opposed to not being able to do that.

I do have one suggestion for teachers so that there's at least a way to open an easy door to this complex set of comparisons between the slavery that your kids have been studying, and this awful variegated form of slavery that seems to be all kinds of different things that I'm introducing you to.

And I've suggested already that comparison is a really good but difficult thing to try. So try by offering a very simple example. You can use any element to do this, but I like to use dogs.

Okay. On the one hand, I have a Chihuahua sitting in my left hand inside of a teacup. At the meantime, I'm riding on the back of a Great Dane, okay? One I'm mounted on, the other one I'm carrying. You can't imagine a bigger set of contrast between animal organisms than a Chihuahua and a Great Dane. Got it? Good.

Okay. At the same time our mind naturally takes us to a point where we intuitively begin to understand that there is a common quality of dogness that these two very different organisms share. And you can really appreciate the Chihuahua's very small size, or the Great Dane's enormous capacity to take up space, by seeing the one through the lens of the other. Do you see what I mean? You appreciate each of them for their distinctive qualities much more if you understand that they have shared common qualities of dogness. They all have tails.

We do this sorting and comparing all the time. It's something that's inured in our minds in such a way that Plato and Aristotle used to argue about how we do it. Which was the reality? Was the reality in the distinctive features of the Chihuahua on the one hand and the Great Dane on the other? Or was the reality in the abstract essence of dogness between them? Aristotle thought the first, Plato the second. You can do the same thing with slavery systems.

The more you know about the power and detail and unity and comprehensiveness of slavery in one place—the plantation system that you've been studying, the better you're grounded in that, the more rapidly you're going to see the comparisons and contrasts with all those other systems. And you'll find at the same time that the essence of slavery is this brutalization of people, the commodification of bodies, the claim of one morally bankrupt person that he or she can control, not only the body, but the mind and the soul of someone else. Specifics, generalities.

So I think the idea of doing that kind of comparison, and starting with something very simple. You're trying to find how to see each representation of slavery for what it is by comparing it to another one. And the one you know best is the one you've been studying.

Let's just try family for one. You know some things about enslaved families in the South. Enslaved families in the South were vulnerable. Enslaved families in the South were nevertheless, to the extent that the master thought that it was in his interest, located in a certain place and capable of being able to be socially reproduced from one generation to the next, correct? Got that?

Okay. That first look seems like, and I'm going very slowly here, stability. Hop over here to a isolated young woman from Romania who is now sexually enslaved in a brothel someplace in Paris with five other younger women from many different parts of the world. The contrast between the two seem absolutely enormous, don't they? Skin color, common heritage, community, social reproduction from one generation to the other, on the one hand. Anonymity, marginalization, loss of culture, loss of linguistic ability. Remember, these people can't talk to each other because they all speak different languages. You begin to see both systems more clearly by seeing these huge colliding and contrasting differences, right? Are we clear so far?

Dig, dig, dig, dig deeper. The whole problem of sexual exploitation within slavery in the old South, first of all, it's constant. It's everywhere. And what is one of the greatest fears and debilities of enslaved families—and women particularly in the South? Having your children stolen from you? Being involved in a tremendous amount of forced sex?

The commentators at that time, from 1700s on into the 1900s, are talking over and over again about how this new mixed race of black and white is showing up in the slave society, and that's why it's important to have this one drop rule. Only one drop, supposedly, of African American blood makes you a slave. That's a huge testimony to sexual exploitation, to marginalization. It's done on the basis of intimacy. The planter lives next door. You sleep in the next room. The overseer gets drunk and comes into your cabin and takes your wife or your child. These same kind of vulnerability, of sexual exploitation, violence, criminality, can be found in the Paris brothel.

Looks different. Is different. The comparisons are important. The comparisons are absolutely necessary to understand. But at the same time, there is this essence of enslavement which involves the exploitation and violation constantly of bodies and souls. And in that sense, the brothel in Paris with five women all speaking different languages, all being exploited by anonymous men, is both profoundly different and even more profoundly the same as the situation of people living enslaved in the deep South before the Civil War.

So comparative analysis is really, really important. And the idea, remember, is to try to appreciate and see more clearly the differences between each of them from the other by doing this, while at the same time connecting them in one way or another.

There's a wonderful set of websites put out by the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. I'll say that again, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which is an institution, really important, that actually shows exhibits of both kinds of slavery. You step on one side of the aisle, you see a big set of representations about the African American system that you've been studying. Hop across the atrium to the other side of the aisle, and all of a sudden you see exhibits of a kind of slavery that looks so different from the one you just saw, that the question of building the bridge between them is what becomes really important. And it seems to me it's websites like that, particularly what you'll find on the National Underground Railroad Freedom site, that will allow you to start to make these comparisons.

So slavery past and slavery present becomes a way to take the knowledge that you have of the plantation system, the way it was enforced, the way people survived, the way that people in enslaved situations created culture, built institutions, were able to resist, and how they were treated in a variety of different context in the slave trade and so forth, and bring that to bear on questions of contemporary slavery today.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You are listening to historian James Brewer Stewart discuss contemporary slavery. This is Teaching Hard History: American Slavery, and I'm your host Hasan Kwame Jeffries. Do you have any questions about how to teach American slavery in your classroom? We want to hear from you, our listeners. In an upcoming episode, we are going to answer as many of your questions as possible. And if you have a story about teaching American slavery to your students, we'd love to hear that, too. You can reach us at Once again, here's Dr. Stewart.

James Brewer Stewart: The slavery that you've been studying is easy to document because it was always legal. Everything was bill-of-sale. Everything had an insurance policy. Everything had a bill of transfer. Everything had a law. Everything had a code. Slavery got into the census all over the place because it was property. When it's legal, it's easy to document, and when it's legal it's easy to define who is enslaved and who is not. If you have a price tag around your neck and somebody else has written on it, stamped on it "paid," you're enslaved.

Today, the problem is that slavery is completely illegal. It's a criminal enterprise. Theoretically, every country in the world, including North Korea, has a anti-slavery law that says, "No slavery here." Now, that doesn't mean those laws are enforced, but that does mean that every element of enslavement that you want to look at today, as opposed to the one that your students are more familiar with, is a system that operates outside the law. Is up for grabs. Can take any more of a number of different forms.

And probably the best example to give you of how different it all is, depending on legal and illegal, is the fact that in 1850 say, in Mississippi, a prime male field hand of 25 years of age, his value adjusted for inflation in today's dollars would be worth about a medium-price Lexus. Kevin Bales' first book about contemporary slavery is entitled Disposable People. A Lexus on the one hand, people you can just throw away and use up on the other hand.

In other words, when slavery is a legal system, it involves making an investment. When slavery is an illegal system, it involves a kind of exploitation with an unlimited labor supply that you really don't pay for, and that you have no real incentive to try and sustain. The average length of survival on the streets of Bangkok of an enslaved sex worker is approximately four years. By that time, either some socially-transmitted disease or just general abuse or whatever finds that person homeless, without income, and facing death. That's not what happened in the plantation South.

A way to be able to get students engaged is to just have them think about what terminology we use. How can slavery be defined? What does and does not today constitute actual enslavement? And this is very, very important. The idea of knowing what precisely slavery means today is a real problem. We use the term all the time. People can say that they're enslaved to tobacco, that they're enslaved to bad relationships, that they're enslaved to their smartphone. It's a metaphor that we use for being dependent on things. And the idea that it has to have legal standing in order to be able to prosecute people in court for having exploited, by buying and selling and trapping and coercing people so that they can't walk away, that that's a jail sentence, that that's a thing that gets you in trouble, that you've crossed a legal line because it's illegal. It's very important to have that definition really, really clear. And—and when slavery hides in the woodwork, that's a very hard thing to do. But I think it's important for people to ask questions like, "How does enslavement differ from other forms of exploitation?"

One of the ways that this all gets discussed is talking about human trafficking.

This is really, really crucial question. Human trafficking is not the same thing as slavery. If I'm a desperate person and I pay some criminal to stuff me in a boat so I can get across the Adriatic, he's exploiting me but he's not keeping me. Do you understand the difference? But human trafficking can become slavery. Or people can traffic in enslaved people, okay? I have an enslaved person. I will sell that person to you. Do you see how the term "trafficked" gets bent around in different ways? Sometimes it means slavery, sometimes it doesn't.

I think the real important thing to understand is the basis of the master-slave relationship in our time is based on nothing but pure force. You can't walk away. You have no choice but to be there. There is a great big body of law that's come out of the United Nations and a number of other places, protocols of one kind or another that define modern slavery as what it is even though it's illegal.

In other words, if—if it's illegal, the idea that you should be able not to be in it is the first thought that you have. The second thought that you have to have after that, is that what keeps you there is somebody who is, in one sense or another literally or figuratively, someone with the power to slice your throat. You don't walk away because you can't walk away. You stay there because you don't have any alternatives.

If you have an alternative, if somebody says, "Why don't you do something else?" And you're able to go home every night, cash your paycheck and come back on your own free will, then you're not enslaved, correct? I mean, if you're going to have a terrible job in a terrible place, say you're spending 16 hours a day in a chicken factory wringing chickens' necks or trying to pull feathers off them, that probably is about as bad a job as a human being can have. Is that the same thing as being enslaved if the person comes to work voluntarily every day? Now, that's a very difficult question to answer. It's a bad, bad, bad job, but you do have the freedom to leave.

Now, the person who's in that kind of situation could say back to you—and this is where it becomes very difficult—"If I leave this job, there's no other place for me to work. Either I accept these terribly low wages, because I am being paid. I take my paycheck and I walk away. I can be someplace else and report back to work, but from my point of view this is slavery anyway, because I have no other economic option." It's not like you have a gun pointed at your head or somebody about to slice your throat, but if you walk away you slice your own throat.

There are lots and lots of big problems and contradictions in what I've just said. And that's why the whole question of defining slavery as a legal crime, so that you can prosecute people in court and say, "All right, you're going away for 20 years because you did that, and that was slavery and we can prove it." You have to be able to have a body of law that proves that. You won't be able to prove that in the case that I gave you about the guy who's wringing chicken necks all day, goes home and chooses to come back because he has no other choice.

That will not be called slavery. That'll be called exploitation. That'll be called a tragedy. That'll be called a lot of awful things, but I don't think you could take the owner of that factory to court and prosecute him for slavery.

So precise terminology is really important.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This is Teaching Hard History: American Slavery. I'm your host Hasan Kwame Jeffries. Next in our discussion of slavery today, we're going to shift our focus back to U.S. history to answer the question: what happened to the institution of slavery after the Civil War and emancipation? Did state-sanctioned slavery end in America after 1865? Spoiler alert: not exactly. Here's James Brewer Stewart.

James Brewer Stewart: Another way to begin to get students to see the, you know, have an opportunity to use history to engage the present is to address this problem of slavery not being abolished. Now this is a really hard one. One of the most important moments in the whole of the history of slavery that you've been studying is the moment of emancipation. Four million people. Four million people who represented an aggregate, the second largest capital investment in the entire U.S. economy. You know, it's really hard to think about four million people representing all that. The only thing that was more valuable than they were was land. There's a great periodization moment that happens when all of that owned labor becomes free.

Slavery is formally by the United States government abolished. That's what the 13th Amendment says. And for the people who went through that transformation, that periodization is tremendously important. It's also become a national article of faith that slavery in the United States was abolished and has been abolished forever ever since then. Now, that's not true, and that's where the complication comes. You say to yourself, "Slavery was abolished in 1865," and suddenly we are a free nation and free society. Well, we're not. Not only do we have the problem that we are contending with now, with thinking about 46 million people, many of them in the United States, but to take the question of slavery in the United States further, the fact of the matter is that slavery for African-Americans became a continuing experience after emancipation, and I'm sure you've heard about a lot of this.

One of the most important challenges facing abolitionists—and remember I'm much more a expert on people who are trying to abolish slavery and the history of those people than I am actually of slavery itself. And the biggest challenge that people who are abolishing systems of slavery or hoping to face, is the idea of what happens next? And there's a great deal of evidence to show that when systems of slavery get abolished, they reformulate themselves again, and the term that Douglas Blackmon uses, "Slavery by another name," is one thing you can call them.

The idea is, there's a very famous abolitionist whose biography I've written, and I just love this man so much, his name is Wendell Phillips, and he was a great orator and philosopher of abolition. And when the 13th Amendment was passed, he immediately remarked, "We have abolished the slave but the master remains." And that's true. All of those enslaved people were suddenly not slaves anymore, but who were they living right next to? Five and six generations of families that were accustomed to owning them. And they weren't going away. And they needed to put a crop in the ground. And they needed to get their lives back in order. And they didn't know how to do anything but grow cotton. And they didn't have any other source of labor except these same people who have just been emancipated.

What would you do under those conditions? You'd figure out as best you could, the closest thing to slavery that you could imagine, to get those people back on the plantation again and growing cotton and hoeing cotton for you. The initial push of emancipated people was for them to flee to the margins of the plantations and to start operating their own little farms, plump truck farms. Places where you could grow vegetables, places where you could begin to start to think about dairy industries, thinking about agricultural diversification, which is not the sort of thing that a plantation's really good at.

Planters had to stop that, so they did, by all kinds of uses of force and manipulations, and twistings of laws. After a while, you've got slavery by another name and a system called sharecropping. Now, sharecropping wasn't slavery but it was close. There was not slavery because the sharecropper, the person who is renting land for a very short period of time to grow cotton on for somebody who owns that land, gets to make a different deal every year and decide to move one place or another. He's not a slave.

But accompanying all that are systems of lynching, violence, disenfranchisement, stripping away of civil rights, all with the idea of creating a new labor regime that's going to approximate slavery as closely, as closely as it can be. Historians and political scientists have a name for this phenomenon, you can see it happening with the elimination of slavery systems all over the world. It's called labor substitution. Labor substitution means that you are trying to figure out what is the next available population to exploit, given the fact that the system that you've been using all this time has just been overturned.

In Cuba for example, when slavery ended, suddenly there is a tremendous influx of enslaved indigenous people from Mexico, and people from China that were suddenly growing sugar in Cuba right after emancipation. Boom. Boom. So this is all the consequences of slavery, and a good abolitionist is always trying to figure out how to keep labor substitution from working, how to make sure that the promise of freedom and equality is actually realized.

Well, when you look at the history of the American South, you'll find that from the moment of emancipation, the whole idea of creating tremendous legal disabilities against—and the actual re-enslavement of—African-Americans is everywhere, enforced by the same kind of violence that is commemorated in that big new lynching museum that everybody's talking so much about off in Alabama, which commemorates the loss of over 4,000 people to violent events that were community-sponsored and became big public celebrations all over the south: necktie parties. Are you free as a laborer when you know that around you are necktie parties? No. All this is slavery by another name, and moving forward and moving forward in time.

Is it possible to be enslaved without being owned by a master? Those are the kinds of questions that are asked over and over again about workers imprisoned for long periods of time who are working for less than 10 to 15 cents an hour and have no choice, creating goods and services for many different retail products and also for the Defense Department.

These are all questions that are open for debate. They're open for challenge. They allow students, it seems to me, to really talk about a lot of different things that are going on in their world, while at the same time having a historical basis of knowing what slavery was and was not.

Historians who are interested in the origins of today's modern prison-industrial complex, note what I've been talking about very seriously, and then begin to ask the question: Why is sentencing of people to long terms and maximum prison sentences so heavily disproportionately weighted towards dark-skinned people?

What is that makes it after those people end up in prisons, many of which are privatized prisons that are run by private corporations for profit, just like a plantation was, using free labor—labor that is free in the sense that it's not paid, not in the sense that it's liberated? Using no cost labor to produce billions and billions of dollars of goods for the retail market. For the military. The whole relationship between privatized prisons, unbalanced sentencing, differential sentences, and the prison-industrial complex and the school-to-prison pipeline, is all seen by any good abolitionist as the next set of adjustments being made in labor substitution, based at the same time on a tremendous animosity and hatred of dark-skinned people.

Is the prison-industrial complex slavery? That's a debatable point. Is the prison-industrial complex indebted to slavery for its existence is not debatable. In the 13th Amendment, there was what's called the exception clause, which said everybody who has been enslaved is free, except for people in prisons, people who've committed crimes. Now, you can see the logic of not wanting to free prisoners all over the United States who are kept in bondage for having committed crimes. But the fact of the matter is that that law was then bent by those same old guys who used to enslave people before 1865 to re-enslave them again after 1865 in prison convict labor, in debt peonage, in all kinds of different forms of slavery by another name. Some people call this neo-slavery, but you can see how it complicates 1865 for people. So slavery did end in 1865 and did not end in 1865. Yes and no. But. And. Well, it did. And it didn't. And history's that way.

And the idea of having your students hold in their heads the complications of what history actually challenges us to think about, is I think really an important moment of opportunity for teachers to be able to get students to start thinking about what narrative means. Does history come to a satisfying conclusion? Do things ever get settled? It's a challenge. It's not a memorization. And that's obviously what you're trying to show your students, is the real fun and the real gain in studying the past to begin with.

But you can cut through a whole lot of the confusion of when slavery was abolished, and if it was abolished, and what emancipation meant by picking up one single book. And it's a book called Slavery by Another Name. The author of that book won the Pulitzer Prize back a few years ago. His name is Douglas Blackmon. B-L-A-C-K-M-O-N. The nice thing about that book is that it's got some tremendous pictures, photos, that really do document post-emancipation slavery in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Virginia and so forth. The other thing that's important about that book is that Doug was able to parlay it into a film, which you can pick up off the internet, which is also called Slavery by Another Name. He has a website that also works with that.

Another way to be able to get into this by looking at one specific area, is to watch how a plantation in Louisiana [NB: Parchman was actually in Mississippi] called Parchman plantation that the Parchman family owned with a lot of slaves on it back before the Civil War, was immediately turned into a huge cotton field plantation prison after emancipation. It's called Parchman. The Parchman Prison. And the author of a book that writes about this is David Oshinsky, and the title of his book is Worse Than Slavery. So you have Slavery by Another Name, you have Worse Than Slavery, showing you the historical plantation slavery afterward roots of today's prison-industrial complex. And then I think if you want to really pull it all together, take one more book, take a long run at it, that would be Slavery By Another Name, [NB: title is incorrect. The book is actually titled The New Jim Crow], Michelle Alexander's book. Look it up, because there are websites that come off of it as well, and that takes the more recent origins of the prison-industrial complex.

So I've given you a few points to think about: the value of contemporary analysis, the need to define precise terminology, the vale of criticizing and accurately analyzing historical periodization, when slavery ended, 1865. So, being able to see how slavery continues, how slavery is manifested in your own life, gives you again a question of learning from history and asking the provocative question, "Do you care to do something about this?" It's not a political question that has to do with voting Republican or Democrat. It doesn't have anything to do with getting in trouble with the school board. It has everything to do with teaching social responsibility. And that, it seems to me, is also a tremendously powerful way, given students' knowledge of slavery past and present, to connect the local with the global.

Ask your students to go to a website called Slavery Footprint. This is where things get really hard and very personal, and I think good teaching can really happen. Slavery Footprint is a big computer-driven database that will allow you to input your own retail preferences for all kinds of things: shoes, shirts, jeans, food, cars, computers, whatever. And then once all that's put in there, what spits back is a profile of you and how much of what you consume is actually produced by slave labor living in the world today. The idea that slavery implicates us directly now through consumerism is, first of all, one way to be able to break down the narrative that slavery ended in 1865. It's another way to make it very personal, but in a way that is challenging rather than intimidating. For students to begin to see how the problem of slavery lives through history and comes into the present.

One of the best examples that I can think of for illustrating this point is chocolate. There's a wonderful, about 45-minute video called The Dark Side Of Chocolate, which is all about how cacao in West Africa is cultivated by enslaved children on cacao plantations and then slipped out to places like Nestle's, Cadbury, to be turned into all the different chocolates that we've become addicted to, and show up in your Snickers bar, your Mars bar, so forth and so on. And the whole question of how consumerism supports or works against slavery is really embodied in what chocolate bar you pick. Now, all of this is information that's available because their—the big industrial corporations around the world that are concerned about their reputations are, in a variety of different ways, trying to what they would say, "clean up their supply chains," by trying to keep enslaved labor out of the raw materials that create the finished goods that go into the parts that are assembled, or the food that you eat, and so forth and so on.

I'm very aware that I've been piling guilt on you guys all this time thinking about, "What do I do when Jim Stewart comes along and tells me about all these terrible dilemmas in the world, some of which I'm implicated indirectly, by the goods I consume, by the clothes that I wear? How do I as one lonely, solitary person deal with all this suffering and what's my moral responsibility if I have any at all? Or should I just feel crushed by this, and pessimistic, and should I just go back to seeing what PlayStation has to offer?"

The awful and beautiful fact about contemporary slavery is that there's contemporary anti-slavery. And that's the actual business that I'm in. Historians Against Slavery is a big group of scholars, teachers, students, activists, all together figuring out what to do about this problem. And the problem's different in every place, in every city, but there are certain common things you can do together. First thing that you can do that's really easy, is to educate other people. And educate them in such a way that you are teaching them to do something about it, rather than doing what I've been doing, which is just make you feel bad.

There are, for example on my college campus, there is an anti-slavery group which could just as easily be on your high school campus, that holds a Halloween party. And their Halloween party is something they prepare for by letting people know all kinds of things about chocolate, that subject I was talking about before. What kinds of gifts are you going to put in somebody's Halloween bag? What sort of chocolate are you going to eat on your own? Wouldn't it be good to show the film? Oh, there are these people that are boycotting Nestle's? Hmm, that's interesting.

Once you begin to dive into the problem of slavery, you get to what I think is the real miracle of anti-slavery. I started in this business when I was 72 years old when I retired from my college career, and took all the writing that I'd been doing, all those decades, about the problem of slavery and how to abolish it historically, and tried to put it in a really contemporary idiom.

You can see how I've done this by looking up on the web. You'll find a lot of things there. But more important from your point of view, you'll find out that there are groups of people all over the place. They're doing fundraisers. They're doing education projects that are raising awareness of all kinds of different issues in local communities, that are connecting problems of slavery to problems of hunger, urban marginalization, high school dropouts, drug problems. Once you begin to get involved in anti-slavery, there's so much opportunity to be able to pick the thing you're good at. All of us are good at different things. Some people are very, very good at using their hands and creating art. Other people are really good at analyzing problems by using numbers and computers. Other people are, you know, on and on you can go. And the nice and really wonderful thing about antislavery, is that it's an open system where you bring what you're good at.

People love volunteers, but they love volunteers who are able to contribute something. Contributing something means not reaching out to say, "Oh, my God! What am I going to do about 700,000 debt peonage people suffering in India?" The question is instead, "What am I going to do right here?"

I think about Frederick Douglass all the time, the great African-American abolitionist, who fought so hard against slavery in the United States before the Civil War, and so hard for racial equality afterwards. While he was doing that, he knew perfectly well that there was this system of slavery that was much, much bigger than the one he was fighting against that lived in Brazil. He understood that he had certain limits about what he could do, and that the United States was his ball of wax. And more important, when you look at his life more carefully, the city of Syracuse, New York, was his ball of wax. He lived in Syracuse. A lot of other African-American activists lived alongside of him. They created as strong and vibrant a free black anti-slavery community as they could put their hands on. They tried to create for themselves, and they did succeed to a certain extent, an anti-slavery city.

The idea is that your reach and your grasp should be the same, and we're all small people and we all have short arms. But at the same time, we have strong fingers connected to those arms, and we can reach around, and grasp opportunity and grasp each other in a way that we can work together. So I think the real answer to the problem of feeling immobilized is to realize that in—in all areas of life we are really small people and we are immobilized unless we're working on a scale that's the same size as us. And fortunately, that scale is available to each and all of us. And that's what I'd recommend.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: James Brewer Stewart is the James Wallace Professor of History at Macalester College, and the founder of Historians Against Slavery. He has published a dozen books on the history of the American anti-slavery movement, as well as numerous articles and reviews about the problem of slavery and the implications of how it was abolished in the United States.

In 2002, Dr. Stewart retired from teaching and turned his attention to addressing the institutions of contemporary slavery around the world, and throughout the United States.

Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Teaching Tolerance, with special thanks to the University of Wisconsin Press. They’re the publishers of a collection of essays called Understanding and Teaching American Slavery. In each episode, we're featuring a different scholar to talk about material from a chapter they authored in that collection. We’ve also adopted their recommendations into a set of teaching materials, which are available at These materials include over 100 primary sources, sample units, and a detailed framework for teaching about the history of American slavery. Teaching Tolerance is a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center—providing free resources to educators who work with children from kindergarten through high school. You can also find these online at

Thanks to Dr. Stewart for sharing his insights with us. This podcast was produced by Shea Shackelford—with production assistance from Tori Marlan and Veronica Rodriguez at Minnesota Public Radio. Our theme song is “Kerr’s Negro Jig” by the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who graciously let us use it for this series. Additional music is by Chris Zabriskie. I’m Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries—Associate Professor of History at The Ohio State University and your host for Teaching Hard History: American Slavery.

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