Monday Moanin’: Your high school history teacher got it all wrong

By Jeff Salisbury

President Abraham Lmister journalism2incoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, as the nation approached its third year of its bloody civil war. The proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” What if they weren’t? What if for the next 80 years, or more, slavery, by another name, still existed? What if your high school history teacher got it all wrong?

I love history. Always have. In large part I owe that to being fortunate enough to have a terrific American and World History teacher in high school – Charles Badura – World War hero – twice a POW – though he never talked about his experiences. First year I taught full-time was at Lansing Catholic Central and as luck (or not) would have it, I was told I’d be teaching a world history course. I managed to stay a chapter or two ahead of the students.

But I digress. Back to the book I am reading. I always appreciate learning something new about history or perhaps a slightly different take or point of view. But this interview took me down a path I never expected.

My wife Penny bought me an gift certificate for my birthday the past November and I used it to purchase a Kindle Fire. For several years I’ve had a Kindle app on my laptop but never really used it. Oh, I ordered and downloaded books from Amazon but most I just never got around to reading. Likely the ones I did I can review here another time.

Turns out I love the Kindle. Best gift Penny ever helped me give to myself.

There’s this one book I’m reading now though I want to tell you about: “Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues” –  It is a series of interviews – transcripts actually- from Moyers PBS series – a number of which Penny and I watched on our local public broadcasting channel.

Fascinating people and interviews – each its own chapter – Jon Stewart on politics and media to Michael Pollan on food, “The Wire” creator David Simon on the mean streets of our cities, James Cone and Shelby Steele on race in the age of Obama, Robert Bly and Nikki Giovanni on the power of poetry, Barbara Ehrenreich on the hard times of working Americans, and Karen Armstrong on faith and compassion – and one of the most remarkable “chapters” was an interview with reporter/author Douglas Blackmon.

Here’s summaries of the Moyer’s Interview with Blackmon; a summary of Blackmon’s book and finally the documentary.

It’s not an exaggeration to say I was amazed what I thought I knew about slavery, the Civil War, the Reconstruction, the Southern version of the Industrial Revolution and even the first half of the 20th century and the modern Civil Rights Movement.

After watching and reading and watching… boy oh boy, I got almost all of it all wrong.

Watch the Interview –
Bill Moyers interviews Douglas Blackmon, the Atlanta bureau chief of the WALL STREET JOURNAL, about his latest book, SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME, which looks at an “age of neoslavery” that thrived from the aftermath of the Civil War through the dawn of World War II.


Watch the Documentary –

Slavery by Another Name “resets” our national clock with a singular astonishing fact: Slavery in America didn’t end 150 years ago, with Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Based on Douglas A. Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, the film illuminates how in the years following the Civil War, insidious new forms of forced labor emerged in the American South, persisting until the onset of World War II.
The film, shot on location in both Birmingham and Atlanta, is built on Blackmon’s extensive research, as well as interviews with scholars and experts about this historic period.  It also incorporates interviews with people living today, including several African American “descendants” of victims of forced labor who discovered their connection to this history after reading Blackmon’s book.


Read the Book –

Slavery by Another Name:

The Re-Enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II

In this groundbreaking historical expose, Douglas A. Blackmon brings to light one of the most shameful chapters in American history—when a cynical new form of slavery was resurrected from the ashes of the Civil War and re-imposed on hundreds of thousands of African-Americans until the dawn of World War II.

Under laws enacted specifically to intimidate blacks, tens of thousands of African Americans were arbitrarily arrested, hit with outrageous fines, and charged for the costs of their own arrests. With no means to pay these ostensible “debts,” prisoners were sold as forced laborers to coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, quarries and farm plantations. Thousands of other African Americans were simply seized by southern landowners and compelled into years of involuntary servitude. Government officials leased falsely imprisoned blacks to small-town entrepreneurs, provincial farmers, and dozens of corporations—including U.S. Steel Corp.—looking for cheap and abundant labor. Armies of “free” black men labored without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced through beatings and physical torture to do the bidding of white masters for decades after the official abolition of American slavery.

The neoslavery system exploited legal loopholes and federal policies which discouraged prosecution of whites for continuing to hold black workers against their will. As it poured millions of dollars into southern government treasuries, the new slavery also became a key instrument in the terrorization of African Americans seeking full participation in the U.S. political system.


And finally, if you like a bit more information about Moyers’ book – here’s a link…

I hope you will join me in getting it right since it’s one step toward understanding how the whole country got it all so wrong and hopefully learning from the experience by watching and reading.

As the slogan on my blog says – “Read, Share, Discuss, Learn”


  • Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkinson

    I taught business law for several years and we had to memorize dates as part of course work. I asked students to do a time line for me regarding important amendments to the Bill of Rights. Nothing was really mentioned in the text about the issues but when I saw the time line, I was appalled. It was almost 100 years after the emancipation that Black Americans were truly given an unrestricted right to vote. Because the poll tax was eliminated in 1968, not that long ago.

    My son Michael was an RA at GVSU and as part of their training they were required to read books to help understand the history of the population that they served. He was given the book, Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkinson. It made a huge impact on him and I asked to read it.

    Wow, was all I could say. I shared it with my students at EKHS and discussed it with staff members. It describes the lives of three different people and their families that lived in the south and their escape from the “slavery” to the north and what that journey looked like. This was the largest immigration in the United States and yet there is so little discussed about this in school.

    East Kentwood was unique because of its diversity which made it such a great place to learn and grow. Many teachers there in many disciplines researched and discussed this difficult topic on what really happened and students were willing to share as well.

    When I worked at Family Bookstores in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I was the buyer of Black Gospel and Southern Gospel music. My boss, Glenn Williams, who desired to be a history teacher at one point, shared with me for about this great migration because of its impact on the marketing of this music. I had never heard of it and yet it made a huge impact on me. Then I read this book and it solidified it.

    It is this awesome thing of instead of burying the truth, that the truth can set you free to make positive change. That is always my intention.

    Thank you, Jeff, for bringing this topic up and sharing this truth! So important!

  • Having lived in the Deep South in the 1960s, I can tell you this is indeed true. African Americans were mostly treated as less than full citizens, even less than human. The Civil Rights acts of the 1960s and 70s changed everything in unbelievable ways. After leaving the community in which I went to High School ( it was the capital of Georgia during the Civil War and burned by General Sherman), I returned in 1988. 18 years had passed and I could not believe the positive changes made in how African Americans were treated and accepted.

    If you love history you missed your calling; a career in the military could have allowed you to live and be a part of history. I would say changing history for the better, you would probably disagree.

    One point you missed was the “solid south” during that period 1865- 1968 was solidly in the Democratic Party.

Leave a Comment