A Different "American" History
I have three moms, my birth mother, Walterine, Mom Stein, and my dad’s current wife, Mom Valerie. I decided to interview Mom Stein about her upbringing in the South and was blown away with her personal accounts of America’s sharecropping system.
Mom Stein: Mississippi was horrible. I born and raised there and experienced things that you will never understand. To live under the reign of a white man. Black folks didn’t have anything except what white folks allowed them to have. I’m talking about slavery. The white man owned the land, the mules, the people. The black man lived on the white man’s land. It was a plantation. The white man built little houses, we called shacks, for the black people on his land. As far as you could see, the land was his.
Me: Mom, why did you feel like you were a slave?
Mom Stein: When you don’t own anything, the horses, cows, houses animals. They (the black families) worked his plantation. Slavery still existed in Mississippi. A lady came to where we lived; she wanted to write a book on what she saw. She stayed with one of the families.
Me: Did the plantation owner know that she was writing a book?
Mom Stein: Oh, child, please. No. We didn’t tell him.
Me: Mom, you said slavery. You were born in 1943, so we’re talking about the 1950s. Slavery ended in 1865, so do you mean slavery like that? Did the owner beat the people with whips?
Mom Stein: Yes slavery. Beatings, they didn’t happen that often but every now and then, when it became necessary to get his point across, he hit them. The ones who were rebellious or got out of line.
Me: Why didn’t they leave? Run away?
At this point, my Mom Stein began to describe a “mindset” that she said, “I wouldn’t understand.” She said, “there’s a life you have no concept about it because you have to be a part of it to understand.” She referred to the people as slaves born on a plantation. But she was talking about the 1940s and ‘50s. She talked about people being bought and sold not at slave auctions but in transactions between what she called sharecroppers. I asked her if that happened to her parents, and she said no. But she added that she knew of people who had been sold. I asked her again in shock and unbelief if she meant people being bought and sold, and she said yes.
I knew from my research for this book that in the South black prison inmates were sold to landowners to work the land. These inmates had no rights and were the property of the landowner who bought them. My research also introduced me to the term “peonage” (see below), but I had never heard anything like what Mom Stein described. Douglas A. Blackmon’s book, “Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II” is “a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the “Age of Neoslavery,” the American period following the Emancipation Proclamation in which convicts, mostly black men, were “leased” through forced labor camps operated by state and federal governments.” Here’s an excerpt from that book:
Slavery v. Peonage
Peonage, also called debt slavery or debt servitude, is a system where an employer compels a worker to pay off a debt with work. Legally, peonage was outlawed by Congress in 1867. However, after Reconstruction, many Southern black men were swept into peonage though different methods, and the system was not completely eradicated until the 1940s.
In some cases, employers advanced workers some pay or initial transportation costs, and workers willingly agreed to work without pay in order to pay it off. Sometimes those debts were quickly paid off, and a fair wage worker/employer relationship established.
In many more cases, however, workers became indebted to planters (through sharecropping loans), merchants (through credit), or company stores (through living expenses). Workers were often unable to re-pay the debt, and found themselves in a continuous work-without-pay cycle.
But the most corrupt and abusive peonage occurred in concert with southern state and county government. In the south, many black men were picked up for minor crimes or on trumped-up charges, and, when faced with staggering fines and court fees, forced to work for a local employer would who pay their fines for them. Southern states also leased their convicts en mass to local industrialists. The paperwork and debt record of individual prisoners was often lost, and these men found themselves trapped in inescapable situations.
Peonage and post-Civil War slavery was also forced upon the Native Americans. Here’s an excerpt from William S. Kiser’s book, “Borderlands of Slavery: The Struggle over Captivity and Peonage in the American Southwest (America in the Nineteenth Century)”:
“Winner of the 2018 Historical Society of New Mexico Gaspar Pérezde Villagrá Award
It is often taken as a simple truth that the Civil War and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution ended slavery in the United States. In the Southwest, however, two coercive labor systems, debt peonage—in which a debtor negotiated a relationship of servitude, often lifelong, to a creditor—and Indian captivity, not only outlived the Civil War but prompted a new struggle to define freedom and bondáge in the United States.
In Borderlands of Slavery, William S. Kiser presents a comprehensive history of debt peonage and Indian captivity in the territory of New Mexico after the Civil War. It begins in the early 1700s with the development of Indian slavery through slave raiding and fictive kinship. By the early 1800s, debt peonage had emerged as a secondary form of coerced servitude in the Southwest, augmenting Indian slavery to meet increasing demand for labor. While indigenous captivity has received considerable scholarly attention, the widespread practice of debt peonage has been largely ignored. Kiser makes the case that these two intertwined systems were of not just regional but also national importance and must be understood within the context of antebellum slavery, the Civil War, emancipation, and Reconstruction.
Kiser argues that the struggle over Indian captivity and debt peonage in the Southwest helped both to broaden the public understanding of forced servitude in post-Civil War America and to expand political and judicial philosophy regarding free labor in the reunified republic. Borderlands of Slavery emphasizes the lasting legacies of captivity and peonage in Southwestern culture and society as well as in the coercive African American labor regimes in the Jim Crow South that persevered into the early twentieth century.”
It is hard to identify with the “historical” accounts of peonage; they seem too distant. But hearing them from Mom Stein’s accounts of her life isn’t any easier. It still seems unbelievable, yet as she shares it, I know it's real and all the more unnerving. She not even 80 years old. I’m 55, so these accounts are a just historical stone’s throw away from me. Yet, I can’t reconcile them with my own life and what I know about America and life in America.
Mom Stein: The black man didn’t own anything. There was a saying the white man owned the land, he owned the man, and he owned the mule. The black man didn’t own anything but his own black skin. They did auction off people to work the land. It wasn’t just one white family that owned the land. It was all of the white people and their families. They owned everything. We chopped cotton for $2 a day. There was eight of us. I was the oldest. The older four me, James, Sonny, and Ethel we started working on the plantation somewhere around the age of 10, 11, or 12. We went to school until we got old enough to chop cotton.
Me: Mom, what did you do before age 10? Did you go to school? Did they let you go to school? Who decided when you were supposed to stop school?
She told me that her mother died when she was young, and the older four siblings decided when each one would drop out of school to work the plantation so that they could take care of the younger ones.
Mom Stein: We got paid for chopping and picking his cotton. He took out of that what he thought was his due for picking his cotton, corn, and beans. We were the ones that took care of that plantation.
Me: Mom, my dad said that the sharecroppers owned a store on the land that his family sharecropped on. Did these owners have a store?
Mom Stein: He had a big store, and we’d buy clothes from him out of his store. He owned that store. That store had whatever was needed for his people, food clothing. We bought everything we needed to survive.
Me: Mom, what about medicine, like aspirin, cough syrup?
Mom Stein: Aspirin, Tylenol, cough syrup, whatever you needed. Other owners had stores too.
I then began to ask my mom how she got out off of the plantation. She told me, “we saved up money to leave there and come to St. Louis.” I asked her how they could possibly save any money being paid so little and then having to buy everything from the sharecropper’s store. She laughed and gave praise to God for being able to get it done. She talked about how the two oldest boys came to St. Louis first and got jobs, one at a large “905” liquor store, paving the way for the others to come.
As I’m writing this, I think of the stories of immigrants banding together to be successful in America. These people came from terrible conditions in their home countries in Europe, Asia, Mexico, Africa, etc. But we are talking about black people, in the 1950s and ‘60s, descendants of many several generations of US citizens, escaping the horrible system of sharecropping in the South.
I still couldn’t grasp how she got out of such a horrible system in which she claimed people were still being sold as late as the 1950s. She said that things changed as she got older that people would no longer put up with the sharecropping system. She said that’s why it changed. She said as blacks got older, they left Mississippi. She shared that typically when the men became adults, they would go to cities like St. Louis and Chicago because others had left and got jobs in these cities. She said the women were more likely to stay versus leave alone to go to a new city.
As much as I love Mom Stein, I still could not believe that people were still being sold, whipped, and treated as slaves in America as late as the 1950s. I support charities that rescue women and men out of sex trafficking, but I still could not believe what I was hearing. When I got off the phone, I immediately started searching the internet for accounts of black people being held as slaves, even as late as the 1950s. It didn’t take very long to find the clip below.
The clip below details the work of a genealogist whose work has been to uncover the existence of post-civil war slave transactions, some as late as the 1960s. Many are familiar with the work of Alex Haley, the author of the critically acclaimed book “Roots.” Alex Haley painstakingly traced his family all the way back to its African origins. Using the same type of search tools through public records and eye-witness testimony, “Antoinette Harrell, the ‘slavery detective of the South,’… tracks down cases of modern-day slavery and abusive labor practices.”
Ms. Harrell’s work confirmed everything terrifying thing that Mom Stein told me and worse. Some people who tried to leave sharecropping systems in rural portions of Mississippi were forcibly returned to the plantation and most often killed. One elderly man that she interviewed didn’t hear any news of the landmark civil rights actions of the 1950s, such as the Supreme Court decision “Brown vs. The Board of Education.” He didn’t learn of civil rights efforts until the protest marches of the mid-1960s.
I include things like this in this book to show that in many ways, African Americans have a different history than the “American” history that we read about in the schoolbooks. I have known Mom Stein since I was 11 or 12. I have never heard these stories. I would likely never have asked her about them unless I was writing this book. I’m sure many readers of this book have never heard of accounts like this either. It’s only when we understand the history of others, their upbringings, their sufferings, that we can understand why they might think and act “differently” and even have a “different” perception of America and what “America” stands for. It is my hope that after we read these types of accounts of the manifestation of the spirit of racism in America that we can recommit to uprooting racism wherever we find it.
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