Publishers Weekly, November 5, 2007
Wall Street Journal bureau chief Blackmon gives a groundbreaking and disturbing account of a sordid chapter in American history—the lease (essentially the sale) of convicts to “commercial interests” between the end of the 19th century and well into the 20th.
Usually, the criminal offense was loosely defined vagrancy or even “changing employers without permission.” The initial sentence was brutal enough; the actual penalty, “reserved almost exclusively for black men,” was a form of slavery in one of “hundreds of forced labor camps” operated “by state and county governments, large corporations, small time entrepreneurs and provincial farmers.” Into this history, Blackmon weaves the story of Green Cottenham, who was “charged with riding a freight train without a ticket,” in 1908 and was sentenced to “three months of hard labor for Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad,” a subsidiary of U.S. Steel. Cottenham’s sentence was extended an additional three months and six days because he was unable to pay fines then leveraged on criminals. Blackmon’s book reveals in devastating detail the legal and commercial forces that created this neoslavery along with deeply moving and totally appalling personal testimonies of survivors. “Every incident in this book is true,” he writes; one wishes it were not so. (Mar.)