The Color of Law

The Color of Law

A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

Richard Rothstein

Following the Civil War, and intensifying after Reconstruction, a sharecropping system of indentured servitude perpetuated aspects of the slave system. After food and other living costs were deducted from their earnings, sharecroppers typically owed plantation owners more than their wages due. Local sheriffs enforced this peonage, preventing sharecroppers from seeking work elsewhere, by arresting, assaulting, or murdering those who attempted to leave, or by condoning violence perpetrated by owners. In many instances, African Americans were arrested for petty and phony offenses (like vagrancy if they came to town when off work), and when they were unable to pay fines and court fees, wardens sometimes sold prisoners to plantations, mines, and factories. Douglas Blackmon, in his book Slavery by Another Name, estimates that from the end of Reconstruction until World War II, the number enslaved in this way exceeded 100,000. Mines operated by U.S. Steel alone used tens of thousands of imprisoned African Americans. The practice ebbed during World War II, but it wasn’t until 1951 that Congress fulfilled its Thirteenth Amendment obligation and explicitly outlawed the practice.

Link · 2355