When it happened, I was just a young teenager, trying to understand the fickle rules of life. One weekend close to Labor Day, my father told me a fascinating story.
It began with an arbitrary, off-the-cuff discussion of my father’s younger brother, Uncle Dewee. Some crooked lawyers and the County Clerk were confiscating (legally stealing) some family land near Beaumont, Texas through a series of small town back-filings and tax liens. Uncle Dewee was responsible for handling the matter, but was afraid to confront the local bureaucracy.
“He’s too doggone scary,” said my father. “He’s been that way all his life. Hell, back in the day, he about messed in his pants when we broke outta jail.”
Jail? Jail?!!! Did my Sunday-school-teaching Christian, union official, school advisory committee father say jail?
My eyes bulged like a bullfrog. “Daddy? You went to jail?”
“Sure, son. Back then, if you were a black man, there was no way around it.
He told me the full story.
A sympathetic white man who admired their hard work in the fields gave them an old Ford. He told them it didn’t run. But if they were willing to fix it up, they can have. They did get it running, and while driving through a small town 50 miles away, the sheriff pulled them over.
He first accused them of driving a stolen car. But when they presented the note from the sympathetic white man stating that he had given them the car free and clear, the sheriff said they were speeding. Of course, the car was too old to speed, not to mention there were no speed limit signs. But he was the sheriff. They were two suspicious young Nigraahs, with the nerve to ride through his town in something other than a wagon. So he hauled them to jail.
This is where the story got really interesting. They knew and the sheriff knew they had done nothing wrong. The whole scenario played out in a Jim Crow criminal-surety work system in which members of local law enforcement were paid a bounty to bring in young able-bodied African-Americans to work for free on local plantations.
To better understand the legal system of indentured servitude and criminal labor, I have included a quote from Douglas A. Blackmon’s book entitled:
Slavery by Another Name:
The Re-Enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to 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 wills. 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.
During the night, some black sharecroppers threw two hacksaw blades through the window. My father and Uncle Dewee sawed and kicked their way out and then jumped on a freight train headed for New Orleans … my uncle, frightened and whining all the way.
“Do you know what they gon do if they catch us?”
“Do you know what they gon do if we stick around.” My father responded.
Since that day, I’ve thought long and hard about Labor Day and what it means to different generations; blacks who suffered through two curtain calls of slavery; Chinese who worked the railroads and didn’t get paid; poor whites who fell over the edge of the Hoover Dam because safety wasn’t important; Japanese who lost their homes and farms while locked up in American internment camps during the war; and now Hispanics who worked grueling hours, are often paid below the minimum wage and are accused of stealing American jobs … you know, the busboy, roof tar smelling, lawn-cutting, toilet- cleaning jobs that Americans are standing in line for. We need to put up more fences and call out the National Guard so we can win those jobs back.
I have to mention some special laborers … the brave soldiers coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq with PST. We could help them, that is, if Congressmen weren’t so preoccupied with voting themselves raises and cutting budgets to get Tea Party votes and making sure the billionaire campaign donors get favorable laws to widen the rich-poor gap. How can we ignore these workers and still sleep at night?
Labor Day is more than barbecue on the pit and a cold beer in the fridge. It’s about reflecting upon our history, however glorious or shameful, and making sure the gross inequities of the past do not follow us into a callous, profit-blind future.
May God bless ALL of the laborers of this country on this 2016 Labor Day. May God bless us ALL.
-Leander Jackie Grogan –