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The South's Shocking Hidden History: Thousands of Blacks Forced Into Slavery Until WW2

The horrifying, little-known story of how hundreds of thousands of blacks worked in brutal bondage right up to the middle of the 20th century.

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Initially, the McRees hired only free black labor, but beginning in the 1890s they routinely leased a hundred or more convicts from the state of Georgia to perform the grueling work of clearing land, removing stumps, ditching fields, and constructing roads. Other prisoners hoed, plowed, and weeded the crops. Over the course of fifteen years, thousands of men and women were forced to Kinderlou and held in stockades under the watch of armed guards. After the turn of the century, the brothers began to arrange for even more forced laborers through the sheriffs of nearby counties in Georgia and Florida—fueling what eventually grew into a sprawling traffic in humans.

A black worker in 1904 described to a journalist how he arrived at the farm at age ten as a free laborer. A few years later, he attempted to leave to work at another plantation. Before sundown on the day of his departure, one of the McRees and “some kind of law officer” tracked him down. The new employer apologized to the McRees for hiring the young worker, saying he would never have done so if he had known “this nigger was bound out to you.”

“So I was carried back to the Captain’s,” the man said later. “That night he made me strip off my clothing down to my waist, had me tied to a tree in his backyard, ordered his foreman to gave me thirty lashes with a buggy whip across my bare back, and stood by until it was done.”

When his labor contract finally expired after a decade, the man was told he could leave Kinderlou, so long as he could pay his accumulated debt at the plantation commissary—$165, the rough equivalent of two years’ labor for a free farmer. Unable to do so, of course, he was compelled to sign a contract promising to work on the farm until the debt was paid, but now as a convict.

He and other “prison laborers” slept each night in the same clothes they wore in the fields, on rotting mattresses infested with pests. Many were chained to their beds. Food was crude and minimal. The disobedient were tied to a log lying on their backs, while a guard spanked their bare feet with a plank of wood. After a slave was untied, if he could not return to work on his blistered feet, he was strapped to the log again, this time facedown, and lashed with a leather whip. Women prisoners were held across a barrel and whipped on their bare bottoms.

In the summer of 1903, the assistant U.S. attorney in Macon, Georgia, began a brief investigation into Kinderlou’s army of black laborers held against their will. He discovered that the brothers had arrangements with sheriffs and other officers in at least six other Georgia counties. These law enforcement officials would seize blacks on the grounds that they were “committing crimes,” often specious and sometimes altogether made up, and then sell them to the McRees and other businessmen, without ever going through the regular processes of the criminal courts. When the McRees learned of the investigation, they hastily freed the workers being held involuntarily. At least forty fled immediately.

James Robinson, the brother of Carrie Kinsey, may have been one of them, though federal officials never connected her allegations to the Kinderlou investigation. Even if Kinsey’s brother’s case had been investigated, her letter misspelled the name of the plantation.

In November 1903, a grand jury indicted the McRee brothers on thirteen specific counts of holding African American men and women illegally. Many of those enslaved had never been charged or tried in any fashion. Several public officials were indicted for conspiring to buy and sell blacks arrested on trivial or fabricated charges and then turning them over to the McRees. Sheriff Thomas J. McClellan, resorting to an audacious legal defense employed repeatedly in the handful of slavery cases brought by federal officials in the early twentieth century, argued that since no federal law specifically made slavery a crime, he could not be guilty of violating it. In effect, he claimed slavery was not illegal in the United States.

 
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