Americans who grew up with the fiction that slavery was confined to the South — and that the North had always been “free” — learned differently in 1991, when construction workers stumbled upon the skeletal remains of more than 400 Africans at a site in New York City that has since been designated the African Burial Ground National Monument. The catalog of injuries etched into the bones of the men and women who labored to build, feed and protect Colonial-era New York includes muscles so violently strained they were ripped away from the skeleton, offering a grisly portrait of what it was like to be worked to death in bondage.
A similar portrait is emerging in Sugar Land, Tex., a suburb southwest of Houston, where researchers are examining the remains of about 95 African-Americans whose unmarked graves were discovered this year. The dead are almost certainly victims of the second system of slavery that arose when Southerners set out to circumvent the 13th Amendment of 1865, which outlawed involuntary servitude except as punishment for criminal conviction.
Those states imposed what the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Douglas Blackmon rightly describes as “slavery by another name” — sweeping Negroes into custody for petty offenses like vagrancy, then turning them over to plantation owners and others who sometimes notified the local sheriff in advance of how much labor they needed. This practice, which persisted in various forms up to World War II, stripped African-Americans of the ability to accumulate wealth while holding them captive in dangerous, disease-ridden environs that killed many of them outright. The Sugar Land site offers present-day Americans a look at this shameful period from an unusual vantage point.
According to a 2004 study by the historian Amy Dase, the state began leasing inmates to private enterprises outside of prisons in 1867 for construction of the roadbed along rail lines. Subsequent contracts hired out prisoners to chop and mill wood, mine coal and quarry stone. By the 1880s, more than a third of Texas’ inmates were engaged in 12 of the state’s 18 sugar plantations through a contract with two prominent businessmen who needed “a cheap labor supply that could be coerced much as slaves had been” to make sugar production profitable.