Even though the Civil War had ended 43 years earlier, Green Cottenham was forced to work in a coal mine outside of Birmingham, Ala., after he was arrested by sheriffs deputies in Shelby County.
His crime? Not being able to show he had a job.
Under the harsh conditions he was forced to work in, Cottenham, who was black, eventually got sick and died just five months after his arrest in March 1908.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Douglas Blackmon includes Cottenhams story in his book Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to WWII.
On Thursday, he discussed his book with students at Wesleyan College, which hosted a screening of a documentary about Blackmons book the day before.
Blackmon said Cottenhams case is one example of how laws and practices in the South in the decades following the Civil War kept black residents economically and socially oppressed.
At the time Cottenham was arrested, black residents were often arrested for minor offenses at a disproportionately higher rate than whites who committed the same crimes, Blackmon said. Local law enforcement agencies often transferred custody of prisoners to private companies. Those companies put them to work in labor camps mining coal and building railroads, for example.
Cottenham was transferred to U.S. Steel Corp. and had to work in a coal mine, where workers were whipped if they did not meet quotas for mining coal. Every night, they were chained to their barracks, Blackmon said. Shelby County received payments for Cottenhams labor.
Using black prisoners to work for private industries is something most living Americans have not known, Blackmon said.
The practice of using the prison labor in private industries, which Blackmon described as neo-slavery, evolved after the pre-Civil War American economy -- in the South as well as outside the region -- had become reliant on free slave labor.
Blackmon said his own interest in the topic came from his experiences growing up in the Mississippi Delta region during the 1960s and 1970s. The schools he attended were integrated when he was a first-grader, and throughout his life he has maintained an interest in race relations in the South.
Understanding that past is crucial to understand the present and to shape plans for the future, said Blackmon, whose career includes stints at The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.
We need to learn about the history that got us to the place we are now, he said.
During a question-and-answer session at the event, Wesleyan students Ameera Harris and Dominique Smith asked Blackmon whether the issues he explores in his book are tied to the rate of black Americans in jail today, as well as intergenerational poverty.
Blackmon said they were not the same issue but were connected. While circumstances have changed since the Civil War, he said drug laws on the books today tend to be enforced unfairly among black and white offenders, for example.
In response to another question, Blackmon said measures taken in the past 40 years such as affirmative action have helped bring more opportunities to black Americans at almost no cost and no injury to anyone.
After Thursdays event, some of the students said they enjoyed the discussion.
It was a great experience, Smith said. I loved his personality.
Harris said she was initially skeptical about Blackmons visit at first, preferring to see a speaker who would discuss the positive contributions black Americans have made. However, she found Blackmon to be straightforward and not biased.
Im more welcome to him now, she said after the event. Hes a wonderful speaker.
To contact writer Andrea Castillo, call 744-4331.