“When did slavery end in America?”
If you ask a white teenager, you might get the answer, “Four hundred years ago.” But that’s not the answer. Four hundred years ago was 1615, when the Jamestown colony had only existed for eight years and chattel slavery was just beginning.
Others might say, “When Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, of course.” But that’s not right either. That only freed slaves in Confederate territory seized by the Union. The Union slave states—Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, and the then-in-formation West Virginia—were exempt and allowed to keep their slaves, along with Tennessee, which had more or less been returned to the Union, and Union-loyal areas of Louisiana (including New Orleans) and coastal Virginia. Because it was unenforceable in most of the Confederate states, only about 1-2% of slaves were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation.
“Well, then,” they might say, “it was definitely when the Thirteenth Amendment was passed.” And still, they would be wrong. While that pivotal law did free the vast majority of America’s slaves, the text of the law is this: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.“
So when did slavery end in America? The answer is, “Never.”
As discussed in the PBS documentary Slavery By Another Name (available in full by clicking the link), as the federal government withdrew funding and support for Reconstruction, the South began a system of leasing prisoners—allowed by law to be used as slaves—to the plantations to replace their free labor. Those affected by this system were treated even worse than those held in bondage under slavery before the Civil War, as slaves were an expensive investment—the $800 average cost of a slave in 1860 is roughly $21,000 in today’s dollars—but leased prisoners were replaced by the prison if killed and payment continued as scheduled, deincentivizing what little humane treatment was afforded slaves.
It was so profitable and in such high demand that, within ten years of its implementation, the stereotype of black people in America had changed. Prior to the Civil War, the stereotype of black people was that we were inherently docile, servile, and loyal. This only makes sense, because if we were viewed as inherently violent and thieving and criminal like we are today, why would they have trusted us with their livelihoods, their crops, and their children? (Side note: this is also where the stereotype of black people loving watermelon came from—the idea that if we were just given a cool slice of watermelon on a hot day, we would work forever). But once they were no longer allowed to own us outright and had to lease us from prisons, police and judges did everything in their power to make sure they had a robust source of free labor. Black people were arrested on false or trumped-up charges, and within ten years, the recorded arrest and conviction rate for black people had skyrocketed so much that the stereotype was entirely inverted from what it had been previously.
The prison system may have stopped leasing prisoners to plantations, but they still lease prison labor to corporations and local governments. Prisoners—primarily black, of course, because we are targeted—are forced to fight wildfires, manufacture consumer goods, and even make goat cheese for Whole Foods. Our economy was built on slave labor, and it still runs on it to a disconcerting extent. And to make that work, black and Latino neighborhoods are targeted by law enforcement and manipulated through things like school closings and schools being unfathomably underfunded to ensure an ever-growing population of prisoners, an ever-growing population of slaves.
So the next time someone asks you when slavery ended in America, tell them the truth. Tell them, “Never.”