Content Note: Discussion of slavery and white supremacy, disturbing imagery
For much of my life, I thought I knew about slavery and white supremacy in the United States. Not everything mind you. But I knew about that ‘peculiar’ institution. I watched ‘Roots’. I saw ‘The Color Purple’. I knew stuff.
- I knew that millions of Africans were enslaved and brought to the United States where they had no rights.
- I knew that these Africans were not considered full human beings, and had no rights.
- I knew that they could be bought, sold, traded, and bartered like property.
- I knew that male slave owners often raped their female slaves and bore illegitimate children which they sold when the children were of sufficient age.
- I knew that families had been ripped apart and destroyed. I knew that black families sought to form whatever communities they could, often in the form of churches, though white people would have none of that.
- I knew about slave patrols, which played a role in the development of modern policing.
- I knew about black people being whipped, chained, disemboweled, and brutally beaten.
- I knew the tools often used to keep black people enslaved.
- I saw the images of black people before, during, and after they were whipped.
I knew all of that and more still. I knew that slavery was a vile institution; one that dehumanizes its victims (in this case, African-Americans), treats them as things…as property. I knew that the Civil War was fought over slavery; that slavery was the bloodiest conflict in US history. I knew the Emancipation Proclamation declared an end to slavery. But there was much I did not know. Oh boy, was there ever. Here are three things I’ve learned about slavery and white supremacy in the last year, one of which I learned about today.
1. After the Civil War, slavery was officially abolished, but white people were not about to let go of black people so easily. No, they still wanted black people working the fields for white people, working in the mines for white people, and working for corporations owned by white people. And of course they didn’t want to pay them. Without slavery, they came up with the next best thing: involuntary servitude. In Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II, author Douglas A. Blackmon writes:
I was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, exploring the possibility of a story asking a provocative question: What would be revealed if American corporations were examined through the same sharp lens of historical confrontation as the one then being trained on German corporations that relied on Jewish slave labor during World War II and the Swiss banks that robbed victims of the Holocaust of their fortunes? My guide that day in the summer of 2000 was an industrial archaeologist named Jack Bergstresser. Years earlier, he had stumbled across a simple iron fence surrounding a single collapsed grave during a survey of the area.
Bergstresser was mystified by its presence at the center of what at the beginning of the twentieth century was one of the busiest confluences of industrial activity in the United States. The grave and the twisted wrought iron around it sat near what had been the intersection of two rail lines and a complex of mines, coal processing facilities, and furnaces in which thousands of men operated around the clock to generate millions of tons of coal and iron—all owned and operated by U.S. Steel at the height of its supremacy in American commerce. Bergstresser, who is white, told me he wondered if the dead here were forced laborers. He knew that African Americans had been compelled to work in Alabama mines prior to the Great Depression. His grandfather, once a coal miner himself, had told him stories of a similar burial field near the family home place south of Birmingham.
A year later, the Journal published my long article chronicling the saga of that burial ground. No specific record of the internments survived, but mountains of archival evidence and the oral histories of old and dying African Americans nearby confirmed that most of the cemetery’s inhabitants had been inmates of the labor camp that operated for three decades on the hilltop above the graveyard. Later I would discover atop a nearby rise another burial field, where Green Cottenham almost certainly was buried.
The camp had supplied tens of thousands of men over five decades to a succession of prison mines ultimately purchased by U.S. Steel in 1907. Hundreds of them had not survived. Nearly all were black men arrested and then “leased” by state and county governments to U.S. Steel or the companies it had acquired.3 Here and in scores of other similarly crude graveyards, the final chapter of American slavery had been buried. It was a form of bondage distinctly different from that of the antebellum South in that for most men, and the relatively few women drawn in, this slavery did not last a lifetime and did not automatically extend from one generation to the next. But it was nonetheless slavery—a system in which armies of free men, guilty of no crimes and entitled by law to freedom, were compelled to labor without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced to do the bidding of white masters through the regular application of extraordinary physical coercion.
2. I knew that the Civil War was fought over slavery. But I knew nothing of the ‘states rights’ argument or the economic argument. The former basically argues that the Southern states seceded because they wanted to retain sovereignty over themselves without the intrusion of the federal government. As for the economic argument, in the 19th century, the invention of the cotton gin was instrumental in transforming the Southern economy into one based on agriculture. Meanwhile, the Northern states were based industry. This disparity is claimed to have created a sharp division between the North and the South, apparently to such an extent that the two regions couldn’t function together as a country. Yeah, that last bit is a load of horseshit. For that matter, so is the ‘states rights’ argument. Both are dependent upon slavery. The Southern states seceded because they wanted to retain the [states] right to continue owning slaves. And the economic argument is heavily tied to slavery as well because who the hell was out there picking cotton? S-L-A-V-E-S. I learned most of this in the weeks following the terrorist actions that took the lives of 9 African-Americans at the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church back in June. Military historian Col. Ty Seidule recently created a video which breaks it all down and explains why the Civil War was fought over slavery and only slavery:
3. As mentioned above, the last thing on this list is something I learned today. It is something absolutely abominable and unconscionable. There I was, scrolling through my Facebook feed as I do all the time, and what do you know? I came across a link to a video at For Harriet (an online community for Black women):
Miss Haze, a runner up in the 2015 Women of the World Poetry Slam, gives an amazing performance here that is the perfect rebuttal to those sick of hearing about race and injustice. “I know, you are tired of hearing about this. What a privilege it is to be tired of hearing about it.”
In “Alligators” from Button Poetry, Miss Haze relates the history of using black babies as alligator bait to the current state of affairs in our country to stunning effect.
Here’s the video. I recommend watching it.
Goosebumps ran down my spine a third of the way into the video. Her poetry was that *powerful*. For a good 30 seconds though, I sat there with a feeling of incredulity roiling around in my head. Even though I knew that African-Americans continue to be oppressed by the engine of white supremacy (and have been for centuries), was it true that black babies were used as bait for alligators? It sounded far-fetched. No. Couldn’t be true…could it? And then I remembered all the *other* horrors perpetrated against black bodies in this country. Maybe it wasn’t so far out there. So I did what any good skeptic ought to do when encountering information they are uncertain of: I did some research. I turned to Ferris State University’s online resource the Jim Crowe Museum. Franklin Hughes explains:
African American babies being used as alligator bait really happened, and it happened to real people. It doesn’t seem to have been a widespread practice, but it did happen.
It is hard to process the thinking that could lead a person to actually use a live human baby as bait for an alligator. That is why the objects in the Jim Crow Museum are so important – they help tell the story of a society that defined African Americans as “sub-human” by portraying them as savage and worthless creatures (“Americans Forced”, 1944). If people are indoctrinated, over and over again, with items, images, objects, and practices that devalue the humanity of African Americans, then practices like “African Dodger”, “Human Zoos” and “Alligator bait” become possible.
In 1908 the Washington Times reported that a keeper at the New York Zoological Garden baited “Alligators With Pickaninnies” out of their winter quarters. In the article two “small colored children happened to drift through the reptile house among the throng of visitors” and they were “pressed into service.” The alligators “wobbled out as quick as they could after the ebony mites, who darted around the tank just as the pursuing monsters fell with grunts of chagrin into the water.” The alligators were “coaxed” into their summer quarters by “plump little Africans” (“Baits Alligators”).
The headline in the September 21, 1923 Oakland Tribune reads “PICKANINNY BAIT LURES VORACIOUS ‘GATOR TO DEATH. And Mother Gets Her Baby Back in Perfect Condition; Also $2”. In the article T.W. Villiers chronicles the entire process of using black babies as bait and how “these little black morsels are more than glad to be led to the ‘sacrifice’ and do their part in lurking the big Florida gators to their fate without suffering so much as a scratch.” Villiers is quick to point out that the babies are brought out of the “water alive and whole and come out wet and laughing” and that “there is nothing terrible about it, except that it is spelling death for the alligators.” In a strange twist, Villiers reports on the hunter’s attempts to rationalize the motivation of the alligators to
“jeopardize every hope of life for a live baby, and in the matter of color, the additional information is vouchsafed that black babies, in the estimation of the alligators, are far more refreshing, as it were, than white ones.”
The article describes the process of placing the babies near the alligator’s haunts, with the hunters hidden behind the brush with their rifles. When the baby “attracts” the gator and it exposes his “head and forequarters”, the hunters shoot the gator and claim their “prize.” And, just in case someone happens to care about the welfare of the baby, the reader is assured that “Florida alligator hunters do not ever miss their targets.” After the baby is returned to its mother, she is paid the set price of two dollars (Villiers, 1923).
This event was also reported by the Atlanta Independent, America’s Standard Negro Newspaper of Character, Circulation and Opinion, a few weeks later (“Babies Used”).
One of the most disturbing articles about using babies as alligator bait was reprinted in numerous United States papers from 1888 until 1911. This article refers to an advertisement in Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka) newspapers: “Babies Wanted for Crocodile Bait. Will be Returned Alive.” The whole process is described in detail and painted as a harmless way for Ceylonese mothers to earn a “small consideration” for the use of their “dark brown infants with curling toes” to attract crocodiles (“Babies for Crocodile”).
Lest anyone question the veracity of the above claims, Hughes cites original newspaper articles. One of them is the June 13, 1908 edition of The Washington Times:
Zoo Specimens Coaxed to Summer Quarters by Plump Little Africans.
NEW YORK, June 13–Their greedy eyes eagerly fixed on two plump pickaninnies, the crocodiles and alligators in the New York Zoological Garden were decoyed from their winter quarters in the reptile house to the cool and shady tank just outside the building.
It was a keeper’s idea to bait the saurians with pickaninnies, knowing as he did their epicurean fondness for the black man. So as two small colored children happened to drift through the reptile house among the throng of visitors, he pressed them into service.
The two crocodiles and all but four of the twenty-five alligators wobbled out as quick as they could after the ebony mites, who darted around the tank just as the pursuing monsters fell with grunts of chagrin into the water, disappointed of their prety.
Four of the big alligators had to be lassoed and dragged to their summer quarters by ropes. One snapped at Head Keeper Snyder’s leg and missed it by an inch.
Black kids were used as alligator bait ya’ll. No, I don’t care that it was most likely a rare occurrence. That it happened at all is just…I can’t even express the level of disgust I’m feeling at the thought of *ONE* child being used as FUCKING GODDAMN GATOR BAIT.
Having learned all of this and more, I find it all the more appalling that so many people defend the Confederate flag. Defending that piece of trash is defending slavery. It is defending the selling, the brutalizing, the whipping, the raping, and the murder of black bodies. Those who defend the flag are defending an institution that robbed countless black people of their very humanity and their lives.
I also find it loathsome that Texas school officials want to whitewash history books and downplay the role of slavery in the Civil War. They want to teach that it was states rights and sectionalism that were the primary causes of the Civil War, with slavery as the third and nonessential cause. Hogwash. Slavery was and remains the only cause of the Civil War. All the other crap people keep citing as causes sprung forth from a desire to maintain the ‘peculiar institution’.
Pardon me, I need to go puke. Fucking GATOR BAIT.
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