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'Slavery By Another Name' explores 'shameful' U.S. history

January 4, 2012 |  6:23 pm

"Slavery By Another Name," a new PBS documentary, explores and upends what producers say is a widely accepted notion: that slavery in America came to a halt with the Emancipation Proclamation. The film shows that while chattel slavery ended in the South in 1865, thousands of African Americans were pushed into forced labor that exposed them to brutality, abuse and death.

Or as narrator Laurence Fishburne says introducing the film, African Americans "were no longer slaves, but not yet free." Men were arrested, forced to work without pay, and were mistreated by cruel masters. The system of forced labor took place in the North and South, and lasted into the 20th century.

"It could have been different and should have been different," said Douglas A. Blackmon, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book that inspired the film and gave it its title, during a session during the PBS portion of the first day of the Television Critics Assn. press tour. Blaming the government, Blackmon called the continuation of slavery "an astonishing failure of modern society."

He added, "It's a story of how America failed," showing how whites had lost faith that blacks could be fully integrated into the mainstream.

The 90-minute film, directed by Sam Pollard ("Eyes on The Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads") will premiere Feb. 13.

Descendants of slave owners and slaves participated in the film. Susan Tuggle Barone, who spoke during the session, told of learning how her great-grandfather John Williams killed 11 black laborers who were held illegally on his farm. It was a long-buried secret in her family.

"It was devastating for my family to find out about this," she said. "I'm glad my grandmother wasn't alive to find out about this. But it was important to learn the truth." 

Sharon Malone, who is married to Atty. Gen. Eric Holder, spoke of how her uncle was a victim of Alabama's forced labor system. She said her family spoke little about his time growing up in the South.

She said she has no anger or bitterness about that part of her past. "In fact, I'm more grateful to my parents than I otherwise would have been," she said. "They did not pass on that bitterness to their children. To us, they were unburdened by their past, and that gave us faith and hope. It's something that needs to be known."


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Photo: Sam Pollard (far left) oversees filming of documentary "Slavery By Another Name." Credit: Leisa Cole.