One of the most painful - and underreported - chapters in U.S. history is coming vividly to life this weekend, as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doug Blackmon comes to town to talk about his new book Slavery by Another Name.
The free lecture May 15 at the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum also features locally-themed paintings by noted regional painter Robert Morris.
Blackmon's book deals with the time from the end of the Civil War through the end of World War II, when many African-Americans, though technically free, were essentially put back into a form of slavery wherein they were involuntarily leased out to corporations. These firms included some of the biggest names in the annals of American finance, including J.P. Morgan and U.S. Steel.
"Blackmon's central idea was to ask, what would happen if we put the focus on U.S. corporations during a crisis point -- in this case after the Civil War -- in the same way as we put a magnifying glass on corporations surrounding World War II," explains Joni Saxon-Giusti, owner of The Book Lady bookstore, who's been instrumental in bringing Blackmon to town.
"Nobody had looked at U.S. companies in that way before," she says. "What he found was astounding. Before the Civil War, the practice of leasing out slaves to iron, coal and steel companies was very common and the practice continued after emancipation."
Saxon-Giusti says the familiar role of the plantation owner was "transferred to sheriffs and justices of peace in counties, who passed loads of laws that made it easier to arrest African Americans -- vagrancy laws, for example."
When arrested, the African-Americans weren't incarcerated. The point was to levy fines on them they couldn't pay, then offer them the opportunity to work off the fine by leasing their services.
"It's very painful to go back and think about this," says Saxon-Giusti, "but it helps answers the question of why progress in Civil Rights was so slow up until the ‘60s. It wasn't just due to Jim Crow laws, it wasn't just benign racism -- it was institutionalized legal slavery."
Saxon-Giusti says "A lot of books cross my desk, but this book is unbelievable.Doug went to tiny courthouses and dug up records, and on top of all that research, it's beautifully written. he really makes it personal and connects with a particular family he follows all the way through and consequences to them.
Though the event is not held at her bookstore, Saxon-Giusti has been instrumental in bringing Blackmon to town and organizing the event.
"Doug had come to the Savannah Book Festival and I'm a friend of a friend of his," Saxon-Giusti says. "I've been a friend of Robert Morris's. So I finally met Doug face to face, and we said, ‘oh let's do a reading together and maybe Robert can do new paintings.' We all thought it was a great idea and would be great fun."
That's when serendipity came to the fore, in the form of the Pulitzer Prize that Blackmon won last month.
"The event was already scheduled for the bookstore, but two weeks before he was originally scheduled to come he won the Pulitzer," says Saxon-Giusti. "He really deserved it and the book deserves lot more exposure. I think a lot of people in Savannah would like to hear more about what Doug has found out."
As a result of the author's suddenly much higher profile, Saxon-Giusti approached the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum, "who was very happy to partner up with us to have the lecture in a bigger venue."
In a unique pairing, Blackmon's appearance is accompanied by a new body of work by painter Robert Morris specifically inspired by the book.
"A lot of the pieces have local relevance," says Saxon-Giusti. "The pairing of these two is really exciting for me. I hope it will bring out the African American community in particular, and begin a dialogue about what Savannah's history was."
Douglas Blackmon Lecture
When: Lecture is Friday, May 15th at 7 pm. Following the lecture, the author will sign books. Beginning at 6 p.m., new paintings by Robert Morris, inspired by Slavery By Another Name, will be on display.
Where: Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum, 460 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.