Slavery Reexamined

Robert Morris’ upcoming Telfair exhibit reveals a hidden chapter in the South’s relationship with slavery Long after I stepped outside artist Robert Morris’ private studio on Tybee Island and into the cool autumn breeze, images lingered in my mind. Out of the many works I saw, I kept coming back to the two haunting faces in “Coal Miners.” On the canvas, two black men stared vacantly at me, their lifeless eyes suggesting that hope had long since been smothered from their souls. They stood in inky darkness, surrounded by letters begging their release, along with telegrams from individuals that traded these men like livestock. Pieces of rusted shackle and chain haloed the two men haphazardly. Author Doug Blackmon touched upon a scene like this in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Slavery by Another Name when he noted that he “found a vast record … everywhere in the slave mines of Birmingham was death.” The place where the men worked was called the convict mine, but they weren’t convicts. A shallow examination might lead you to believe these men were slaves from the Civil War, but that would be incorrect. These men weren’t the slaves you read about in history textbooks but rather victims of a web of corruption and cruelty that persisted well beyond the Civil War up to World War II: it is the dark chapter of re-enslavement in the South. After the Civil War, in towns across much of the South, African-Americans were gathered up in groups, often on the same day, accused of frivolous crimes and then thrown in jail. With fines too steep to secure their release, local sheriffs, county officials and courts colluded with one another and sold blacks for a handsome sum to the highest bidder. For thousands of African-Americans, the dreams of emancipation and freedom were snuffed out the minute the war ended.

Images by Michelle L Morris