Sometimes a simple story, well told, can be more effective than one imagines at opening people's eyes to forgotten parts of economic history.
The Wall Street Journal's
Atlanta bureau chief, Douglas Blackmon, wrote
to chronicle the often unheard-of continued enslavement of African-Americans from the Civil War through World War II.
His book shows that the illegal selling, trading and enslavement of blacks continued long past the Emancipation Proclamation, ending around the start of World War II. Blackmon tells of how unpaid African-American laborers were traded into servitude in factories and farms across the South, while thousands more were arrested and punished under laws enacted specifically to intimidate blacks.
But bringing his ideas and stories to the masses was a long process that didn't originally involve writing a book. Instead, the journey began with a 2001
Wall Street Journal
article and grew from there.
"I began to research starting with the
story, where I was curious about this aberration in U.S. Steel coal mines in Alabama," Blackmon recalls. "I realized this was something that had occurred on a much larger scale than what conventional history shows."
In order to get a sense of how he could turn his findings into a book, Blackmon employed the methods and instincts he often used as an economics reporter to understand finances and companies, and find historical occurrences that had been hidden for so long.
"By stripping away some mythology and accepted history, I began to see that what I was writing about could be applied to other things as well," he says. "It's a shocking story that a lot of people are being confronted with."
The book has since become a
New York Times
best-seller, and Blackmon is a frequent guest of radio and television interviews.
He says his childhood experiences of observing racial tensions, growing up in the Mississippi Delta region during the Civil Rights era of the mid-60s, fueled the desire to write about race, slavery and prejudice in America.
"The explanations conventionally offered for why things are the way they are today, those never made sense to me," Blackmon explains. "The fact that slavery ended 150 years ago, and that the poverty of four million people in 1865 could explain the poverty of 20 million today, is not an explanation that we'd accept for any other ethnic group today."
Years later, the culmination of extensive research, writing and passion has paid off for Blackmon, who says the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
"Middle-aged or older African-Americans ... know this story in their heart. Now
the book has given them a rigorously objective factual base that demonstrates that yes, this is happening, and if you've heard a story in your family regarding it, then most likely it is, in fact, true."
Blackmon was surprised, on the other hand, by is the lack of criticism from white supremacist or extremist groups.
"I've gotten a handful of
hateful emails," Blackmon confesses, "but those people are so obvious in their idiocy that they have no meaningful audience anymore for them to register on the radar screen around a book like this."
Blackmon knows there will always be those who hold extreme views or criticism regarding the subject matter, but for the time being he is pleased with the positive reception he has gotten.
As for the lasting effect his book may have, Blackmon hopes that his writing is not the end of the discussion on the matter.
"In the end, I certainly hope this is something that will be...read in classes, but I also hope that it will encourage others to re-examine this period of time, to look at it through a different set of eyes and tell more of the lost story."