The horrifying, little-known story of how hundreds of thousands of blacks worked in brutal bondage right up until World War II.
When his labor contract finally expired after a decade, the man was told he could leave Kinderlou, so long as he could pay his accumulated debt at the plantation commissary—$165, the rough equivalent of two years’ labor for a free farmer. Unable to do so, of course, he was compelled to sign a contract promising to work on the farm until the debt was paid, but now as a convict.
He and other “prison laborers” slept each night in the same clothes they wore in the fields, on rotting mattresses infested with pests. Many were chained to their beds. Food was crude and minimal. The disobedient were tied to a log lying on their backs, while a guard spanked their bare feet with a plank of wood. After a slave was untied, if he could not return to work on his blistered feet, he was strapped to the log again, this time facedown, and lashed with a leather whip. Women prisoners were held across a barrel and whipped on their bare bottoms.
In the summer of 1903, the assistant U.S. attorney in Macon, Georgia, began a brief investigation into Kinderlou’s army of black laborers held against their will. He discovered that the brothers had arrangements with sheriffs and other officers in at least six other Georgia counties. These law enforcement officials would seize blacks on the grounds that they were “committing crimes,” often specious and sometimes altogether made up, and then sell them to the McRees and other businessmen, without ever going through the regular processes of the criminal courts. When the McRees learned of the investigation, they hastily freed the workers being held involuntarily. At least forty fled immediately.
James Robinson, the brother of Carrie Kinsey, may have been one of them, though federal officials never connected her allegations to the Kinderlou investigation. Even if Kinsey’s brother’s case had been investigated, her letter misspelled the name of the plantation.
In November 1903, a grand jury indicted the McRee brothers on thirteen specific counts of holding African American men and women illegally. Many of those enslaved had never been charged or tried in any fashion. Several public officials were indicted for conspiring to buy and sell blacks arrested on trivial or fabricated charges and then turning them over to the McRees. Sheriff Thomas J. McClellan, resorting to an audacious legal defense employed repeatedly in the handful of slavery cases brought by federal officials in the early twentieth century, argued that since no federal law specifically made slavery a crime, he could not be guilty of violating it. In effect, he claimed slavery was not illegal in the United States.
A member of the U.S. Congress submitted a legal brief in support of the sheriff, and prominent state officials sat at the defendants’ table during a hearing on a challenge to their charges. Across Georgia, operators of lumber camps, where thousands of other men were being held under similarly dubious circumstances, watched the proceedings closely. Appearing with his brothers before a Savannah courtroom, Edward McRee assured the judge that while his family had held many African Americans in the four decades since slavery’s abolition, they had never intended to enslave anyone or break the law. “Though we are probably technically guilty we did not know it,” he told the court. “This custom has been [in] existence ever since the war. We never knew that we were doing anything wrong.”
The judge, hoping to avoid inflaming the anger of local whites, dispensed symbolic punishments. The McRees were allowed to plead guilty and pay a token fine of $1,000. In the wake of that trial and other failed prosecutions in the first years of the century, the U.S. Department of Justice turned a blind eye to such practices for the next forty years. Only the advent of World War II, a declining need for low-skill laborers, and a new era of federal prosecution would finally bring a true end to American slavery.
More than 100 years after Carrie wrote her letter, I received an unexpected call from a man who identified himself as Bernard Kinsey. He believed he was one of Carrie’s cousins.
Her letter had haunted me through years of research for the book I wrote on re-enslavement. What those few lines conveyed—the seizure of a teenage boy and his sale to a powerful businessman, the abject refusal of authorities to assist her, the brutalization of thousands of other blacks on the same plantation, the heroism of Carrie in seeking the aid of President Roosevelt, and, finally, the futility of her letter—captured the entire epic tragedy of black life in the rural South in the time between the Civil War and World War II. Even to this day, I find myself turning back to her story, resifting census records and cemetery records, looking for the fate of her brother. Did he escape? Did he die at Kinderlou? The answer still eludes me.
Bernard Kinsey represented the counter story. He told me that the Kinsey family fled to Florida not long after the McRee trial of 1903. Bernard’s father opened one grocery store. Then more. Bernard graduated from Florida A&M University in 1967, and a few years later he became one of the first black employees of Xerox Corp. Twenty years later, he retired as a senior executive, one of more than 10,000 African Americans at the company. He then became a major civic leader in Los Angeles, a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist, and one of the leading collectors of African American art and artifacts in the U.S.
Here was the valiance of African Americans who persevered against immeasurable odds. Here was the miracle that American society survived its sweeping betrayal of its own values, its collective dishonoring and debasement of Lincoln’s achievement, the euphoric crowds of 1865 and all those who had died in the Civil War. Ultimately, it is only in a full revelation of all three narratives—of Lincoln and the Thirteenth Amendment, of re-enslavement and the failure of American character, and of the slow ongoing resurrection of our values through the struggle of citizens such as Bernard Kinsey—that we can begin to understand the progress we have made, and the progress we have yet to achieve.
A few weeks after the publication of my book, the great-great-granddaughter of a white industrialist and enslaver of thousands in Atlanta wrote me to describe her pain at discovering a personal connection to these events—and the importance of not looking away from them. “We did not know of any of this before,” she wrote. “But I believe that the ghosts of slavery and racism and the terrorism inflicted within our own country must not be hidden away but brought out into the open. Without the whole truth, we live only in illusions.”
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