TRUTH: It’s widely believed that the 13th Amendment, ratified shortly after the Civil War ended in 1865, abolished slavery in America. However, the Amendment states that slavery is unconstitutional “except as a punishment for crime.”
After the war, the former Confederate states sought to replicate the system of forced labor they’d lost by passing laws called “Black Codes,” which made vagrancy, being unemployed, and other petty offenses a crime. This made it easy for them to arrest African Americans. Once in prison, these “convicts” could be leased out as laborers to private individuals and companies.
Through convict leasing, many formerly enslaved people found themselves doing the same grueling labor and being subjected to the same beatings and other violence as before the Civil War. Convict leasing died out by the late 1920s, replaced with brutal prison farms and chain gangs, which continued well into the ’50s.
There were many other ways African Americans’ lives were restricted after slavery as well. Jim Crow laws kept them segregated from whites, voting laws prevented them from casting ballots, and white supremacist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, terrorized their communities. To understand the civil rights movement and all that came after, historians say, it’s important to start with the truth of how slavery began and ended in the U.S.
“If you don’t understand slavery and its central role in America’s formation, then you really can’t understand the American past,” says Jeffries. “If you can’t understand America’s past, you can’t understand America’s present.”