Steven Hoelscher, Professor of American Studies and Geography at the University of Texas Austin explores a crucial moment in the turbulent history of American race relations, when post-emancipation hopes for African American civic equality and economic independence were crushed by disenfranchisement, lynching, and a vast array of legal structures aimed at black suppression. Central to that white supremacist project was the South’s notorious penal system that coerced incarcerated African Americans into a new form of state-sponsored slavery. Although widely accepted by whites as a natural and beneficial solution to a labor shortage, the forced use of African American prisoners for the hard and often fatal work of road building and other tasks after the Civil War did not go unchallenged. Among those critics was the radical, investigative journalist John L. Spivak, whose anti-racist work may have helped him earn the moniker “America’s Greatest Reporter” from Time magazine, but who has been largely forgotten.
Today, when the confluence of race and incarceration has resurfaced as a central national issue, it is essential to understand their historical antecedents, a point powerfully demonstrated in Michelle Alexander’s important bestseller, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010) and the Equal Justice Initiative’s recently opened legacy museum, From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. This presentation, as it examines the “Old Jim Crow,” investigates one man’s efforts to expose the atrocity of racially-based forced labor through the act of photographic witnessing.
This program is co-sponsored by Notre Dame’s Department of American Studies.