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‘Slavery’ author at LifeQuest 

BLACKMON: Obsessed with race.
  • BLACKMON: Obsessed with race.

The former Arkansan and author of the Pulitzer Prize winner “Slavery by Another Name” will give a talk in what the LifeQuest organization of retirees hopes will be the first of a series designed to attract a more diverse audience to its programs.

Douglas A. Blackmon will speak at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 23 at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, Ninth and Broadway, on his book, an account of how Southern industry, white political leaders and the legal system kept African Americans in de facto slavery from the Civil War up to World War II. Blackmon worked on the book for eight years to document the horrors of post-emancipation forced labor, particularly in the Alabama coal mines that supplied the fuel for the American steel industry.

Arkansans are familiar with the system of peonage in the Delta, when county governments were paid by farmers to round up African-American men on trumped-up charges and force them to labor without compensation or hope of freedom. They are less familiar with what happened in Alabama, where the suppliers of U.S. steel acquired their black labor force in the same way, buying and selling men and women who were at times subjected to treatment tantamount to torture. The neoslavery persisted until the beginning of World War II, when Washington decided it made the U.S. too vulnerable to propaganda attacks.

It's not an easy story, but one that Dick Williams, a retired attorney and board member of LifeQuest, believes is one “that needed to be told” — and one that people want to hear. The audience could include a small but important segment of Arkansas's population: “The reality is that there are thousands alive today, in their retirement years, who were born in the 1920s into a state of de facto slavery,” Blackmon said. It could also include African Americans like those who've approached Blackmon to tell him they found his book painful but who now understand what their grandparents or great-grandparents were talking about when they described their inability to make a life for themselves.

Blackmon — who says he has always been “obsessed” with questions of race and “why things turned out the way they turned out” — will also talk about his new book, a memoir of life in the 1960s and '70s in Leland, Miss., where he lived before his family moved to Monticello. Blackmon was in the first class of children to attend an integrated first grade in Mississippi, in a school district that was the most successful in retaining a white student body. The book is part memoir and part research into how blacks and whites lived in that era, “how this one little town tried to do the right thing and had some success but couldn't pull it off over time. In some respects, that's a metaphor, a microcosm of much larger American effort.”

After Blackmon's talk, a panel composed of Circuit Judge Wiley Branton Jr., UALR law school librarian Kathryn Fitzhugh and Howard Himmelbaum, a member of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s, will join Blackmon in taking questions from the audience. Williams will moderate.

Blackmon will give a talk at the Clinton School of Public Policy at noon at Sturgis Hall before his appearance at Mosaic Templars. His alma mater, Hendrix College, is honoring Blackmon with an Odyssey Medal on Oct. 22.

 

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