Every year I check out the Pulitzer Prize winners in non-fiction as well as those from the National Book Award. No matter what the subject, these books usually have two things in common that I love. First, they are incredibly well researched. The endnotes themselves tell a story about an author sitting in basements, sorting through thousands of newspaper micro-reels, conducting hundreds of hours of interviews, and plowing through the Library of Congress archives. They are almost always written by journalists or historians – people who don’t mind diving into a mystery in order to find a story worth telling. They are also usually people who don’t give up easily on a story – sometimes dedicating themselves to decades of searching for the missing pieces of a puzzle. The other characteristic of these award winning books is that they usually change your perspective by challenging what you thought you knew about the subject that is the center of the story.
This book does both extremely well. I’m almost done with it and I am very impressed with the way the author challenges one of the most common understandings about our nation’s past: that slavery ended. It didn’t. As a historian, I always knew about the Jim Crow laws of segregation, but I never knew the extent that those racist codes, as well as the underlying assumptions it was based on, created a system where African Americans could be randomly arrested on completely false charges and then sent to prison. The prisons would engage in a ‘convict-leasing’ system, selling their prisoners to mining companies or plantation owners and then beaten, whipped, chained, worked naked, and even killed – without anyone wondering about it. The author’s webpage introduces this topic and invites the reader to learn more about these atrocities. Along with the Without Sanctuary website (concerning lynching), this information is really disturbing, but something very important to include in the study of American history.