By DOUGLAS A. BLACKMON
On the eve of World War II, across the South, many African-Americans were still toiling as coerced laborers. Though states such as Georgia and Alabama no longer were leasing convicts to corporations, thousands of men still were forced to work for private enterprises. But now, the practice was mainly carried out through informal arrangements with city and county courts. Abusive sharecropping arrangements and the peonage system -- which allowed farmers to use bogus debts and the threat of violence to keep workers on their land indefinitely -- hung over millions of African-Americans.
Federal investigations into peonage, also known as debt slavery, were rare and ineffective. Although the antebellum version of slavery had been unconstitutional for decades, there still existed no federal statute that made holding slaves a punishable crime.
On Oct. 13, 1941, a man named Charles E. Bledsoe pleaded guilty in Alabama federal court to peonage. Mr. Bledsoe didn't resist the charge and trusted that officials wouldn't deal harshly with a white. He was correct. His penalty was a fine of $100 and six months of probation.
Less than two months later, Imperial Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Caught unprepared for war, U.S. officials frantically planned for a massive national mobilization and a crash propaganda effort. President Franklin D. Roosevelt expressed to advisors his worry that the mistreatment of blacks would be used in propaganda by Japan and Germany to undercut support for the war by African-Americans.
Attorney General Francis Biddle shared the president's concerns with his top assistants. Mr. Biddle was informed that federal policy had long been to cede virtually all allegations of slavery to local jurisdiction -- effectively guaranteeing they would never be prosecuted. Mr. Biddle, who hailed from an elite Northern family in Philadelphia, was shocked.
Mr. Biddle said that in an all-out war, in which millions of African-Americans would be called upon to serve, the U.S. government needed to take a stand: Those who continued to practice any form of slavery, in violation of 1865's Thirteenth Amendment, had to be prosecuted as criminals.
Five days after the Japanese attack, on Dec. 12, 1941, Mr. Biddle issued a directive -- Circular No. 3591 -- to all federal prosecutors acknowledging the history of unwritten federal policy to ignore most reports of involuntary servitude.
He wrote: "It is the purpose of these instructions to direct the attention of the United States Attorneys to the possibilities of successful prosecutions stemming from alleged peonage complaints which have heretofore been considered inadequate to invoke federal prosecution."
The Justice Department recently had formed its Civil Rights Section, created primarily to investigate cases related to anti-organized-labor efforts. It began shifting its focus to discrimination and racial abuse -- issues more commonly associated with the term "civil rights" today.
Mr. Biddle wrote: "In the United States one cannot sell himself as a peon or slave -- the law is fixed and established to protect the weak-minded, the poor, the miserable. ...Any such sale or contract is positively null and void and the procuring and causing of such contract to be made violates [the] statutes."
He ordered all Department of Justice investigators to entirely drop reference to peonage in their written reports. Instead, they were to label every file "Involuntary Servitude and Slavery."
In August 1942, a letter from a 16-year-old black boy arrived at the Department of Justice alleging that Charles Bledsoe -- the Alabama man who had received a $100 fine for peonage -- still was holding members of the teen's family against their will. Despite Mr. Biddle's strong directive, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover initially saw no need to pursue the matter. The U.S. attorney in Mobile, Ala., Francis H. Inge, was similarly uninterested.
"No active investigation will be instituted," Mr. Hoover wrote to Assistant Attorney General Wendell Berge.
But seven months into World War II, with the nation anxious to mobilize every possible soldier and counter every thrust of Japan's and Germany's propaganda machines, Mr. Berge directed Mr. Hoover to look further.
"In accordance with the request of the Attorney General that we expedite cases related to Negro victims, it will be appreciated if this matter is given preference," Mr. Berge wrote in a terse letter ordering Mr. Inge into action.
"Enemy propagandists have used similar episodes in international broadcasts to the colored race, saying that the democracies are insincere and that the enemy is their friend," Mr. Berge continued. "There have been received from the President an instruction that lynching complaints shall be investigated as soon as possible; that the results of the investigation be made public in all instances, and the persons responsible for such lawless acts vigorously prosecuted. The Attorney General has requested that we expedite other cases related to Negro victims. Accordingly, you are requested to give the [Bledsoe] matter your immediate attention."
Mr. Biddle's civil-rights lawyers began to reassess the legal breadth of the constitutional amendments ending slavery, the Reconstruction-era statutes passed to enforce them and other largely forgotten laws, such as the antebellum Slave Kidnapping Act. That pre-Civil War measure made it illegal to capture or hold forced laborers in U.S. territory where slavery was prohibited.
As World War II progressed, the Department of Justice vigorously prosecuted U.S. Sugar Co. in Florida for forcing black men into its sugarcane fields. Sheriffs who colluded with the company were brought to trial.
Early in September 1942, a team of FBI agents, highway patrolmen and deputies descended on a remote farm near Beeville, Texas. There they arrested a white farmer, Alex Skrobarcek, and his adult daughter, Susie Skrobarcek.
The two initially were charged in a state court with maiming a mentally retarded black worker named Alfred Irving. But a month later, lawyers at the Department of Justice drew a federal indictment alleging that the pair had held Mr. Irving in slavery for at least four years. They were accused of repeatedly beating the man with whips, chains and ropes -- so much so that he was physically disfigured from the abuse.
Signaling the significance of the case, a special assistant to Mr. Biddle actively participated in prosecuting the trial. The defendants were found guilty and sentenced to prison. Federal officials made clear that the case was intended to send a message: The U.S. government was finally serious about ending involuntary servitude.
"The Skrobarczyk [sic] trial and its conclusion undoubtedly will be said...to have given a decisive setback to the enemy propaganda machine...urging...negroes that their proper place in this conflict is with the yellow race," editorialized the Corpus Christi Times.
Two years later, President Truman's Committee on Civil Rights recommended bolstering the antislavery statute to plainly criminalize involuntary servitude. In 1948, the entire federal criminal code was dramatically rewritten, further clarifying such laws.