Peonage, also called debt slavery or debt servitude, is a system where an employer compels a worker to pay off a debt with work. Legally, peonage was outlawed by Congress in 1867. However, after Reconstruction, many Southern black men were swept into peonage though different methods, and the system was not completely eradicated until the 1940s.
In some cases, employers advanced workers some pay or initial transportation costs, and workers willingly agreed to work without pay in order to pay it off. Sometimes those debts were quickly paid off, and a fair wage worker/employer relationship established.
In many more cases, however, workers became indebted to planters (through sharecropping loans), merchants (through credit), or company stores (through living expenses). Workers were often unable to re-pay the debt, and found themselves in a continuous work-without-pay cycle.
But the most corrupt and abusive peonage occurred in concert with southern state and county government. In the south, many black men were picked up for minor crimes or on trumped-up charges, and, when faced with staggering fines and court fees, forced to work for a local employer would who pay their fines for them. Southern states also leased their convicts en mass to local industrialists. The paperwork and debt record of individual prisoners was often lost, and these men found themselves trapped in inescapable situations.
A decade ago, the FBI sent Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, a now-infamous type of subpoena known as a National Security Letter, demanding the name, address and activity record of a registered Internet Archive user. The letter came with an everlasting gag order, barring Kahle from discussing the order with anyone but his attorney — not even his wife could know.
They eventually allowed her to make a call, but she still hadn’t decided whether she would help the FBI. Then the agents threatened to go after her family.
“He said, ‘Well, you should know, we’re also thinking about prosecuting your mum for the things you said she did on the tape,'” she said, crying.
“In order to cooperate and avoid charges, I would have to make monitored phone calls which they would listen in to and record and I might have to wear a wire and go see people in person.
“I was mortified and afraid of what this would do to my family. I was still in love with Bill at the time so I felt really responsible.”
Two decades on from the outbreak of the scandal, the now public figure and writer said she still doesn’t “feel comfortable talking about it”, but the one thing that she’s adamant about is that despite the moral and ethical implications, it was a consensual relationship.
“It’s not as if it didn’t register with me that he was the president. Obviously it did,” she said.
“‘But I think in one way the moment we were actually in the back office for the first time the truth is I think it meant more to me the someone who other people desired, desired me.
“However wrong it was, however misguided, for who I was at that time, at 22 years old, it was how I felt.”