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Forret links slavery to modern-day incarceration in new history book

Jeff Forret, Lamar University history professor and Distinguished Faculty Research Fellow, will introduce his new book, “Williams’ Gang: A Notorious Slave Trader and His Cargo of Black Convicts” at a lecture and book Williams' Gang Book Jacketsigning.

The Center for History & Culture of Southeast Texas and the Upper Gulf Coast is pleased to host Forret Tues., Feb. 18, 5-7 p.m. in the Event Center of the Wayne A. Reaud Building on the Lamar University campus. The public is invited to this free event where copies of Forret’s book will be available for purchase.

The book, Forret’s fifth, tells the story of William H. Williams, who operated a slave pen in Washington, DC, known as the Yellow House, and actively trafficked in enslaved men, women and children for more than twenty years.

Based on court records, newspapers, governors’ files, slave manifests, slave narratives, travelers’ accounts and penitentiary data, “Williams’ Gang” examines slave criminality, the coastwise domestic slave trade and southern jurisprudence as it supplies a compelling portrait of the economy, society and politics of the Old South.

Forret began the book with the intention of simply piecing together two pieces of the same story. “Doing research in Louisiana a decade ago, I found a list of enslaved prisoners incarcerated in the state penitentiary in Baton Rouge,” said Forret. “Not long after, while in the archives at the Library of Virginia, I discovered a list of convicts with the exact same names sold out of the Virginia State Penitentiary. I just wanted to find out the links between these two sources and ended up with a whole book.”

“Williams’ Gang” reads like a novel, not a textbook, as Forret, a specialist in the study of slavery, the South and nineteenth-century history, weaves together the stories of historical figures such as Francis Scott Key, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, with those of forgotten enslaved prisoners like the young woman Charlotte, who spent 17 years in confinement and was shipped by William H. Williams from the District of Columbia to New Orleans. Not only did she become one of the longest-serving felons, black or white, in antebellum U.S. prison history, but Forret suggests her imprisonment ushered in an era of mass African American incarceration that is ongoing today.

“Historians generally think of black incarceration as a postwar phenomenon, a response to enslaved people gaining their freedom,” said Forret. “But ‘Williams’ Gang’ illustrates that it was happening even during slavery. The seeds had already been planted prior to emancipation.”

Forret’s previous book, “Slave against Slave: Plantation Violence in the Old South” (LSU Press) won the 18th Annual Frederick Douglass Book Prize awarded by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale University, for the best English-language book on slavery or abolition published in 2015. It also earned an honorable mention in the U.S. history category at the 2016 Professional & Scholarly Excellence (PROSE) Awards and was a finalist for the inaugural Harriet Tubman Book Prize given by the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery.

“Williams’ Gang: A Notorious Slave Trader and His Cargo of Black Convicts” has already received national attention. In November, Forret published the article, “The History of Modern Mass Incarceration of African Americans Goes Deeper Than You May Think,” in TIME Magazine. He also published an article in November for the White House Historical Association’s “Slavery in the President’s Neighborhood” series, titled “Presidents, Vice Presidents, and Washington’s Most Notorious Slave Pen.” Forret is currently composing another piece at the invitation of the Los Angeles nonprofit organization, Zócalo Public Square.

Independent journalist and biographer Diamond Michael Scott published an interview with Forret, “Professor Jeff and His Undying Passion for the History of Slavery, the South, and Race Relations,” on www.medium.com, discussing the author’s personal pursuits of truth in history and the major themes of the book. In January, the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College in New York published an interview in “The Crime Report,” titled “‘A World Turned Upside Down’: How Slavery Morphed into Today’s Carceral State.” In it, Forret discusses his motives for writing the book and draws links between slavery and modern-day incarceration.

“We have serious, centuries-old problems of racial injustice before the law in this country and are in dire need of reforming certain aspects of our criminal justice system,” said Forret. “I’m neither a politician nor a policymaker, but remembering the past is an important part of moving forward.”