Washington Independent Review of Books

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Robin Bernstein — Freeman’s Challenge: The Murder That Shook America’s Original Prison for Profit - with Marcia Chatelain — at Conn Ave

Location 5015 Connecticut Ave NW Washington, DC 20008
Date Sunday, May 5, 2024 at 5:00pm - 6:00pm
Duration   1 hours
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Robin Bernstein's new book "Freeman's Challenge: The Murder That Shook America's Original Prison for Profit" tells a gripping and morally complex story about the origins of the profit-driven prison system in the United States. In the early 19th century, as slavery was gradually ending in the North, the village of Auburn in New York State invented a new form of unfreedom - the profit-driven prison. These prisons enclosed industrial factories where "slaves of the state" were leased to private companies, and forced to work without pay manufacturing goods that were sold throughout the North. One young man, Afro-Native teenager William Freeman, challenged this exploitative system. Convicted of a horse theft he insisted he did not commit, Freeman was sentenced to hard labor in Auburn's prison. Outraged at being forced to work without wages, he demanded to be paid. This act of defiance triggered a violent response, first against Freeman, and then by him - he committed a murder that shocked white America. Bernstein's book tells Freeman's unforgettable story, revealing how the North pioneered the prison-for-profit model decades before the Thirteenth Amendment, and how Black Americans like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman resisted this system of racial injustice. Through this one man's life, the book explores the entangled origins of mass incarceration and anti-Black racism in America. Bernstein, a professor of American history at Harvard, will be in conversation with Marcia Chatelain, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian from Georgetown University. This event promises to provide vital historical context and insights into one of the most pressing social justice issues of our time.

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