By Athena Jones, CNN
WASHINGTON (CNN) - Sheila White was beginning to feel numb. She had been beaten numerous times by a man who forced her to work as a prostitute on the streets of New York City.
"I done got beaten up in front of the Port Authority in Times Square," she said, a reference to a bus terminal on the city's West Side. "When stuff like that happens out in the open, you really feel like you're not even a person."
White was eventually able to escape her pimp and now works with victims of sex trafficking throughout New York state. But her story is proof that slavery is alive and well in America, 150 years after it was supposedly abolished.
While modern slavery may look different from the old images of plantations, slave cabins and auction blocks, abuse, coercion and manipulation remain the order of the day.
According to the anti-trafficking organization the Polaris Project, hundreds of thousands of people are being forced to work at jobs they don’t want to do - in the commercial sex trade, on farms, in homes, in factories and elsewhere in the United States. They work for little or no pay and under constant threat of violence and even starvation.
Polaris estimates this modern slavery affects an estimated 12 million people worldwide and brings in some $32 billion. Other estimates put the global number of victims as high as 27 million.
White told her story as part of “Not My Life,” a documentary on human trafficking that aired on CNN last year, believed to be one of the fastest growing criminal industries in the world. The film is featured in a new exhibit at President Lincoln's Cottage in Washington, part of a year-long effort by the cottage to celebrate the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves during the Civil War.
"(Lincoln) made some of the most important decisions during the Civil War here. He lived during his re-election here and he also developed the Emancipation Proclamation while living here," said Erin Carlson Mast, president of the cottage, which is a National Trust Historic Site. "This was really an opportunity to see how far we have come as a country in dealing with the issue of slavery."
How far the country has come is a complicated story, as the exhibit, called “Can You Walk Away?” illustrates.
Lincoln's proclamation was followed two years later by the 13th Amendment, which made slavery illegal in the United States. But instances of modern slavery still exist in all 50 states, according to Polaris, which partnered with the cottage on the exhibit.
Polaris was founded in 2002 and named after the North Star that helped guide slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad. The organization operates a national hotline, taking calls 24 hours a day in more than 170 languages, from people who suspect trafficking is going on in their communities and from victims themselves.
The goal of “Can You Walk Away?” - which will be on display through August 2013 and includes photos and other data on numerous trafficking cases - is to increase awareness of the issue in the U.S. and thereby increase the risk to traffickers of getting caught.
"It's a much bigger issue in the United States than most people understand or realize," said Polaris' executive director Bradley Myles.
"The whole issue of trafficking is dehumanizing and objectifying somebody and saying, “You're not a human being, we can use you like property.” And what we're trying to do is humanize the issue and say this is how to connect with it on a very, very human level."
Victims in the United States span all ages, races and nationalities. A young man named Given tells the story of how he left Zambia to travel to America as part of a choir, hoping to raise money to help support his six orphaned siblings.
Instead of being paid, he had his passport taken from him and he was forced to work for free, with his handlers withholding food and threatening to deport him if he protested.
"We were not getting paid. Our families back home in Zambia were not getting paid as they were promised. The schools that we were promised back home were not getting built," he said in an interview for mtvU's “Against Our Will,” a documentary that is also used in this exhibit.
"I never spoke to my little sister the whole two years that I was in the United States. I never spoke to my brother. I never spoke to any of my siblings, so I had no way to let them know what was happening to me."
Angie, a teenager from Wichita, Kansas, ran away with two friends after trouble at home. The three girls ended up under the control of a pimp who forced them to prostitute themselves at a truck stop in Oklahoma City, threatening to harm them if they did not bring in enough money. Another trafficking victim, Debra, was forced to work 24 hours a day at a home in Falls Church, Virginia, cooking, cleaning and caring for children with no breaks.
Human trafficking is appealing to criminals because there is an "enormous amount of money to be made" and low risk of being caught as long as the community is not aware, Myles said.
"I think it is harder to eradicate in certain ways, because it's already made illegal, and so there's this ecosystem of human trafficking and modern slavery that's developed. And we have to fight that ecosystem, and the ecosystem morphs, it changes, it's very nimble," he said, an acknowledgement that existing laws against trafficking only serve to push the practice underground.
Myles said Polaris is looking for people “to be the eyes and ears, looking for trafficking, and if they can call in and be the good Samaritan to break a case."
"But we're also trying to build a national, systemic response system almost like the national 911 for trafficking, where every single time there's a case, there's a response ready to help in that local community, so that those victims aren't falling through the cracks."