"This great corporation."
For three years, Americans had received periodic reports on the slavery of Tallapoosa County. The county, with its exotic Choctaw Indian name meaning "pulverized rock," and the image of John Pace, a brutish farmer from the backcountry became the only enduring symbol of the peonage cases—even as hundreds and then thousands of other incidents emerged in parts of Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Darkness was crowding black life in America in an ever more sinister way.
Lost in the Alabama peonage inquiry was how the case began—with the report to Judge Jones of a miscarriage of justice in the adjacent Shelby County. Whatever misdeeds had occurred there—especially the fact that Fletcher Turner's family operated a slave-driven quarry within the county— had been almost entirely forgotten. The town of Columbiana—a provincial county seat urgently hoping to embody the incipient gleam of the new century—escaped excoriation. One town nearer to Birmingham than Dadeville, bustling with prosperity, new residents, and a vague sense of Rooseveltian modernity, Columbiana was swelling with new wealth. Old one-man, one-mule mines of the nineteenth century—little more than crude horizontal pits dug into hillsides outside the town—were fast disappearing, replaced by giant brick edifices of factories like the Siluria Cotton Mill, where white men and women could earn wages in regular hourly increments. They worked defined shifts, rather than the meteorological clock of sunup to sundown that had governed farm life since the days of the first settlers. Keystone Lime Co. supplied trainloads of the caustic essential ingredient for iron to the county's biggest employer, the antebellum Shelby Iron Works, and to the ravenous new furnaces coming into blast on the fringes of Birmingham.
The bounding economic progress promised far more for whites than blacks, but African Americans could not resist the entrancing allure of new prosperity. Shelby County was now home to growing numbers of the black members of the Cottingham clan. Brierfield, the old Confederate munitions foundry where Green Cottenham and his family had sheltered during the 1890s, couldn't survive against the new millennium's technology of coal, iron, and steel production. The foundry town had been a refuge for the family in the storm of the late nineteenth century. Sheltered by the foundry's need for a steady supply of black workers, some of the Cotten-hams avoided for a time the resubjugation of African Americans occurring on millions of southern farms. A succession of black men linked back to the Cottingham farm—Scip, the patriarchal slave who now spelled his name Cottinham, his sons, Elbert and Henry, his grandsons, and others—worked in the wilting orbits of fire surrounding the furnaces. Mary and the other wives and older daughters kept house and washed or cooked for laborers. The foundry work was grueling, but for a little longer Brierfield afforded these African Americans a way station of modest freedom and a residue of authentic independence that was fast disappearing for most rural blacks. Relatively remote from any large population of whites, the six hundred African Americans there could avoid the implicit risk of mingling with whites on the roadways into the county seat or accidental conflicts on the back roads of the countryside. The whites of the furnace town needed them. Rev. Starr's old Methodist church still stood—giving Brierfield's black families their own forum for leadership and worship. In a crude, overcrowded school for black children, Green and his two older sisters learned to read and write.
What irony that the maker of cannons for Lee's armies and armor for the Confederacy's warships became a place of refuge for freed slaves. But Brierfield, with its redolent sense of post-emancipation freedom, was vanishing. By 1910 only twenty-nine people remained. Mary Green, and the girls, Ada and Marietta, followed the path of the South's evolving economics, moving to Montevallo, a little town perched on a new coal mine in Shelby County just south of Birmingham. Soon, Mary was working— washing and cleaning for a white man. Columbiana was a short freight car ride away. Whatever remained to harbor Green and his siblings would quickly dissolve before the torrent of trouble pouring across their world.
Late in the summer of the great 1903 peonage trials in Montgomery, Green turned eighteen years old.1 Ada was twenty-one and Marietta nineteen. Green and his sisters and cousins had experienced none of the emancipation exhilaration that their parents and grandparents remembered from the end of the war. Theirs had been a life of perplexing contradiction, of an ostensible but most often unrealized freedom, of supposed political and economic independence from whites but in truth, even in Brierfield, ultimately a complete dependence on the authority and protection of whites—or simply the security of isolation. The sisters would stay with their mother at least until marriage. But Green was nearly a man now, tall, lean, and muscular like his father, sharpened by the paucity of food, hardened by the incessant labor demanded of his life. The freedom of approaching male adulthood—even in the circumscribed South—was an inescapable allure.
Green soon ventured deep into the sphere of white men, though they must have remained a mystery to him. He had to know all the stories of his father and aunts and uncles who had lived with the white Cottinghams on the farm by the river. But those were ancient tales from before his birth. In his iron-town childhood and young adult years, there had never been familial bonds with any white people, especially not the old Cottingham master and his acknowledged offspring.
Green's uncle, Abraham Cottingham, the once spirited Republican, having journeyed farther from the country crossroads where the freed slaves congregated after emancipation from old man Cottingham's farm than any others, made his home in Shelby County. Abraham's sons, Jimmy—known as "Cap"—and Frank, were nearly two decades older than Green, and had already tasted the bittersweet paradox of black life at the dawn of the twentieth century. They had never been slaves. They had voted in elections. Now they had seen all vestiges of legal citizenship stripped away. Cap, Frank, and Abraham cast ballots for the last time in 1901, the final election in which blacks were permitted meaningful participation in Alabama. Green would never experience that act.
Cap Cottingham's ouster from the voting rolls was punctuated a few months later by his arrest, during a visit back in Bibb County, on a misdemeanor charge. He was quickly sold into the bondage of a white farmer named O. T. Grimes. On February 18, 1902, Cap and another prisoner named Henry Johnson successfully fled the farm and escaped.2
In the fall of 1903, as Warren Reese prepared for the last peonage trial in Montgomery, Cap was arrested again, this time by a Shelby County deputy. The charge was for violating the Alabama statute forbidding any person from carrying a concealed weapon. The records of Cap's arrest signal that he was picked up as part of a general roundup in Columbiana to fill an order for black labor from Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co. Cap, a muscular six-foot-tall thirty-five-year-old with skin as deeply black as his great-grandfather Scipio's, was arrested along with another African American named Monroe Wallace. Both were charged with carrying concealed weapons on October 2, 1903, and sentenced to four months and twenty days of hard labor to pay their fines and fees to the sheriff and court. By the end of the month, the two were joined in the jail by seven other blacks arrested for climbing aboard an empty freight car, another for gambling, and one more for an alleged petty theft.
Six weeks later, on November 21, the county's convict labor agent, W J. Farley, emptied the jail and delivered its contents to Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad. Cap Cottingham was turned over for $9 a month.3 He survived his winter in the Pratt Mines and returned to Columbiana the following year. The creep of darkness paused, but it would not last.
As the new century bloomed, the civic confidence of the editor of the gray-typed Shelby County Sentinel was so great that he ordered a photographer to document the landmarks of the burgeoning town and penned a twenty-page paean to its economic prospects and fine citizenry. It was natural, and more than a little self-interested, for editor J. A. MacKnight to do so, given that on the side he was also the town's leading real estate man.
"The town is beautifully situated, on a plateau which is splendidly drained," MacKnight gushed. "There is so little sickness that the doctors are nearly all poor men and their number is few."4
Hyperbole yes, but there was good reason to be enthused. The county was in the sweetest bend of a rising economic curve. More land was under farm production than at any point since the arrival of white squatters a century before. In each harvest since the turn of the century, Shelby's cotton gins and compresses pumped out more than ten thousand bales—totaling in excess of five million pounds of handpicked fiber. The only hint of the coming boll weevil debacle that a decade hence would sweep in to ravage the fields were fearful exclamations from farmers in far-away Texas. The town population, more than two thousand already, was growing at a heady rate. Two railroads, the Southern Rail Line and the Louisville & Nashville, converged at the freight terminal at the end of Depot Street. A cotton gin, grist mill, and warehouses crowded the edge of the commercial district, and plans were being finalized for that most tantalizing of new luxuries, an electric light plant.
Columbiana was brimming with fin-de-siècle optimism. Working furiously to bring a measure of refinement and civic improvement, still coarse towns across the South were laying the building blocks on which twentieth-century American prosperity would rise. The community's most respected leaders championed effulgent campaigns to bring the first paved streets, public schools, and shared utility systems—all social advancements carefully engineered to transform their town but that would also exclude from its benefits nearly all African Americans.5
(There was proof to Columbiana of the town's rising sophistication in Henry Walthall, the son of the sheriff and himself chief deputy at the Shelby County jail a few years earlier. In the 1890s, he helped his father capture and sell black prisoners full-time and taught theater on the side. In the summers, he produced Shakespeare with a local cast until finally joining a traveling theater company. Removed to the nascent Hollywood, Walthall starred a decade later as the Colonel in The Birth of a Nation, D. W Griffith's 1915 blockbuster film based on the Dixon blockbuster, white supremacist stage show, The Clansman. The film was the first moving picture ever shown at the White House. President Woodrow Wilson, a southerner and an open racist, was said to have praised the film.)
At the monumental cost of $250,000, Shelby County erected a new courthouse that without exaggeration could be described only as extraordinary. Replacing an unadorned brick edifice scuffed and scarred with more than a half century of unceremonious use, the new building was a temple to citizen governance and, even more so, to the county's rising expectations for itself.
At the grand entrance on Main Street, four columns soared fifty feet to an ornate Greek Revival portico. Encircling the roofline on every side, a carved parapet railing framed cupolas of hammered brass leaf on each wing of the building. At the center of the roof rose an immense octagonal clock tower, looming magnificently above the town. In the low sun of early evening, the building's chiseled west facade, constructed of thousands of tons of yellow limestone quarried from the ridges above the nearby Coosa River, glowed luminescently The shadow falling to east and south was nearly large enough to blot out the rest of the town's jumble of humble red-brick stores and whitewashed houses. The building was the community's flag plunged into the earth of the new century, a clear portent of the ambitions of those who led it. A new future was coming, to be built and shaped in the manner of its new makers.
The architect of this bold new vision, if not of the courthouse itself, was Judge A. P. Longshore. A lawyer, a devout Baptist, and a fervent populist, he commanded a nearly mesmerized local following. How else that a county still licking its wounds from the Civil War would agree to borrow a fortune to build the grandest courthouse in the South? To Longshore, a rate of 6 percent per annum on county bonds was simply the wage to be paid for a different future. Already, he dressed and looked in the manner of the new century rather than the last. Above a mustache twisted at each end and a tiny tufted goatee on the point of his chin, Judge Longshore looked ahead, only ahead.
From atop the courthouse, Columbiana's other highest spire was clearly visible at the opposite diagonal of town. With angular Victorian sternness, it descended sharply into a square tower of stacked bricks and then three stories down to the iron-barred door of the Shelby County jail. A dozen dank cells on the other side of the building were heated by coal grates and illuminated by shafts of sunlight coming between the bars on every window. As new prisoners passed Sheriff J. H. Fulton's house next door and approached the front entrance on West Sterrett Street, one odd window at the top of the jail's tower could not escape their notice. Almost as tall as a man, circular at the top and rectangular at the bottom, the opening in the shape of a giant keyhole gave view into the county's hanging chamber. There, men condemned to die would arrive on steps from the second-floor cellblock and then twist at the end of a rope, safe from any last efforts to escape their fate, but with justice still plainly on view.6
In the newspaper editor's assessment of Columbiana in 1907, Mac-Knight included just one photograph containing a black face. Standing, expressionless, with each arm draped on the shoulders of a young white child in her care, the woman was identified only as "Black Mammy on Duty." On the whole, MacKnight reported that "the negro population is not excessive, and is orderly and law-abiding. They have their own churches and schools, and many of them own their homes. The ease with which a livelihood is made here renders them independent, and it is not easy to secure either male or female help from among them."7
Indeed, obtaining African Americans was crucial and sometimes difficult, as any traveler arriving in Shelby County during the first decade of the century would have seen long before the train pulled up to the weathered wooden platform in Columbiana. The rails into and out of town were surrounded by endless vistas of cotton and its production.
While the twentieth century brought wonders of technological advancement in the realm of early automobiles, faster trains, and electric illumination, every square foot of cotton field was being tended in a way little different from how Scipio had done it on the Cottingham place in 1840. It took hands. Millions of them had to be available to plow and seed, and millions more to hoe and pick. That meant African Americans. Strong, dependent, docile black men. The leaders of Shelby County and thousands of other southern towns and counties were intent on assuring that they could be found.
The great crusade against involuntary servitude—and especially Judge Jones's famous charge to the grand jury and the Supreme Court's ruling against Georgia's Judge Speer—achieved an unexpected result for those in the South most reliant on black backs. Instead of ending the new regimes of forced labor, Judge Jones's denunciations and the subsequent legal rulings became guideposts for a reorganization of the contemporary traffic in black men. Indeed, the further the court opinions decrying peonage echoed across the southern landscape, the more hollow they became.
The Supreme Court's renunciation of Speer's attempt to outlaw the misdemeanor convict leasing system was so complete that the opinion was not even written, but issued summarily and orally. Among the thousands of words of Judge Jones's famous direction to the federal jury on the definitions of legal and illegal labor practices, a single sentence ultimately rose to greatest prominence. Jones advised that persons convicted of misdemeanors whose sureties "confessed judgment" for them and worked them against their will could avoid violating the peonage statue by following a simple procedure. The laborers must be convicted in an authentic court— not by any bumpkin justice of the peace. The judgment and penalty had to be written down and recorded with the local courts. And the contract between the defendant and the person paying the fine—in which the defendant agreed to work for a certain amount of time to pay off the penalty— had to be signed "in open court with written approval of the judge."
The implication was clear. There would be no risk of another energetic U.S. attorney arresting white farmers for peonage so long as they, and local judges, were sufficiently hygienic in the records they maintained.
The old southern window dressing of legal rights for African Americans won the day again. There was no evidence of the decline anticipated by Reese and Jones in the number of African Americans being held by private individuals as a result of ostensible court fines. If anything, the number of black men "confessing judgment" swelled, now plainly and unabashedly acknowledged in open court. Moreover, undaunted by Judge Jones's ruling against the state's laws forbidding black men from leaving the employment of one white man without permission to work for another, the Alabama legislature passed a new but essentially identical "false pretenses" statute. Once held under a labor contract, black men who attempted to leave their employers faced criminal prosecution for doing so. If they had entered into the contract to avoid an earlier prosecution, the departure would exponentially increase the time they could be held as slaves.
In Shelby County, the number of African Americans "confessing judgment" in open court ballooned.8 Between November 1890 and August 1906, the dank county jail admitted 1,327 prisoners, facing a total of more than 1,500 charges. Physical descriptions were recorded only intermittently, but during the periods when notations of race were made, more than 90 percent of those arrested were black. A few were women.
A fortunate group of 326 prisoners—generally whites and black men with some modicum of means—were able to scrape together enough cash to post a bond and obtain freedom until a later trial date. Most then simply forfeited their bonds and remained free.
Among the 1,001 prisoners left behind, acquittals were infrequent. Fewer than 250 defendants won their freedom, by virtue of a not guilty verdict or some other discharge during the sixteen years. All but a handful of the other 750 were ordered to pay nominal fines coupled with huge fees. A total of 124 of those new convicts, fewer than 17 percent, were able to pay their judgments.
Ben Holt, convicted of vagrancy on August 29, 1906, was ordered to pay the county a fine of $1. The costs of his arrest and prosecution, however, totaled $76.28. Instead of paying, he confessed judgment with a white farmer named James Wharton, who paid the fine and fees and in return owned Holt for a minimum of two hundred days.9
Of the remaining six hundred men, convicted of petty crimes and unable to pay what the courts demanded of them, almost five hundred were bartered into forced labor. More than two dozen convicts were leased to other industrial concerns, eight each to the Sloss mines and Alabama Manufacturing Co. Eight more were acquired by two sawmill companies, Walter Brothers, in Sprague, Alabama, and Henderson-Boyd Lumber Co., in Richburg, Alabama.10
Among the leadership circles of a place such as Shelby County, the casual acquisition of blacks through the now carefully choreographed ritual at the courthouse became a routine perk of modest influence.
Arrested for petit larceny in May of 1905, Jim Goodson was fined $25. To avoid being sent to the mines with other county convicts, he agreed to sign a contract for labor with Robert E. Bowden to work 236 days "in his rock quarry" Bowden bridged two groups common in southern towns—as both an important local entrepreneur and a savvy political intimate of the most powerful town leaders. His thriving quarry, Keystone Lime Co., was a busy competitor to the Turner lime quarry not far away in Calcis. Bow-den's much larger enterprise produced 1,500 barrels of quicklime a day, in fifteen kilns. Deriving lime from the massive formations of limestone undergirding all of Shelby County before the advent of the steam shovel required armies of men engaged in the crudest form of manual labor. Hardly any person would choose such work freely. Convicts were ideal.
For a quarter of a century, Bowden benefited handsomely from the availability of strong black men at the Shelby County jail. Between 1905 and 1913, he took possession of at least eighteen people arrested in the county, after each confessed judgment in open court—just as required by Judge Jones's order.
Nearly all of the essential local enterprises in Shelby County enjoyed at least periodic use of entrapped African Americans. Shelby Iron Works, the area's largest employer and biggest commercial taxpayer, continued to acquire black men by confessing judgment for their sentences before Judge Longshore—continuing a nearly uninterrupted use of slaves and other forced black labor from the early 1860s to the end of the first decade of the twentieth century.
Even Sheriff Fulton periodically acquired blacks through the court for his personal use. Fulton paid fines and costs totaling $58 on a man named John Mack in October 1907, and in return took control of him for six months. One of his favored deputies, W. J. Finney arrested—and then purchased—four different black men between 1905 and 1913.11
Later that year, Peter Minor, faced with a $126 fine for carrying a concealed weapon, agreed to become a sharecropper for W. W. Wallace, the popular mayor of Columbiana and secretary of the Democratic County Committee. Minor agreed to give up half of anything he produced on land provided by the mayor.12
But the largest portion of the men arrested in Shelby County, nearly 250, were sold immediately, for periods of up to a year, to Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co. About one hundred others were sentenced to "hard labor for the county" and then almost certainly transferred to the same place.
Alabama's slave system had evolved into a forced labor agricultural and industrial enterprise unparalleled in the long history of slaves in the United States. During 1906, the state sold nearly two thousand black men to twenty different buyers. Nearly half were bought by the two biggest mining companies, Tennessee Coal & Iron and Sloss-Sheffield. The McCurdy brothers of Lowndes County bought dozens. Hundreds more went to timber camps and sawmill companies.
In addition to the prisoners auctioned off by the state, nearly seventy individual local governments, like Shelby County, parceled thousands more laborers to a hundred or more other buyers.13 These prisoners lived in such misery that even some political figures in Alabama acknowledged the shamefulness of the system. In a 1904 report to acting governor Russell Cunningham, the state's top prison official, J. M. Carmichael, reported that Sloss-Sheffield had been "required to move its prison" at the Flat Top mine to a new location "because of the death rate at the prison formerly occupied by them." Carmichael added that he found: "Hundreds and hundreds of persons are taken before the inferior courts of the country, tried and sentenced to hard labor for the county, who would never be arrested except for the matter of fees involved. This is a condition inexcusable, not to say shameful."14
"The County Convict System is worse than ever," wrote Shirley Bragg, president of the Board of Inspectors of Convicts, in 1906. "The demand for labor and fees has become so great that most of them now go to the mines where many of them are unfit for such labor, consequently it is not long before they pass from this earth…If the state wishes to kill its convicts it should do it directly and not indirectly"15
Bragg was no softhearted interloper in southern affairs. He was a son of a great and once slaveholding Lowndes County plantation family—one whose property had been destroyed, according to family lore, because of their connection to a famous Confederate general during the same raid by Union general Wilson that also freed the Cottingham slaves in 1865.
Yet Bragg, a child during the Civil War, was nauseated by the degradation he witnessed in oversight of the state penal system. "I am more convinced that the ideas of humanity and civilization would be better carried out if the torch were applied to every jail in Alabama. It would be more humane and far better to stake the prisoner out with a ring around his neck like a wild animal than to confine him in places that we call jails, that are reeking with filth and disease and alive with vermin of all kinds," Bragg continued. He called the prison mines, where at last sixty-four miners had died of disease, accidents, or unrecorded causes in the previous two years, "nurseries of death."16
Sloss-Sheffield, the successor to John Milner's horrifying Coalburg and Newcastle mines of the 1880s, had long excelled at the exploitation of this county convict system. The old Coalburg mine—scene of more than twenty years of continuous slave labor—was nearly exhausted. To exploit the remaining coal in the area, new managers at Sloss-Sheffield were building a new two-thousand-foot-deep mine nearby, named for Flat Top Mountain, and an adjoining complex of two hundred coke ovens. Work was hastened after a new round of criticism when thirty-two prisoners died at Coalburg of pneumonia, tuberculosis, and other sickness in just the first three months of the year.17 In September 1902, the company relocated its nearly two hundred state prisoners and nearly a thousand more men purchased from county governments to the vast new Flat Top mine.
But the Pratt Mines complex, so long in production and now so large and intricate that not even the owners could keep up with the locations of all its shafts and underground tangents, outrivaled all other buyers of black men. Spurred by technological advances, Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co. finally conquered inherent chemical flaws that limited the use of iron ore from its mines and mastered production of steel at a commercially viable cost—the first success at rolling steel in the South. "This great corporation has probably done more toward the industrial development of the South than any other agency," enthused the Birmingham Age-Herald.18
By the mid-1890s, more than six thousand men toiled in the Pratt Mines, performing dozens of tasks—digging coal, engineering trains, building ovens, loading and unloading cars, washing coal, charging ovens, operating furnaces—the free workers each earning from $1 to $3 per day19About a quarter of the workers were seized through the judicial system, including 504 at Prison No. 2 in June 1900 and another 400 at Prison No. 1.
The number of free laborers surged past ten thousand, as the company's thirty coal mines—including the fourteen on the outskirts of Birmingham—generated nineteen thousand tons a day in 1900. To provide the most critical raw materials in iron and steel production, TCI—as Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad was commonly known—operated 3,722 coke ovens and four quarries producing one hundred railroad cars of limestone and dolomite every day. Twenty blast furnaces smelted 3,550 tons of pig iron each day. More than two dozen furnaces generated 830,000 tons of iron and steel, shipped to thirty-five states and eight foreign countries. TCI owned in excess of 400,000 acres of mineral lands.20
W. F. Tyler, purchasing agent for TCI's prison mines and fourteen company stores, stocked food, clothing, furniture, and tools to supply ten thousand miners and their families—including provisions for more than one thousand prisoners. "Quote us your lowest price on say 3,000 yards 10 oz wool convict stripes," he wrote to a fabric maker in Columbus, Georgia, in 1899.21 The company issued pay in its own coinage and paper scrip, emblazoned with the Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co. name and the promise "Good At All Stores"—the company's stores. By 1900, the enterprises collected $2 million a year in revenue.
Responding to booming demand, TCI invested heavily in its Pratt Mines complex and dozens of other sites across the seemingly boundless coalfields surrounding Birmingham. It spent $7.4 million to open new shafts, refit old mines, and streamline equipment to extract coal from ever deeper in the earth and speed the tasks of sorting, cleaning, and shipping coal to market. The company's operations teemed with more than twelve thousand miners, guards, construction, and the endless clang, steam, and whistles of locomotives and coal cars.
A thriving, permanent town called Pratt City sprang up nearby, with a bustling commercial district, bars, brothels, streetcars, churches, and an overwhelmingly black population. Six miles to the west, another town, Ensley grew around the company's mushrooming pig iron plant and six open-hearth blast furnaces, each topped with a looming red smokestack perpetually billowing with cinders and toxins. The plants created thousands of the types of skilled jobs that only whites could seek to obtain, and soon more than ten thousand residents crowded into Ensley's houses and hastily erected tenements. TCI's production of train rails and other steel surged to more than four hundred thousand tons annually in the first years of the century.
Scattered everywhere were bulging stacks of rough-cut timber and posts used to shore up the walls and ceilings of mine shafts. Smoke, belching from coke ovens, train engines, and houses, never cleared. The skies were cast with a constant gray haze. In dry weather, a thick black residue of coal coated every flat surface, windowpane, branch, and leaf—insinuating itself under doors and into cupboards of TCI mining camps, inescapable for an army of men and their families. More than a dozen separate major mines near Pratt City soon produced nearly three million tons of coal a year.
Where each shaft disappeared underground, enormous hoist houses contained the elaborate mechanisms—as big as train engines—used to lower coal cars containing miners into the shaft at the beginning of each day and to withdraw them sixteen or eighteen hours later filled with coal. Past the hoist house sat the coal washer—where each day's bituminous produce was washed and any slate or stone accidentally added to the mix removed. Then rose the tipples—massive timbered structures in the design of the huge railroad bridges spanning the great gorges in the West. Trams loaded with cleaned coal were pulled to the end of the tipple and the contents dumped into much larger railroad cars waiting on a track below. From there the coal was rolled to Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad's thousands of stone ovens— to be baked into coke.
Dozens of the beehive-shaped coke ovens sat a few hundred feet east of the prison built at the mine called Slope No. 12. Further on, fanning out from the base of the hill was a rowdy community surrounding Slope No. 12 and nine other coal shafts operated by free men. Thousands of miners and their family members were packed into shacks, tenements, and company houses nearby. A private rail line passed through the nearly denuded landscape, connecting the mines, tipples, and furnaces owned by the company. One spur of track reached a mile-long row of another two hundred ovens, visibly pulsating the darkness with their heat. Beyond them, stretched along a fouled stream called Black Creek, was "Smokey Row," an encampment of rough-sawn company houses occupied by free African American miners, many of whom had survived their time in the prison shaft and then stayed on in the town to dig coal for pay.
Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co. had always been reluctant for politicians, the public, or the region's embryonic unions to realize how lucrative its army of forced laborers had proven to be. Company officials publicly complained about the shiftless and uninspired work of prison laborers and black workers in general. They accused sheriffs of palming off sick and dying men to the mines.
But in fact, the economic value of the slaves scooped up by labor agents across Alabama was enormous. In August 1903, just as Judge Jones was issuing his peonage ruling that, counter to its intention, ratified and codified the process of enslaving young black men, Erskine Ramsey, the longtime chief of the Tennessee's company operations, was privately gloating at the profitability of relying on slaves. "The operation of the convict mines has been very remunerative," Ramsey wrote in a letter to Henry Clay Frick, the notorious Pittsburgh industrialist.22 After building his own coke and coal company in the 1880s and 1890s, with forty thousand acres of coalfields and twelve thousand coke ovens, Frick became partners with Andrew Carnegie, eventually taking over management of Carnegie Steel Company.
Frick was most well known as the man who during the 1892 Homestead incident ordered a small army of company detectives to make war on workers striking at a Carnegie plant on the Monongahela River in Pennsylvania. A dozen people died. Eventually, the state governor sent in eight thousand militiamen to end the fighting. The strike—and organizing union—were crushed. In 1901, Frick guided Carnegie Steel into the merger that created U.S. Steel. Two years later, Frick was one of the wealthiest individuals in the United States, if not the world, and continued to invest periodically in other industrial enterprises.
Ramsey had known Frick his entire adult life—literally growing up as a mechanic in a Frick coal mine supervised by his father. Later, Ramsey was a prodigy executive in the Frick company, becoming its youngest-ever mine manager. An uncanny engineer and inventor, he moved to Alabama in 1887 to become chief mine engineer for Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad. In 1903, Ramsey, who recently had been pushed out of his role as the top official at TCI, was quietly scheming to create a new coal conglomerate in Birmingham. Eventually he would establish Pratt Consolidated Coal Company, which grew to rival the Pratt Mines in size and scope. (The two operations shared the name of Alabama's first frontier industrialist, Daniel Pratt, after whom Alabama's biggest coalfield was named. But the two enterprises were completely independent of each other.)
Ramsey wrote Frick to test his interest in investing in the new projects. Publicly, Ramsey decried the inhumanity of forced labor systems in the mines, but in his letter to Frick the engineer combined a recitation of his last successes at Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad, unveiled attacks on the new management, and provided a report on how effectively forced laborers could be managed.
Ramsey wrote that just before leaving the company, he opened a new mine, Slope No. 10, at the Pratt Mines complex. Transferring convicts taken from the company's first slave mine, No. 1, the new prison was successfully obtaining the "cheapest coal ever produced by the Company"—at a cost of 50 cents a ton. Powered by access to an extraordinarily inexpensive and indefensible source of labor, the company reached a record output of 3.4 million tons of coal in 1900 and continued averaging three million or more tons a year into the next decade. The racial nature of the system was obvious. Of the nearly one thousand convicts in the two mines, no more than seventy were white.23 Without forced laborers, Ramsey's startling successes would have been impossible.
A year after Ramsey's letter to Frick, white miners launched their most ambitious strike ever against Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad, seeking acknowledgment of their new union as a collective bargaining entity. Readying for battle, the company shut down their least efficient furnaces, and most significantly, converted two more mines from free workers to forced laborers.24
The strike collapsed within twelve months. Explaining the company's rationale for crushing the union, Don Bacon, the president of Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad told The Wall Street Journal: "Conditions forced upon the management …had become intolerable. The authority over your property …had to be restored and maintained, or all hope of permanent, successful competition …would have to be abandoned."25
Slavery, and the ability to obliterate free labor afforded by coerced workers, was seminal to the company's success. It continued to aggressively seek more and more compulsory workers—from the state of Alabama, from any city or county, from any source that would sell them. Sometime between 1903 and 1907, TCI acquired from the family of Fletcher Turner—partner in John Pace's brutal forced labor operation—the limestone quarry at Calcis, where so many men seized off the back roads had been forced into slavery26The Turner family, quietly back in the trade of black men after Fletcher Turner's pardon, continued to operate the quarry for Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad.
Nearly a thousand miles—and seemingly a half century in time—removed from the frightening Turner quarry, a historic series of capital events was unfolding in the fall of 1907. A syndicate of Wall Street investors, backed by brokerage firm Moore & Schley, bought a majority stake in the shares of Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad. Armed with new financing from the syndicate, the company launched a major expansion of steelmaking capacity. Its output of iron ingots increased to 400,000 tons in 1906. The following year, it won an order for 157,000 tons of steel rails for the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads—a direct challenge to the hegemony of U.S. Steel Corporation, the great conglomerate of the North.27
But economic turmoil around the world was rattling the network of trusts that had come to dominate Wall Street. These highly speculative banks and financiers paid exorbitant interest rates, maintained lower cash reserves, invested heavily in risky schemes, and backed investors seeking to monopolize key commodities. The future of the great trusts was also in growing doubt due to a push by President Roosevelt to punish John Rockefeller's Standard Oil. A wide-ranging criminal indictment of Standard Oil, alleging illegal pricing practices, rattled the market. In late October, the failure of two prominent stock speculators in a bid to take over United Copper Company led to the bankruptcy of two Wall Street brokerages, a bank, and another mining company. As word spread of the failed scheme and its effect on other prominent bankers, panic set into the markets. Suddenly, multiple trust banks were under threat, and dozens of stock brokerages appeared poised to disintegrate.
To stave off a complete collapse of the New York Stock Exchange and the national depression that might follow, J. P. Morgan, patriarch of the gilded Morgan Bank and architect of the 1901 merger that had created U.S. Steel, began propping up ailing trust banks and investment houses with infusions of his own cash and from other bankers working with him. On October 28, Morgan and two other bankers agreed to loan $30 million to the city of New York, to prevent a failure of the local government.
Five days later, still battling to hold Wall Street together, Morgan concluded that he needed to simultaneously rescue three desperately threatened investment houses, Trust Company of America, Lincoln Trust, and Moore & Schley, the brokerage that had backed the takeover the previous year of Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co. The firm's shares of TCI had been placed as collateral for $25 million in loans that Moore & Schley could not pay off. It would soon be forced to liquidate the stake—the beginnings of a sell-off that Morgan believed might wreck Wall Street.
Morgan proposed that U.S. Steel prevent the dumping of Moore & Schley's stock by buying the stake for a fraction of its value. In return, the presidents of the great Wall Street trusts had to agree to provide $25 million to help bail out the other banks. Henry Clay Frick, still a major owner of U.S. Steel, recognized the potentially vast value of obtaining Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad's mineral holdings and of eliminating it as a competitor. The chief executive of U.S. Steel, a former Illinois judge named Elbert H. Gary closely allied with Morgan, agreed to the purchase only on the condition that the White House first give a promise not to attack the deal as a violation of new anti-monopoly laws.
After an all-night negotiation in Morgan's offices beginning Saturday, November 2, the terms of the deal were hammered out. Judge Gary and Frick sped for Washington at midnight in a special single Pullman car. Interrupting the president's breakfast, they laid out the details of the transaction to Roosevelt and Secretary of State Elihu Root, emphasizing the potential for a national economic disaster if the stock markets weren't reassured.
Within twenty minutes, the president, freshly returned from a Louisiana bear-hunting trip, agreed to support the buyout—one of the biggest financial transactions in the history of American capitalism to that date. Roosevelt wired Attorney General Charles J. Bonaparte that the federal government would not oppose the merger. Judge Gary called Morgan at his offices. Word of the deal spread through Wall Street as the stock exchange opened on Monday morning. The panic subsided. U.S. Steel took control of Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad for $45 million—a minuscule fraction of the estimated $1 billion value of its Pratt Mines and other assets in Alabama.28
That TCI was the largest customer of the Alabama slavery system Roosevelt had once championed the destruction of was not discussed at the White House breakfast. Three weeks later, U.S. Steel's newly installed president of its Alabama property, thirty-eight-year-old George G. Crawford , signed a new lease to acquire four hundred prisoners from the state of Alabama for use in the company's No. 10 and No. 3 mines.
Crawford agreed to pay $42 per month for the strongest laborers and agreed to pay $10 for the weakest. The contract made clear that as soon as the company's newest prison mine, a deep shaft called Slope No. 12, was ready, as many prisoners as possible would be shifted there.29