A War of Atrocities
Green Cottenham huddled behind the worn, whitewashed walls of the train depot in Columbiana. It was a clear, brisk Thursday—sunny and crisp before noon, the temperature easing toward the 70s by early afternoon. Green walked to the train station to play dice, or to find a day's labor, or for some other claimed reason that in truth was no different from any other. The train station was simply where he went almost every day, where nearly all young black men found themselves.
The freight docks of the station in Columbiana, and in every other county seat on the Southern Railway line between Birmingham and Eufaula, a lush cotton center deep in southern Alabama, were the hub of life for African American men in the South in 1908. Open freight cars, easily boarded as trains eased out of towns like Columbiana or when they slowed to cross rickety bridges and tight curves, were the only mechanized means of movement for the armies of destitute blacks searching or waiting for work in the first years of the century—especially those like Green who had uncoupled themselves from the traditional black life of serfdom in a cotton patch. The tracks themselves, removed from the view of most whites, were the safest paths for walking from town to town as well. Either way, a man on the rails or the trains was violating Alabama law by entering the property of a railroad company. But the appeal of motion and movement, of opportunity, that the tracks and trains represented was too much for a young man like Green to resist.
That spring, there were hardly any jobs for cash to be had for a black man, unless he was willing to take up a cotton hoe or venture into the giant lumber camps on the rail lines thrusting into the swampy jungle forests below the Florida state line, or across the Georgia border. Railroad companies claimed to pay $2 a day for a strong hand who could handle an axe, cutting trees or shaping rail ties. But the railroad camps sat at the ends of long spurs cut into near-virgin forests, with no roads or other means of exit except via the trains that brought more fresh backs every day. Once a man arrived, there was no departing unless the camp boss allowed it. And there was no knowing whether the Southern Railway or any other company would keep its word to pay the amount it promised, or even to feed men or keep them out of the rain and swamps. Guards with shotguns and dogs patrolled the perimeters of the worksites. The captains of the camps kept long leather straps, affixed to thick wooden handles, to beat men who tried to flee. County sheriffs developed an uncanny eye for spotting any fleeing African Americans who made it through the woods to a farm or town, and received rewards for hauling them back in chains.
That was the work available to an independent black man like Green: free labor camps that functioned like prisons, cotton tenancy that equated to serfdom, or prison mines filled with slaves. The alternatives, reserved for African Americans who crossed a white man or the law, were even more grim. Still, the freight depots were a magnet of excitement. There was always in some corner a simple game of dice being played for pennies or tobacco. Now and again, the freight agent or some farmer in town with a wagon would pay a man a nickel or a quarter to help move a trolley of crates from an open freight car. In picking season, white men would come to the station every day looking for extra hands in the cotton fields, apprising on sight—by the look of their hands or the smell of liquor on their breath— whether an African American boy or man was worth paying for a week's work in his fields, or whether they belonged to the new class of independent blacks that whites saw as the scourge of their lives and towns.
Regardless of their conclusions, every African American was a nigger in a white man's eyes. So the term for those African American men deemed specifically worthless for their defiant attitudes was "cigarette dudes." These were men cocky by comparison to their peers; they had learned some reading and writing, and sometimes worked and sometimes slouched on street corners. Sometimes cigarettes sat akilter on their lips. There was likely a bottle of moonshine or a pistol in a pocket somewhere among each throng of young men gawking from their poses against the board and batten walls of the freight station. Instead of threadbare overalls, the uniform of all blacks and poor country whites for as long as anyone could remember, these men might wear trousers and jackets, even neckties. They stood by the dozens in the studio of a black photographer in Columbiana, cigarette dudes lounging with their arms draped around black girls in their best Sunday dresses, glaring at the lens. On their faces an air of defiant confidence, visages of the men they knew they should have been allowed to be. Among a population of 8.5 million blacks in the southern states, crushed into subservience in the forty years since the Civil War, these men were the last refuges of resistance as the twentieth century dawned.
According to almost every white, these cigarette dudes were the source of every trouble in the South. These were the blacks never to be hired, never to be befriended—to be denied embrocation of any kind. To be rid of them forever, by whatever means could accomplish that goal, was something nearly every white man in the South, most certainly in Columbiana, had openly called for and worked toward for at least three decades.
This was the snare waiting for Green Cottenham at the Columbiana railroad station on March 30, 1908. On the prior day, a Wednesday, the sheriff's chief deputy, a scrawny white man named Newton Eddings, grabbed Monroe Dolphus, a black man about Green's age, as he stood in the train yard of the depot. The deputy seized Cottenham the following day and tossed him into the same fetid cell where Dolphus had spent the night. There was uncertainty about what charges against the men should be entered into the prison registry at the jail.
Initially, Eddings claimed that the crime committed by Dolphus was taking a 25 cent tin of fish from the lunch pail of a Southern Railway worker. Cottenham was charged with riding a freight train without a ticket. There was no tangible evidence that either man had committed any infraction at all.
Taken before Judge Longshore the following day, Cottenham and Dol-phus each denied the charges. Eddings was unable to produce any evidence or witnesses to convict them. But sticking to the cynical script followed thousands of times in the South, Judge Longshore chose not the release the men anyway. Instead, he declared them guilty of "vagrancy" that catchall offense to which any black man was vulnerable at almost any time. 1
Longshore sentenced both Dolphus and Cottenham to three months of hard labor for Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad. Under its standing contract with Shelby County, the company would pay the county $12 per month for each man as long as he worked in their mines.2 The two prisoners were also ordered to pay fees to the sheriff, judge, and other local officials totaling $31.85 for Dolphus, $38.40 for Cottenham—extraordinary sums for an unemployed black man. Unable to pay those costs, Dolphus was ordered to work an extra two months and twenty days at the mines to cover the fees. Cottenham would have to spend an additional three months and six days.3
A day later, Eddings arrived at the county jail with his shiny, six-inch-barreled Colt .38 pistol in a holster dangling against his thigh. A simple metal badge pinned to his coat read "Deputy Sheriff." He carried thick round manacles connected with three tight steel links. A trace of chains was draped over his shoulder. Eddings barked for Cottenham and the nine other men in the Shelby County cells to get up. It was time to go to "Pratts."
The jail sat at the corner of South Main and Mildred streets, almost directly across from the spare old county courthouse that the town fathers had just abandoned for their ostentatious new structure three blocks to the north.
Green had never felt irons before that day.4 5 As Deputy Eddings clapped a shackle on his left ankle, Green must have been surprised how quickly his skin began to bruise, how heavily the rings of iron clung to the ground between himself and Monroe Dolphus. Then there was the startling sharp cold of the steel when Eddings slipped a metal collar around his neck.
Eddings locked the clasp on Green and did the same to "Mun," as the men called Dolphus, and then to each of the other eight prisoners in the lockup that morning. Earley Bolling, House Pearson, and four others had been arrested at the train station too and convicted for hopping a ride on an empty freight car without permission. Henry Witherspoon was found guilty of petit larceny—a crime applied to the theft of any object worth more than $10. John Jones, arrested as he played dice inside a circle of other black men squatted in the dirt on the edges of the railroad yard, was convicted of gambling. Once all ten were chained together, Eddings told them to start walking back to the railway station. They trudged out the scuffed rear door of the jailhouse and around the corner, passing by the back porch of Sheriff Fulton's wood-frame house next door and on toward Main Street.
All in the ragged group were still in the street clothes they had worn at the time of their arrest. But now the men were smeared with the filth of the jail's grimy, wet interior. Most had been there for several weeks, waiting for the monthly delivery to Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad. Several walked shakily, taken aback by the bright sunlight and unbalanced by subsistence on the sheriff's meager rations and the partial sleep of nights on remnants of putrid bedding. As they passed the sheriff's home, the men crossed the shadow of the jail, looming above them, higher than all the surrounding structures, the face of the massive tower interrupted only by the keyhole window in the hanging chamber.6 On a Saturday morning three months later, the sheriff would release the trapdoor of the scaffold there, and Tom Patterson, a thirty-eight-year-old black man convicted of murder, would twist to his death at the end of the rope.
At the station, Eddings took Green and the other prisoners to the far end of the platform to wait for the early morning train. They rode the one-hour journey in the baggage car. Outside the Birmingham depot, Eddings piled the shackled men into an open, horse-drawn wagon he had telegraphed ahead to hire. Two mules slowly pulled Green and the others away from the city's bustling center, then through the tempestuous streets of Pratt City, past a haphazard cemetery bulging with dead prisoners’ remains near Smokey Row, and finally up the long hill rising from the saloons and whorehouses past the Catholic church to Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad's newly completed wooden stockade at Slope No. 12.
It was a familiar journey for Eddings, and one he didn't mind. He had delivered more than sixty men to the Pratt Mines in the previous twelve months, nearly all of them black men he had himself rounded up and testified against to obtain conviction. As chief deputy, Eddings made considerably less than the high sheriff, but the business of arresting blacks and getting them to the Pratt Mines was a good one for a scantly educated man from deep in the countryside. He'd come to Columbiana to get away from the drudgery of the isolated farm road where his father and older brother lorded over his childhood, while the mother who gave birth to him midway through the Civil War grew progressively demented. By the time Eddings reached manhood, she was fully insane.7
Sometimes it seemed the whole South was insane in 1908. Vast numbers of freed slaves and their offspring like Green had abandoned their former owners’ lands and scattered across the rural landscape, demanding wages and, almost as ridiculously to whites such as Eddings's father, insisting on written contracts to be paid for their labor—despite that only the rarest among blacks could write their own names, much less read the words on the page. Still, blacks insisted upon it, and whites initially acquiesced, knowing that cotton could not be grown and picked without black labor. Stranger still, until just barely a decade earlier, in the counties to the south of Eddings's boyhood home, where slaves had outnumbered whites before the war, tens of thousands of African Americans continued to cast ballots in every election. Only the sustained war of atrocities against African Americans in every section had finally forced them to fully submit to Alabama's new constitution and its provisions banning them from the vote and any aspects of legal equality. Still, a perverse cloud hung over the state of white and black coexistence.
The New South, with its rising great cities of Birmingham and Atlanta, railroads and factories, was by contrast a utopia compared to the civil battlefields of the countryside. Like thousands of other young southern whites and crowds of young blacks, Deputy Eddings fled the scarred rural landscape for a semblance of civilization and opportunity. Now, at the age of forty-two, he was fully a town man, moving on the edge of the circle of leaders who were shaping Columbiana into a model of what prosperous Alabama wished to be in the young twentieth century. He enjoyed the monthly trips, or sometimes more often if the mines needed more men, to deliver African Americans to Pratt City. He ignored the prisoners’ pleas to let them escape and their promises to bring him cash from a father or uncle if he would set them free.
When girlfriends or mothers of young black men came begging at the jailhouse, he couldn't help but be tempted. The carnal pleasures of taking a black girl when you pleased had been a privilege of rich white men for so long in the South. Now simple men like Eddings could do the same—telling girls to come around to the jailer's room for an hour of compulsory sexual performance in exchange for a favor to their man inside. It was hardly even furtive. Guards did the same at hundreds of jails. At the lumber camps in southern Alabama, women seeking the freedom of their men were simply arrested when they arrived, chained into their cells, and kept to serve the physical desires of the men running the camps. The slave camps and mines produced scores of babies—nearly all of them with white fathers.8
There was no risk of penalty to any white law enforcement officer who chose to force himself on a black woman who presented herself in the vulnerable circumstances of a jail. To all whites, these were by definition worthless women—even more worthless than other black females. Even many African Americans, terrified of losing further respect or security among whites, looked askance at any black who became associated with prisoners and debt slavery. These women were friendless and abandoned even among their own. And the laws of the South were interpreted explicitly to ensure that the rape or coercion of a black woman by a white man would almost never be prosecuted as a crime.
Indeed, South Carolina governor Cole Blease, citing his belief in the animalistic inability of blacks to control themselves, routinely pardoned the killers of black men, especially in the case of African Americans committing violence against African Americans. "This is the case of one negro killing another—the old familiar song—‘Hot supper; liquor; dead negro,’ " the governor wrote in one explanation of a pardon. As for sexual assaults of black women, Governor Blease asserted it was the nature of every African American woman to want sex at any opportunity. "Adultery seems to be their most favorite pastime," he said. "I have …very serious doubt as to whether the crime of rape can be committed upon a negro."9
On each trip to Pratt, Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co. paid Eddings a fee for every African American, in addition to his expenses for train fares, meals, wagon rental from the livery, and, occasionally, lodging in the city when Eddings couldn't make the last train back to Columbiana.
Arresting, convicting, and transporting these prisoners was Eddings's primary livelihood. His and Sheriff Fulton's entire compensation came from an assortment of fees charged for every action taken by the office and paid into the Shelby County Fine and Forfeiture Fund. The courts collected fees for serving subpoenas, foreclosing on delinquent loans, arresting and testifying against criminal defendants—tacking the charges onto the fines levied against nearly every person brought before the county or circuit judge. Eddings and the sheriff—along with the court clerk, the town solicitor, jury members, witnesses, and nearly any other white person who played a part in the seizure and conviction of each prisoner—were awarded fees by the judge and received warrants to exchange for the money as the prisoner's labor paid down his fines. Since that typically took months, or years, the sheriff and others accumulated court-issued scrip for the money—IOUs of a sort. Over time, they cashed the redeemable warrants as money accumulated in the county coffers.
The remuneration was often lucrative. Sheriff Fulton, a smooth-shaven man partial to bow ties, was already balding when he was first elected at age thirty-one in 1906. He defeated the former chief deputy by just seven votes—and even then only by packing the ballot box with votes cast by dead men. (Fulton was thrown out of office by a judge two years later for the fraud, but never pursued criminally.) During the November before Green Cottenham was arrested, Fulton cashed out a stack of scrip stemming from sixty-five different cases in the prior year, and collected a total of $373.50— equivalent to about $7,000 a century later.
More lucrative still, Sheriff Fulton, like all his counterparts in Alabama, also was allowed to keep whatever excess remained from the state's monthly "feeding" payments received for food provided to prisoners in the jail. Since nearly all the arrests in the county were of black men who were soon shipped to Pratt Mines, they required little more than cornmeal mush and pork fat, which Sheriff Fulton's wife could prepare. Unlike the occasional white man thrown into the jail, the black prisoners, nearly all of them itinerants with no local families or white landowners to speak for them, could neither say nor do anything about the scant provisions.
Deputy Eddings arrived at the Pratt Mines complex and continued up the hill, past the coke ovens, to the new Slope No. 12 mine at Booker City, a black neighborhood bought up by Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad when a thick mineral vein was identified there a year earlier. He delivered Cot-tenham, Dolphus, and the others to the prison captain. What the company's mine boss and guards did with Cottenham, or any of the hundreds of other black men they purchased, was entirely up to them.
Even as a child of two former slaves, versed in the old people's stories of whips and dogs and weeks spent with feet blistered and fingers bleeding from picking cotton, Green had never conjured anything so foreign as what he witnessed on the surface and in the catacombs beneath Pratt City.
For five days after arriving at Slope No. 12, Green Cottenham had not seen the rising dawn or the setting sun. It was not as if he were a "farm Negro," panging to be on the land and in the sun like so many of the others around him. It was not as if he had never before been in the company of brutish or crude men. And it was not as if he had never before been compelled to spend his days in grueling labor. But however contemptuous he might have been of the whining country boys shivering and sniveling at the shouts of the crew boss, and however boldly he may have challenged any man to touch him, Green could not have been prepared for his fate befallen here.
Green spent every day but one in a vast labyrinth of black rock tunnels, shared only by dozens of dirty mules and squadrons of desperate men, all slick with sweat and coated in pulverized coal. The absence of sunlight, vegetation, or any prospect for the touch of a not venal human hand had to tear at his soul.
Long before sunrise each morning, two white men swung open the doors from the entryway at the center of the wooden prison barrack and pushed into the rancid wooden cavern where Green and two hundred other black men, chained to one another, lay wrapped in coarse blankets. Running the fifty-foot length of the room, a continual series of bunk beds dangling on pipes attached to the ceiling were piled with bodies. Where there was no space on a surface, men draped themselves in suspended contortions across canvas hammocks stretched between the bunks on either side of a narrow aisle down the center. A single potbellied stove, long gone cold, stood at the center of the room.
On Saturday, April 11, 1908, the sudden opening of the doorway ushered in a blast of crisp spring air, cutting with swift relief through the musty wet stink of the men, still sheathed in the black detritus of the mine waiting for them outside. As the guards moved toward the opposite end of the room, releasing the men's irons from chains looped through their beds and barking for reluctant prisoners to wake, the men responded in an awkward, collective undulation. As each awakened and moved, a succession of pairs of legs and irons slid wearily toward the keys held in the hands of the guard, each time pulling the legs of the next man toward the guard as well, and then the next, and the next, all of them spilling gradually off the bunks in a long, groggy metallic jangle.
Once on their feet and refastened to their chains, Green and the column of prisoners filed out through a front stoop, down the wooden steps, and into a plain kitchen. Each man stuffed a biscuit and a cut of cold bacon into his mouth and shuffled out the door. At the point of shotguns, they tramped into the deep darkness, across the bare yard, past the pen of bloodhounds trained to track "Negro scent," past the barrel across which men were stretched naked almost nightly to be whipped with a leather strap, out the mammoth gate of the stockade, and up to the orifice where they would enter the earth.
There, high on the ridge above Pratt City, Green for a moment would have glimpsed the luminescence of the industrial spectacle throbbing atop the geological wonder of the coal and iron ore discovered beneath the hills of northern Alabama. There had been nothing more than one prosperous farm in this valley forty years earlier, but now in 1908 a city of nearly 150,000 people was consuming the land. The acrid smell of coal smoke never dissipated. On the farthest horizon glowed the Sloss Furnaces, where Col. James W. Sloss, the man more responsible than any other for the sensational economic boom of what was called "the Magic City," had presided over a conflagration of fire, machines, and molten iron unlike anything ever before seen in the South. In the valley between the high smokestacks of the furnaces and the hilltop perch of Slope No. 12, the lights of new office buildings and churches glimmered at the commercial center of Birmingham.
One can only imagine what filled Green's mind as he walked toward the manway to Slope No. 12 in the darkness that Saturday morning. Farther than he had ever been in his twenty-two years from the two counties—Bibb and Shelby—where his family, first as slaves, then as freedmen, lived for four generations, blinking through the darkness and the grit in his eyes, he must have studied the molded letters in the concrete archway above the portal spelling the name of the company that for all intents and purposes owned him then as much as old Elisha Cottingham had owned his father and grandfather. Perhaps he mouthed the words—Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co.—and then craned his neck to glimpse behind him the clinking column of slaves, the glow of the city, and, beyond, a last flash of stars and predawn sky.