"I will murder you if you don't do that work."
During the same scorching southern summer that Green Cottenham and so many others died deep in the Alabama coal mines—or at the ends of ropes in places from Texas to Illinois—a litany of horrors from the slave camps of Georgia was spilling into public view in Atlanta.
Beginning late in July 1908, a commission established by the Georgia legislature convened a series of remarkable hearings into the operations of the state's convict leasing system. Meeting early every day and late into the night to escape the city's excruciating heat, the panel called more than 120 witnesses over the course of three weeks to give testimony in the state capitol's regal Room No. 16.
The architects of the investigation—primarily state senator Thomas Felder—launched the inquiry in hopes of proving corruption in the management of Georgia's extensive system of buying and selling prisoners. It would prove that. But as the long line of witnesses perspired beneath the chamber's whirling ceiling fans, they learned of crimes far greater than graft and payoffs.
Across Georgia, fourteen separate camps held men sold by the state; at another sixteen locations men charged in county and city courts were held in slavery—including more than 430 at Durham Coal mines; more than 350 at Egypt, in the plantation belt of south Georgia; nearly 200 at Chattahoochee Brick Company on the outskirts of Atlanta; and scores more at a coal mine near Lookout Mountain. In total, at least 3,464 men and 130 women lived in explicit forced labor in Georgia. 1
Yet so many men had been sold, under so many separate arrangements with work camps, factories, and timber operations scattered across the state, that no one in Georgia government could say where any particular man might have ended up, or the true total of African Americans being held against their will. Complicating any effort to track the fates of these forced laborers, the new slavery of Georgia had metamorphed into a full-blown system of human trafficking.
Felder's committee learned that at least six hundred slave workers, nearly all of them African American, had been resold to other buyers after being leased from the state for convictions on minor offenses.2 Witness after witness—ranging from former guards to legislators to freed slaves— offered nauseating accounts of the system's brutalities. Wraithlike men infected with tuberculosis were left to die on the floor of a storage shed at a farm near Milledgeville. Laborers who attempted escape from the Musco-gee Brick Company were welded into ankle shackles with three-inch-long spikes turned inward—to make it impossibly painful to run again. Guards everywhere were routinely drunk and physically abusive. In almost every camp, forced laborers lived and slept for months in the same tattered clothing. They bedded each night on fragments of bed linens clotted with dirt and filth.
One legislator told of a black man at Lookout Mountain Coal and Coke Company in the mountains of north Georgia whose arm was broken in a rock fall inside the mine. Months later he was working again, but with a disjointed arm, distended in a grotesque misalignment, where the bones healed together in an unnatural shape. At a camp in Floyd County, black women riddled with venereal diseases worked on a roadway chained to one another. Everywhere, prisoners worked, ate, and slept almost continually shackled. Legislators who visited the Pinson & Allen lumber and turpentine camp in Miller County were so revolted by the trash and insect-riddled food given to prisoners, they had to leave without completing the tour.3
In late July, a circumspect fourteen-year-old black boy with a clenched hand gave his name as Daniel Long. What followed was a plain-spoken description of his sentence served a year earlier in a turpentine camp after being accused of stealing a watch chain.
Senator Felder asked him if he'd been whipped.
"Yes sir," Long responded. "Say I wasn't working good enough."
Felder asked how severely and how often.
"Hit me 75 licks…. Some times twice a day," Long answered.4
Asked what was the matter with his hand, Long said the camp whipping boss beat it with a leather strap after Long said he was getting cramps from his work. After that, the boy could never open his hand again. Finally the chairman of the commission asked Long to take off his shirt and let the panel see his back. To gasps of horror in the audience and grimaces on the faces of the committee, the slight young man doffed his shirt and turned to reveal a back grossly swollen and scarred with stripes from the turpentine camp beatings. Scars and marks covered the trunk of the teenager. One foot was still seriously infected where a whipping had literally removed a piece of skin.
Long's mother moved into the witness chair and told the committee how she was notified after his last beating that Daniel was soon to die. The boy had been convicted of petty theft in Marietta, just north of Atlanta, but was sold and resold by traders in black labor until he arrived at the turpentine camp hundreds of miles to the south. She borrowed money to travel to the camp in south Georgia—walking for miles on country roads in search of him. By the time she found the camp, her son had been sold again, along with a crew of healthy prisoners, to a nearby farm. She asked the whipping boss where to go to find her son.
"I don't know anything about the goddam black son of a bitch, I beat hell out of him," Mrs. Long quoted the man saying. "He told me if I went down that road … he would kill me and throw me in the river. He said he had killed lots of goddamn negroes and throwed them in the river."
She went anyway and found Daniel barely alive, lying in a bunk with his clothes stuck to his scabs and oozing skin. The new owner of the lease on her son allowed her to take him home. Only after three months of recuperation did a doctor conclude Daniel would survive.5
As the inquiry progressed, what began as revelations of brutish behavior by uncouth men in distant labor camps slowly became instead an unsettling portrait of some of Atlanta's, and Georgia's, most prominent families—many of whom appeared to be direct beneficiaries of the most sordid revelations in Room 16. The committee learned that the killing of the young black boy described by Ephraim Gaither—whose account of the decomposed body being dragged through the woods by dogs sickened the gallery—occurred in a camp owned by Joel Hurt, one of Atlanta's most esteemed businessmen, and run by his adult son, George.
Other witnesses recounted the fate of a sixteen-year-old white boy named Abe Wynne, who was sold into the Durham Coal and Coke Company mine after being caught two years earlier stealing two tins of potted ham. The company, owned by former Atlanta mayor James W. English, operated a dangerous shaft in north Georgia. Some sections of the mine were filled with more than waist-deep water, which seeped out through the slate surrounding the coal. Pumps were inadequate to remove the water. Not enough timbers were provided for miners to brace the tunnels, leading to routine and often deadly cave-ins. Even when material was provided, miners often skipped the safety steps for fear of being punished if they ran out of time to dig their required daily allotment, or "task," of coal.
"Many times the men wouldn't take time to do it because they knew that they could not timber the walls and finish their tasks, and it meant a whipping if they did not finish them," testified R. A. Keith, a former prisoner allowed to work as a clerk at the mine office.
Every morning, slave laborers at the Durham mines were forced to gather in the yard of the camp to receive a breakfast of corn bread and a piece of raw meat and to watch whippings of any worker who failed to make task the prior day. "I have seen them punish the convicts severely for not finishing their tasks and have seen them work until ten and eleven o'clock at night to finish their tasks and then be whipped for working overtime," Keith said.
Asked to describe the instruments used by the camp whipping boss, Keith said convicts were beaten with a thick strap of leather attached to a handle. "You take a strip of heavy harness leather about as wide as my three fingers or a little bit wider and about two and a half feet long. It would weigh somewhere in the neighborhood of …three and a half pounds," Keith testified. "Some times they would wet the leather by spitting on it and rubbing it on the sand; that was when they wanted to bring the blood. It would hurt a great deal worse to flog them with it than with the dry strap…. The sand will take the skin off."6
In the yard where the whippings took place, the warden also kept a herd of between forty and fifty hogs. The aggressive animals—made fearless of the docile prisoners—crowded in on the emaciated men to grab scraps of bread or other food that fell to the ground. One evening, Abe Wynne was allowed to brew a pot of coffee on an open fire in the yard. Since arriving at the mine as a fourteen-year-old, his once stout, six-foot frame withered to just 160 pounds. When a hog began nosing against him for food, he splashed a cup of hot coffee on the pig to drive it away.
Word quickly spread to the warden that Wynne had abused one of his hogs. As punishment, witnesses testified that Wynne was forced to strip naked, held stretched across a barrel by two other prisoners, and then whipped with a leather strap sixty-nine times. "The whipping was more than he could stand," Keith said.
A few days later, Wynne's older brother, Will, visited what was called the mine hospital. He told the commission his brother was lying on a filthy bed, still wearing his convict stripes with no underclothes and coated in the dust of the mine. "I saw that the boy could only live a short time and it grieved me," testified Will Wynne. "About all I asked him was if he was prepared to die." Delirious and unable to tell his brother what happened, Wynne died a week later. The boy's family was told he'd contracted "galloping" tuberculosis and succumbed suddenly7
James W English, the owner of Durham Coal and Coke, was a luminary of the Atlanta elite and a man hardly anyone in the city rising from the Civil War's ashes would have associated with so cruel a killing as Abe Wynne's. But by 1908, English—despite having never owned antebellum slaves—was a man whose great personal wealth was inextricably tied to the enslavement of thousands of men.
Born in 1837 near New Orleans and orphaned as a teenager, he apprenticed himself to a carriage maker and then served notably as a young man in the Confederate army, rising to become a captain in a prominent Georgia brigade. Serving in a forward position near Appomattox, he received the first written surrender demand from Ulysses S. Grant to Robert E. Lee. After the South's defeat, he went to Atlanta, to establish himself in the business and politics of the bustling new capital of southern commerce. He was elected to the city council partly on the renown of his war service, and later served on the Atlanta school board and as the city's police commissioner. He led a drive to make Atlanta the state capital of Georgia, cementing its foundation as an economic center, and in 1880 he was elected mayor.8
Presiding from a regal home a few blocks from the center of the city, English, a portly man with a thick shock of white hair and a matching mustache, fostered a collection of enterprises that grew as Atlanta emerged from its Civil War ruin. The base of his wealth was the Chattahoochee Brick Company, a business perfectly consonant in the 1870s and 1880s with the needs of a booming metropolis recovering from Union general William Tecumseh Sherman's firing of the city a decade earlier.
As a police official and as mayor, English saw the rich potential of using black forced laborers in his enterprises. Chattahoochee Brick relied on slave workers from its inception in 1878, and by the early 1890s more than 150 prisoners were employed in the wilting heat of its fires. The company held another 150 forced laborers at a sawmill in Richwood, Georgia, three hundred slaves at its Durham mines in Walker County, and several dozen more at English's Iron Belt Railroad and Mining Company. By 1897, English's enterprises controlled 1,206 of Georgia's 2,881 convict laborers, engaged in brick making, cutting cross ties, lumbering, railroad construction, and turpentining.
During his tenure as mayor of Atlanta, English launched the Georgia Pacific Railroad, eventually tying Atlanta to the coalfields of Alabama and then on to the cotton nub of Greenville, Mississippi. While building that rail line in 1883, English illegally bought hundreds of convicts—and the coal mine they worked in—from Alabama's leading slave driver, John T Milner.
English parlayed his industrial wealth to become one of the South's most important financiers as well. In 1896, he founded Atlanta's Fourth National Bank and became its first president. Early in the next century, after a series of mergers, it became First National Bank of Atlanta, one of the largest financial institutions in the South.9
Before the legislative commission in 1908, former employees of Chattahoochee Brick testified that the factory on the outskirts of Atlanta was a place of even greater physical coercion and indignity than the coal mine where Abe Wynne was killed. By the first years of the twentieth century English had turned over daily management of the business to his son, Harry who later would take over operations and build a landmark home on Atlanta's elegant Paces Ferry Road, directly across from the governor's mansion.
English strenuously denied to the committee that any "act of cruelty" had ever been "committed upon a convict" under the control of himself or any member of his family. He insisted that he and his son were essentially absentee owners of the brick factory, having little to do with its daily operations. "I have not been there in over three years," English maintained. His son visited no more than once or twice a month, he said—despite company records showing close family management.
The former mayor claimed he ordered the superintendent of operations to make certain workers "were well fed, well shod, well clothed, and well cared for….
"If a warden in charge of those convicts ever committed an act of cruelty to them," English said indignantly, "and it had come to my knowledge, I would have had him indicted and prosecuted." Yet his testimony affirmed how Chattahoochee Brick—like so many southern industries in which the new slavery flourished—forced laborers to their absolute physical limits to extract modern levels of production from archaic manufacturing techniques of a distant era. The plant used a brick-making process little changed from seventeenth-century Europe. Nearly two hundred men sold by the state of Georgia, the local county, and the city of Atlanta—virtually all of them black—labored at the complex of buildings, giant ovens, and smokestacks nine miles from the city and a short distance from the Chattahoochee River. Thousands of acres of cotton and vegetable fields owned by the company surrounded the plant.
Gangs of prisoners sold from the pestilential city stockade on Bryan Street dug wet clay with shovels and picks in nearby riverbank pits for transport back to the plant. There, a squad of men pushed clay that had been cured in the open air into tens of thousands of rectangular molds. Once dried, the bricks were carried at a double-time pace by two dozen laborers running back and forth—under almost continual lashing by English's overseer, Capt. James T. Casey—to move the bricks to one of nearly a dozen huge coal-fired kilns, also called "clamps." At each kiln, one worker stood atop a barrel, in the withering heat radiating from the fires, furiously tossing the bricks into the top of the ten-foot-high oven.
After being baked for a week or more, the fully hardened bricks were loaded, still hot, in groups of eight or ten onto crude wooden pallets tied to the necks and backs of young black men. The laborers ran—also carrying two more hot bricks in each hand—across the yard and up a narrow plank to train cars waiting on an adjacent railroad spur and stacked the new bricks for delivery. Witnesses testified that guards holding long horse whips struck any worker who slowed to a walk or paused. By the end of every day, 200,000 or more new bricks were loaded on the railcars.
English obviously had grown rich in his years in Atlanta, but few people realized quite how lucrative the slave labor business became. The prisoners of the brickyard produced nearly 33 million bricks in twelve months ending in May 1907, generating sales of $239,402—or roughly $5.2 million today. Of that, the English family pocketed the equivalent of nearly $1.9 million in profit—an almost unimaginable sum at the time.1011
A string of witnesses told the legislative committee that prisoners at the plant were forced to work under unbearable circumstances, fed rotting and rancid food, housed in barracks rife with insects, driven with whips into the hottest and most intolerable areas of the plant, and continually required to work at a constant run in the heat of the ovens. The plant was so hot that guards didn't carry guns for fear their cartridges might spontaneously detonate. One former guard told the committee that two hundred to three hundred floggings were administered each month. "They were whipping all the time. It would be hard to tell how many whippings they did a day," testified Arthur W. Moore, a white ex-employee of the company. Another former guard said Captain Casey was a "barbarous" whipping boss who beat fifteen to twenty convicts each day, often until they begged and screamed. "You can hear that any time you go out there. When you get within a quarter of a mile you will hear them," testified Ed Strickland. 11
A rare former convict who was white testified that after a black prisoner named Peter Harris said he couldn't work due to a grossly infected hand, the camp doctor carved off the affected skin tissue with a surgeon's knife and then ordered him back to work. Instead, Harris, his hand mangled and bleeding, collapsed after the procedure. The camp boss ordered him dragged into the brickyard.
"They taken the old negro out and told him to take his britches down, he took them down and they made him get on his all fours," testified the former prisoner, J. A. Cochran. "I could see that he was a mighty sick man to be whipped. He hit him twenty-five licks."
When Harris couldn't stand up after the whipping, he was thrown "in the wagon like they would a dead hog," continued Cochran, and taken to a nearby field. Still unable to get on his feet, another guard named Redman came over and began shouting. "Get up from there and get to work. If you ain't dead I will make you dead if you don't go to work," Redman said. "Get up from there you damn negro. I know what's the matter with you, you damn negro, you want to run away." Harris never stood. He died lying between the rows of cotton.12
Another black laborer drew the wrath of Captain Casey when he said he couldn't complete his assigned task of tossing 100,000 bricks to the top of a kiln. Sweating so profusely in the heat that the barrel beneath and the ground all around were drenched, the man said he was about to collapse. "God damn your soul," shouted Captain Casey, according to witnesses. "I will murder you if you don't do that work."
Then the overseer told the man to climb down, whipped him with a leather belt attached to a wooden handle, and ordered him back to work. Incensed at the pace the brick thrower was working, Casey ordered two other black laborers to hold him across a barrel and began whipping again. Lash upon lash fell across his back and buttocks. Finally the unnamed man was released. "The negro staggered off to one side and fell across a lumber pile there, and laid there for a while," testified one witness. Soon he was dead. The camp doctor declared the cause of death to have been drinking too much water before going to work at the kiln.13
On Sundays, white men came to the Chattahoochee brickyard to buy, sell, and trade black men as they had livestock and, a generation earlier, slaves on the block. "They had them stood up in a row and walked around them and judged of them like you would a mule," Cochran said. "They would look at a man in the row and say, ‘Trot him around and let me see him move.’ They would come to one fellow and they say ‘there is a god damn good one.’ …They would make such remarks as, ‘There is a man worth two hundred and fifty dollars. There is one worth two hundred.’ "
A similar picture emerged in the investigation around slave camps and coal mines owned by Joel Hurt, the rich Atlanta real estate developer and investor most remembered in Atlanta as the visionary behind the city's earliest and most elegant subdivisions. Virtually every white person of any social significance lived in one or the other of Hurt's signature developments—the High Victorian Inman Park or Druid Hills, an area of wide promenades and lush parks designed at his behest by the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted. Hurt was also the founder of Atlanta's Trust Company Bank—the city's other preeminent financial institution, the streetcar operator that became Georgia's first electric power company, and an early investor in concerns that would become some of the most iconic companies in the South. His namesake building near the Five Points business center dominated the early Atlanta skyline at seventeen stories—making it one of the tallest structures of the early twentieth century.
In 1895, Hurt bought a group of bankrupt forced labor mines and furnaces on Lookout Mountain, near the Tennessee state line. The mines were previously owned by former Georgia governor Joseph E. Brown, who enthusiastically led the secessionist movement in Georgia prior to 1861, governed the state during the Civil War years, and afterward remained a staunch defender of antebellum slavery.
The most powerful politician in Georgia from the 1860s until his death in 1894, Brown, still contemptuous of the Emancipation Proclamation, filled his mines with scores of black men forced into the shafts against their will. A legislative committee visiting the sites the same year Hurt bought them said the prisoners were "in the very worst condition …actually being starved and have not sufficient clothing …treated with great cruelty." Of particular note to the visiting officials was that the mine claimed to have replaced whipping with the water cure torture—in which water was poured into the nostrils and lungs of prisoners—because it allowed miners to "go to work right away" after punishment.14
Called to testify before the commission at the Georgia capitol in 1908, Hurt lounged in the witness chair, relaxed and unapologetic for any aspect of the sprawling business he'd taken over from Brown and aggressively expanded through the traffic of forced black laborers.
After acquiring Brown's mines, Hurt ramped up production, in part to fulfill contracts to sell coal to Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad in Birmingham—which couldn't get enough fuel and ore from its own slave mines to keep furnaces burning at full operation. Hurt already had 125 convicts in his largest slave mine. He bought one of English's mines to acquire fifty men held there, and then set out to obtain even more forced laborers from other work camps around the state.
Hurt's gentle appearance in the witness chair—wavy black hair slicked to his scalp and a soft shaven face that defied the day's convention for thick mustaches—was an almost obscene contrast to the account of slave trading he quietly offered the committee.
Needing more laborers in 1904, Hurt, who identified his profession as "capitalist," said he turned to a man who was "trading in" the sale and resale of leases on convicts. Soon, he was put in touch with J. W. Callahan, who held thirty-nine black and two white men on a turpentine farm in the deep woods of south Georgia. Hurt wrote him on Christmas Eve asking if the men could be purchased. "If you will name the lowest price at which you are willing to dispose of them, we may be able to come to an agreement," Hurt wrote. "In making a price, state whether the men are average able-bodied; how many of them are white, if any; whether any of them are maimed or crippled, or in any way disabled…. Yours very truly, Joel Hurt."15
Over the next week, amid the yuletide and New Year celebrations, Hurt and Callahan furiously traded letters and telegrams negotiating an arrangement for fifty black men. Callahan first demanded an up-front fee of $200 per worker—or a total of $10,000—followed by monthly payments totaling $200 a year for each man. The price of slave labor had changed little in fifty years.
Hurt counteroffered an $8,000 up-front fee, and urgently wired his thirty-one-year-old son, George, managing the company's iron furnace on Lookout Mountain, that the men had been obtained. Before the deal could be consummated, though, Callahan was contacted by another bidder. On January 6, 1905, he sold the men to the competitor in an all-cash transaction.16 An infuriated Hurt continued to wheel and deal in the byzantine web of Georgia's slave traffic—threatening lawsuits against Callahan when he failed to deliver laborers on time and giving cash to state wardens who demanded payoffs to facilitate the movement of laborers from one location to another. "We will hold you for all damages which we may sustain if you fail or refuse to deliver the convicts," Hurt wrote Callahan in early 1905.17
The refined Atlanta businessman was nonchalant when the legislators asked about execrable descriptions of his camps, blaming any excesses on lax guards and wardens who—despite the payoffs made by his companies— he said refused to work the prisoners hard enough.
"They would stand up and let a convict run away from them and be afraid to shoot at him, and the only way to get a warden that was any account was to pay him extra money," Hurt testified. "When a convict starts to escape he ought to shoot, he ought to stop him or run him down and catch him."18
Another witness before the commission—former chief warden Jake Moore—testified that no prison guard could ever "do enough whipping for Mr. Hurt."
"He wanted men whipped for singing and laughing," Moore told the panel.19
When the commission called Hurt's son George to testify, the younger Hurt said convicts in his coal mines had been punished too little—not too much. Asked to cite an occasion when a warden refused to punish a prisoner who should have been, Hurt said: "That would be like numbering the sands of the seashore."20
"Do you remember what you wanted them whipped for?" responded a commissioner.
"For the lack of work," the younger Hurt replied.
"What was the task you required of them?"
"From two to six tons," said Hurt.
Asked why men had been forced to work in the mines into the night, violating prison rules that convicts should labor only from sunup to sundown, Hurt mocked the question: "Yes sir, but they are under the ground and it's rather hard for the warden to tell exactly when the sun is up or down."
Hurt was also sarcastically dismissive of charges that arose from the death of a black convict named Liddell, explaining that the man died not because of a whipping he received but because of "the bursting of a blood vessel while the convict was struggling against a whipping."
Hurt said Liddell was a huge man, weighing nearly three hundred pounds, who refused to enter the mines. A guard chained Liddell to a tree in the same yard where the boy named Wynne had been beaten to death, and forced him to sit for hours exposed to the bright sun. Later, the guard ordered Liddell to lie down for a whipping. When he refused, four men held Liddell while the guard whipped him with a leather strap. Liddell began "growing purple under the eyes," and later died, Hurt testified. He added that the blood vessel most likely burst because "the man was guilty of committing masturbation to such an extent that his mind had become affected."
Hurt said he witnessed another occasion when the warden was struggling to deal with a "powerful negro …who had been insubordinate ever since" arriving at the mine. To force the prisoner to begin digging, a guard told another black convict, named Jim Blevens, to attack him. The two African American men, both forced against their wills into the coal mine camp, now stood in the prison yard facing each other like gladiators, holding mining picks in their hands. The face-off lasted only seconds. The "insubordinate" man lunged forward, swinging his pick wildly. The smaller man stepped aside to dodge the attack and then swung his own tool in a high downward arc. The long blade of the pick descended onto the other man's head—piercing his jaw, throat, and chest. The wounded prisoner fell to the ground, Hurt testified, and Blevens "then put his foot on the negro's head and pulled his pick out." The injured man died from the wound.21
As the legislative inquiry progressed into August 1908, the sordid stories of illness and mayhem—coupled with even more voluminous accounts of corruption and payoffs—stirred an outpouring of public condemnation. Atlanta's leading pastor, Dr. James W Lee, sermonized at Trinity Church that the convict leasing system was a "disgrace" to the state. His and other churches passed resolutions calling on the legislature to abolish the practice entirely22
A technologically more advanced competitor in the brick-making business—a young engineer named B. Mifflin Hood—began advertising "Non-Convict Bricks" in the Atlanta Constitution. The city council—which previously bought millions of the former mayor's hard red rectangles to pave hundreds of blocks of sidewalks—voted to bar the purchase of any goods made by convicts.
Finally a crowd of more than two thousand people gathered for a mass meeting in Atlanta's Grand Opera House—the same forum where The Clansman had drawn sell-out crowds two years earlier. Presided over by the state's sitting governor, Hoke Smith, the gathering listened to a series of speeches condemning the lease system and then voted overwhelmingly to support a call for its abolition. Similar public meetings in the town of Rome and elsewhere across Georgia on the same day produced the same result. Newspaper editorials chimed in agreement—though most said the prisoners should be taken out of private hands and put to work improving the state's desperately inferior roads.23
Spurred by the public outcry, Governor Smith called a special session of the state legislature, which authorized a public referendum on the fate of the system. In October 1908, Georgia's nearly all-white electorate voted by a two-to-one margin to abolish the system as of March 1909. Without slave labor, business collapsed at Chattahoochee Brick. Production fell by nearly 50 percent in the next year. Sales—of nineteen million bricks—dropped to less than half of 1907. Total profit dwindled to less than $13,000.24
The apparent demise of Georgia's system of leasing prisoners seemed a harbinger of a new day—especially coming just two years after Atlanta's bloody race riot. Social progressives applauded the abolition of state-sponsored forced labor as a sign of racial moderation. Several states had already taken the momentous step before Georgia. Tennessee eliminated the sale of men into its coal mines in 1893. South Carolina moved to end the state government's direct involvement in selling prisoners by the turn of the century. Louisiana banned the leasing of state prisoners in 1901—spurred by a political rivalry between the biggest buyer of men in the state and elected leaders in control of the state capitol. Mississippi's uncouth governor James Var-daman successfully pushed for stopping the lease in 1907, primarily to punish the rich cotton planter class that were his primary political enemies.25Within another five years, Arkansas and Texas had abandoned the system as well. In Arkansas, the outgoing governor, a longtime opponent of the practice, pardoned in his last days in office hundreds of the prisoners held by the state—making leasing moot.
But the harsher reality of the South was that the new post-Civil War slavery was evolving—not disappearing. North Carolina banned leasing just before World War I and then revived it afterward. In Florida and Alabama— where the state-sanctioned practice of buying and selling slaves was just reaching its most evolved and highly organized form—convict leasing remained immune at every level to the ostensible "reforms" that swept other states. Most of the "abolitions" were motivated either by political imperatives or simply by the changing economic and technological circumstances of the South. As African Americans across the region were ground into political and economic penury, the difference in the costs of legally enslaved and free, but impoverished, labor narrowed dramatically. The cost of buying prisoners from state governments had risen substantially—while the cost of "free labor" available from hundreds of thousands of essentially indentured black laborers working on southern farms was flat or declining.
Moreover, while thousands of state prisoners in Georgia, the Carolinas, and other states were no longer leased to private corporations, they were being forced into an "improved" method of coercing labor and intimidating African Americans—the chain gang. Throughout the South, peonage and the leasing of prisoners by county sheriffs—long the most terrible aspect of the practices—continued unabated.
Alabama's system of selling black men through its courts and prison laws continued for more than fifteen years after U.S. Steel took its last shipment of convicts. Shelby County and most local governments continued a prosperous trade in African American forced laborers, though in the new and more orderly fashion mandated by Judge Jones. The confessions of judgment coerced upon thousands of African Americans for trivial or unprovable offenses were now carefully recorded in court files.
In Washington, D.C., there was little evidence that forced labor was abating. The offices of the attorney general and the White House continued to receive a stream of allegations of peonage and involuntary servitude as elaborate and extreme as those that had occurred on the farm of John Pace.
A deputy U.S. marshal in Roanoke, Alabama, reported in the spring of 1906 that a white man named Silas Lacy was operating a railroad construction camp as terrifying as those of three decades earlier. Dozens of slaves were arrested on fabricated charges, held against their will, starved, and subjected to daily lashings and tracking dogs. At least three workers had been murdered by the owners.26
Notified of the findings, the U.S. attorney general authorized sending a federal detective in to perform a larger investigation. On May 7, 1906, the agent wrote Warren Reese's successor in Montgomery, Erastus J. Parsons, describing the sweep of involuntary servitude and the perversion of the local courts to sustain it in the southeastern counties of Alabama. The deputy said Lacy was holding throngs of black men under the cruelest conditions, he wrote. One "negro boy" who attempted to flee Lacy was recaptured, whipped, and left for dead. Another black man, Josie Frank, was "held by force and kept in a state of fear." Two other black men, Curly Johnson and Carry Hatton, were "arrested on a bogus charge" and held in involuntary service to pay a fraudulent fine. "There are dozens of other similar cases," the deputy wrote. At another camp nearby, a white man named Henry Lee chased down two fleeing black workers with dogs, "captured them and carried them back to his camp chained together." Just west of the Tallapoosa River, a partnership called Mason & Brother routinely "had negroes arrested on bogus warrants, in order to get them, making them work out the cost of the arrests," wrote the marshal.27
"Many of these parties are cruelly treated and chased by dogs whenever they attempt to make escape," Parsons wrote to his superiors in Washington. But even Parsons feared that a prosecution of the slaveholders would fail. "The trouble in getting convictions has been that the defendants, after being arraigned before a Commissioner, somehow succeeded in driving away the witnesses," he wrote. "The negroes employed about these railroad camps are gathered from the large cities throughout the south. They are invariably given nicknames upon reaching the camps and after making their escape … it seems utterly impossible to get any trace of them whatever."28
Parsons also knew that regardless of how gravely blacks were abused, cases brought against whites for holding slaves were almost certainly doomed in Alabama. No matter how strong the evidence, he became reluctant to seek charges. He passed on to Alabama officials the report he received from a Secret Service agent on the Lacy case. "I have requested the authorities of the State of Alabama to investigate," the prosecutor added.29It was ignored.
An atmosphere of intimidation suffused the areas where involuntary servitude remained rampant. A black man named D. P. Johnson spirited a letter to the Department of Justice in the late winter of 1907 through a veterinarian near Banks, Alabama, claiming he was being forced to work on a county road gang to pay off debts in connection with "a contract which he forced me to sign." The white claiming the debt had already seized Johnson's farm, but insisted on receiving more. "He sent me here to work out the fine and cost of the court and the sum of money he claims to advance me. Please investigate case for I am deprived of my liberty without due process of law." Johnson said he had been denied the opportunity to bring witnesses before the jury that convicted him. A federal agent visiting the Pike County convict camp, Johnson wrote, "will find condition unparalleled in our free country." The letter was filed without follow-up.30
In the fall of 1907, Parsons dolefully reported to the Department of Justice an account of what happened to Ed Bettis, a black man in Lowndes County who had the temerity to testify against Jim Payne, the white farmer holding him as a slave. Payne was arrested by a federal marshal on the basis of Bettis's statements, but the charges were dropped at a preliminary hearing. Avoiding prosecution, however, was not sufficient for Payne, who after the court hearing paid a local deputy sheriff named Underwood to seize the black man and drag him to a county jail in the provincial town of Hayneville. "And there gave him a brutal whipping, because, as stated by Underwood, he had sworn out a warrant for a white man." Once again, Parsons politely sought permission to send a marshal to the area for an investigation.31
In December 1907, Judge Jones contacted Parsons with allegations he had received that a lumberman named Henry Stephenson was holding large numbers of black workers in forced labor at a cross-tie camp near Enterprise, Alabama. An anonymous informer wrote Judge Jones that when one black worker ran away and then refused to return to the camp after being tracked down, Stephenson told him: "If you don't cut ties for me you won't cut them for any one unless you cut them in hell." The white man then put a pistol to the head of the unnamed black man and fired "probably a fatal wound." At least one other white man was present, and reported nothing of the killing to police authorities.32
A year later, on December 22, 1908, William Armbrecht, the U.S. attorney in Mobile, Alabama, wrote a disappointed letter to the U.S. attorney general. Armbrecht had presented the evidence to a federal grand jury in Selma related to an allegation that a white man named Pete Nevers was holding debt slaves. "I did every thing I could to secure an indictment but failed. I can not understand why an indictment was not found except that, the country members of the Grand Jury in that section of Alabama are not disposed to find true bills in cases of peonage. The failure to secure indictments was not due to any lack of investigation on the part of the Special agents who investigated this case, nor do I think it was due to any failure on my part to present the case properly. "33
Indeed, even after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding the laws against peonage, Alabama's judicial system continued to routinely assist in the holding of black workers to involuntary servitude. Armbrecht, the mystified failed prosecutor in Mobile, learned in January 1909 that the deputy sheriff in Selma had wired the sheriff in Mobile to grab a local black man named L. McIlwane and hold him on any charge until he could be picked up. McIlwane's alleged crime was that he had broken a labor contract with a white employer near Selma. The local sheriff duly arrested McIlwane for "vagrancy" and then turned him over to the other sheriff when he arrived.
"This appears to be a clear case of peonage," committed by the sheriffs of two of the state's largest towns, Armbrecht wrote.34
In 1909, an internal review of all peonage prosecutions in Alabama in the first decade of the century found that of forty-three indictments issued—including those of Pace and his co-conspirators, all ended in acquittals, dismissals, suspended sentences, or presidential pardons. A total of $300 in fines had been collected from the defendants; four of those convicted served short periods in jail.35
Evidence of widespread peonage in Alabama and elsewhere in the Black Belt sections of other southern states barely slowed. In 1913, two Alabama men, Butler and John Searcy were finally tried on peonage cases—having first delayed their trial by several years by kidnapping the primary witness against them, a black man named Wash Gardner, and shipping him to Cuba. The jury refused to convict.
It was plainly apparent that convictions on peonage charges would be nearly impossible to obtain. As cases collapsed, U.S. attorneys in various districts continued to go through the motions of investigating allegations of slavery. But indictments grew rare. More and more often, federal officials— citing a highly technical reading of the peonage statute—asserted that they had jurisdiction only in cases in which a slave was being held specifically to repay a debt. Adopting the same legal rationale put forward by the defense lawyers in the trials of 1903, officials increasingly took the position that merely forcing a man or woman to labor for nothing—or buying them for that purpose—was not a federal crime. Responsibility for any "action" to combat it "lies entirely within the state," said the Department of Justice.36
The new slavery reached a critical plateau. The resubjugation of southern blacks was achieved in such broad totality—and reaffirmed with such crushing consequences for millions of individuals, that codes and statutes were increasingly unnecessary for its preservation.
African Americans had virtually no political representation in any place in the South—even those where blacks of voting age made up the overwhelming majority of the population. Public education for African Americans was a threadbare reflection of that provided for whites—limited to half the number of days provided for white children in most cotton-producing counties. Only 5 percent of whites were entirely illiterate in 1910; nearly a third of blacks were. Nearly 69 percent of white children attended school; 37 percent of African Americans did so. Laws written and unwritten barred African Americans from selling the produce of their farms to anyone but the most powerful white merchant in their worlds and prohibited them from buying goods from anyone else as well.
A local grand jury in Birmingham reported that the bartering of African Americans for sale into the state's coal mines and the collusion of local justices of the peace in the system were only increasing. "The dockets of the justices of the peace in this county would convict many of them for peonage should the federal government choose to enforce its laws," read the final report of the grand jurors, issued in September 1911. It cited thousands of unwarranted arrests and instances of cruelty, such as seventeen men penned into a fourteen-square-foot holding cell without food for up to two days.
"It would be far better for the state of Alabama that every misdemeanant in the county of Jefferson should go unpunished than for a court to be run for the oppression of those unable to protect themselves," the jurors concluded. The U.S. attorney in Birmingham forwarded the report to Justice Department officials in Washington, but no federal action was ever undertaken in response.37
Desperate for traction in the face of the forces coalescing against African Americans, W. E. B. DuBois launched what would be the NAACP's seminal organ, The Crisis, in 1910. But the same year, Baltimore, followed by a host of cities across the South, enacted the first local ordinances delineating the geographic boundaries of black and white neighborhoods.
The election in 1912 of Woodrow Wilson, an openly white supremacist Democrat from Virginia, precipitated a dramatic expansion of Jim Crow restrictions on African Americans. In the nearly half century since the Civil War, the federal government had been the one province of American public life where black officials could still be appointed to important public positions, such as postmasters, customs officers, and other administrative roles. The Washington government hired thousands of black workers, and within federal buildings, African Americans maintained a measure of civil equality with whites.
Wilson, narrowly elected in a split election among himself, Republican William Howard Taft, and Theodore Roosevelt running on an independent Bull Moose platform, aggressively reversed the federal government's traditions of at least modest equity for African Americans. In paradoxical contrast with the "Wilsonian" reputation the president developed after World War I for his pursuit of the visionary League of Nations, Wilson dramatically curtailed the number of black appointees in his own government. His administration largely introduced to Washington, D.C., the demeaning southern traditions of racially segregated work spaces, office buildings, and restrooms.
Wilson strongly backed the demands of southern leaders that their states be left alone to deal with issues of race and black voting without interference from the North, ensuring there would be no challenge to the raft of laws passed to disenfranchise African Americans across the region. Another half century would pass before the civil rights movement could crack the anti-black legal regime consolidated during Wilson's tenure.
After being named president of Princeton University in 1902, Wilson openly discouraged African Americans from applying to the school. In his academic writings as a political scientist, he blamed the existence of slavery not on American leaders but on England's imposing the institution upon its colonies despite England's abolition three decades before the Civil War.
Wilson accepted the most distended idealization of the antebellum South and demonization of the black political participation that followed. "Domestic slaves were almost uniformly dealt with indulgently and even affectionately by their masters," he wrote. The Reconstruction era of African American governance in states with black majorities was "an extraordinary carnival of public crime." Wilson called the eventual suppression of black political activity "the natural, inevitable ascendancy of the whites."38
In 1910, the vast majority, more than 93 percent, of the 10.2 million African Americans living in the United States continued to reside in the South. Nearly 60 percent of adult black men and nearly 50 percent of black women worked in farming.39
Among whites, farming was a path to or an established form of economic independence. More than 3.7 million white men, more than two thirds, owned their own farms. Conditions were more than reversed for blacks. Fewer than one third of nearly 900,000 farms operated by African Americans were owned by the black men who tilled the land. The rest worked at the behest of white men.
There is little empirical evidence on which to establish the precise economic arrangements between most black families and the landlords who so dominated their lives—especially on the question of how many black families lived in a form of uncompensated, de facto involuntary servitude. But what record survives indicates that the desperate plight of black farmers captured in DuBois's loosely fictionalized account of Lowndes County, Alabama, was only worsening. When federal census takers questioned every farmer in the United States in 1910, they calculated that nearly 700,000 black men, along with at least 2.5 million wives and children, lived and worked in the murky limbo of sharecroppers and rent farmers. Tenants ostensibly paid some form of rent for the land they farmed; sharecroppers gave up most of their crops at the end of each season to a landlord in return for use of his property, a house, and supplies. But under the South's regime of legal restrictions on black mobility and job freedom, the vast majority of those African Americans lived in a state of subjection to the white landowners or employers. Federal enumerators were unable to classify tens of thousands more men for whom the nature of their relationship to white landowners was unclear.
A separate federal survey of farmers in 1909 gave a telling clue to the true status of African Americans who whites would have claimed were free laborers. Of nearly 2.5 million farms in the eleven states of the old Confederacy, the owners of almost 1 million farms reported giving some form of compensation to workers during the previous year. On most of the farms— a total of more than 850,000—the entire compensation to "laborers" for the year was less than seventy-nine dollars.40
When The Birth of a Nation, the movie version of the racially vitriolic stage play The Clansman starring the former deputy sheriff from Shelby County, Alabama, appeared in 1915, President Wilson enthusiastically embraced it. The best-selling creator of the play, Thomas Dixon, who had proclaimed in Atlanta less than a decade earlier that the duty of every southern white man was to preserve "Aryan supremacy," was a classmate from Johns Hopkins University and longtime friend of the president.
Swept up by the movie's romanticization of the Ku Klux Klan's savage war on black political involvement in the 1870s, white audiences thrilled to the silent movie, the first full-length American film. It became Hollywood's first true theatrical blockbuster. Its screening for President Wilson was the first showing of a moving film at the White House. Wilson helped arrange previews for other elected officials, members of his cabinets, and justices of the Supreme Court. "My only regret," he reportedly said, "is that it is all so terribly true."
As discomfiting for blacks as the president's embrace of a film that depicted their participation in public life as no less than venal was an extraordinary combination of applause and silence from other white Americans. Even in the most distant left-wing reaches of white political activism in the North, the embryonic movements to create socialist and communist parties in the United States, many succumbed to the lure of a caricatured view of African Americans as an inferior class capable of comic relief but little more. The Masses magazine, a groundbreaking socialist journal published in Greenwich Village, routinely ran cartoons and spoofs depicting large-lipped, buffoonish blacks. "Your pictures of colored people …depress the negroes themselves and confirm the whites in their contemptuous and scornful attitude," wrote a critical reader in a 1915 letter to the editor.41
In Alabama's forced labor coal mines, more than three thousand prisoners were at work by 1915.42 A study commissioned by Alabama's governor three years later concluded that the state's convict system remained an "extraordinary hazard to the life and limbs" of anyone pulled into it. He recommended abolishing the labor system entirely43
As thousands of black soldiers returned to the United States after the end of World War I in 1918, anticipating that their service overseas would earn some relief from racial animosity at home, whites across the country rampaged again, with gruesome riots in South Carolina, Texas, Washington, D.C., Illinois, and Arkansas, and a new wave of lynchings.
In the spring of 1920, a white farmer in rural Jasper County, Georgia, visited the prison stockade on Bryan Street in Atlanta—the same one James W. English had relied on as a supply of slave labor for Chattahoochee Brick two decades earlier. He spotted a strong, young black man whose nickname was "Iron John," and paid his fine in return for a contract on the prisoner's labor, probably for one year.
Repeating the ritual that played out hundreds of thousands of times in hundreds of counties across the South over more than half a century since the end of the Civil War, the farmer, John S. Williams, took the man back to his sprawling plantation and ordered him to get to work or expect to be brutally punished. He was locked into a bunkhouse with about forty other black men acquired by similar means and held against their will.
It wasn't long before Iron John drew the wrath of Williams's grown son Leroy—who believed the new laborer wasn't working hard enough on a crew of black laborers ordered to build a fence. Iron John was stretched across a gasoline barrel, naked from the waist up, and whipped long and hard with a buggy whip. At some point, he cried out angrily, "Don't hit me no more …I'd rather be dead than treated this way"44
Leroy Williams drew his pistol, stepped forward, and shot the striped and bleeding black man in the shoulder. "Do you want any more?" he asked.
"Yes …shoot me," he answered.
The white man raised the pistol to Iron John's head and fired into his skull. He died instantly. At the instructions of the white man, other laborers attached Iron John's body to a heavy log with wire, rowed it to the middle of a farm pond, and allowed it to sink.
The murder—and certainly the whippings that preceded it—were hardly unusual. There had been many of the former and thousands of the latter by the time a black laborer named Gus Chapman escaped from the Williams plantation in November 1920. Early in 1921, he made his way to the federal courthouse in Atlanta. Two weeks after Chapman told his story to federal officials, two agents from the Department of Justice's still new Bureau of Investigation visited Williams to inquire about conditions.
They found eleven black forced laborers working in a field, all of them evidently there to work off criminal fines supposedly paid on their behalf by Williams. The African American men were supervised by Clyde Manning, a black overseer long entrusted by Williams to keep the men on the farm while he was away. While the agents were there, the plantation owner returned home. Williams, a thin fifty-four-year-old with a drawn face and slight mustache, invited the two officers to sit and have a glass of tea. Reclining on chairs on the porch, the agents asked if the black field workers were being held in "peonage." Williams asked them to explain exactly what the "peonage" law was about.
"If you pay a nigger's fine or go on his bond and you work him on your place, you're guilty of peonage," replied George W Brown, one of the Bureau of Investigation agents, using the time-honored southern signal that his questions didn't indicate any particular regard for black people.
Williams laughed softly, according to later testimony. "Well, if that is the case, me and most of the people who have done anything of the sort were guilty of peonage," the farmer replied. "I don't keep any of my niggers locked up. Of course, I do tell some of them they shouldn't leave before paying the fine they rightly owe me."
Brown and his partner seemed satisfied with the answer. The farmer relaxed. But then Williams began to talk more about the farm. He described how he sometimes hunted down escapees and forced them to return. The agents asked if they could look around the plantation. They saw the slave quarters, where shackles and chains were clearly used to restrain forced laborers at night. Every black worker they quizzed, while appearing terrified and reluctant to talk, nonetheless said they were satisfied with their treatment on the farm. None of the workers spoke of the murder of Iron John or other acts of violence on the farm.
By the end of the day, the agents were convinced that Williams had committed at least a technical violation of the peonage statute. But to a pair of experienced field agents, both native to the South, the situation looked typical for most big southern farms. The anxiety and mumbling of the workers were routine, given the unwavering social custom of blacks showing absolute deference to all whites and open fear to law enforcement. After all the years of investigations and failed peonage prosecutions in the South, Brown knew no Georgia jury would convict a white man for practices engaged in by tens of thousands of other white farmers across the region— especially since Williams's laborers appeared relatively well fed and clothed. This wasn't a case worth wasting time on. The agents explained the anti-peonage statute to the farmer again, warning him not to violate it further.
"I don't think you need to have any fear of any case before the federal grand jury," Brown told him as they departed.
That assurance wasn't enough for Williams. He was an intelligent and relatively worldly man. Now that he understood the peonage law more clearly—and knew that federal agents had identified him as a violator— Williams recognized his vulnerability, and that of his adult sons. The property he and his oldest sons farmed stretched for miles across Jasper County. In Williams's big house at the center of the plantation lived his wife and eight minor children.
He had built a comfortable and influential life, and a farm admired for its size and profitability. Williams had the distinction of owning an early automobile, and the ear of white county leaders. He would not risk seeing a personal empire built over twenty years ruined. Williams resolved that no African American would ever testify of the slavery on his plantation.
Just after dawn the next morning, Williams found Manning, the black overseer, in the early chill and told him the other workers could "ruin" them all. "You have to get rid of all the stockade niggers," Williams said. "We'll have to do away with them."
Two days later, Williams and Manning attacked Johnnie Williams, one of the forced laborers, in a remote pasture and bludgeoned him to death with the flat side of an axe. The following morning, John Will Gaither was ordered to begin digging a new well. Once it was a few feet deep, he was killed with a pickaxe blow to the head and buried in the hole.
On the evening of Friday, February 25, 1921, a week after the federal agents visited, Williams entered the slave quarters and told the stunned men they were free to go. He said John Browne and Johnny Benson should get in his car to go to the train station that night. Instead, Williams drove them to an isolated spot, where Manning wrapped chains around their bodies and attached a heavy iron wheel from a cotton press. The pair were thrown alive off a bridge into the Alcovy River, where they sank into the murk and drowned.
As darkness fell on Saturday night, Willie Preston, Lindsey Peterson, and Harry Price climbed into the car under the same ruse. They were chained to bags filled with bricks, and Preston and Peterson were thrown off a different bridge. Price, resigned to his fate, jumped in on his own. Before the church hour on Sunday morning, Manning split Johnny Green's skull with an axe. The white farmer watched as Manning attacked and then instructed him to keep hitting Green's shattered skull until all signs of life ceased.
After a Sunday dinner of fried chicken and biscuits, Williams called for Willie Givens, another black slave worker, to join him and Manning for a walk into the nearby woods. At the edge of the forest, Manning sank his axe in Givens's back. A week later, Williams drowned Charlie Chisolm, the other African American who had been ordered to assist in the killings, and then shot to death Fletcher Smith, the last of the other forced laborers.
A total of eleven African Americans were murdered to conceal slavery on the Williams farm. Men who had grown to adulthood in a South steeped in terror of physical harm, or even more brutal forms of involuntary servitude, in which they had no cause to expect justice or equity from any white person, passively resigned themselves to violent death, unwilling or unable to resist.
Only after decomposing bodies began to surface in the rivers of Jasper County did the federal agents who had been willing to ignore Williams's slave farm a few weeks earlier grow suspicious. Williams and Manning were eventually tried and convicted for murder in connection with the killings. Williams—the only white man found guilty in Georgia of killing a black man during the ninety years between 1877 and 1966—died in prison.45
The Williams farm was exceptional in the level of violence used to conceal its use of slave labor—and the degree to which the revolting details of that violence came to be revealed. But as John Williams easily admitted to the federal agents when they first arrived at his property, forced labor remained as ubiquitous as cotton in the South, an endemic feature of the landscape and economy.
During the investigation of Williams, a government prosecutor brought charges against Arthur Farmer, Dr. James T. Tyner, and Charles Madares for holding slaves in central Alabama. After the indictment in March 1921, the primary witness in the case, a black man named Jim Sten-son, was kidnapped—twice—and spirited out of the state. The white men eventually pleaded no contest to the charges and received a nominal penalty. There was no prosecution for having intimidated their victim into refusing to testify46
Increasingly, after years of absolute political hegemony by the white supremacist southern wing of the Democratic Party, federal officials in the South wanted as little as possible to do with the political and social inflammation that came with investigations into any racially oriented crime. An accusation in 1924 that the logging camp and sawmill of S. J. Wilkins on Alabama's Tombigbee River had held a twenty-two-year-old African American man and his fifteen-year-old brother for more than nine months— claiming they owed the owner $150 each—went nowhere.47
U.S. attorneys and field offices of the Department of Justice abrogated their role in such cases, knowing full well that virtually no act of violence by whites against African Americans—and certainly no cases of involuntary servitude whatsoever—would ever be prosecuted by sheriffs or state officials in the South. In April 1926, federal authorities in Birmingham were told of a brutal whipping given to a black man working in a textile mill as a signal to other African Americans that they shouldn't seek work above the level of floor sweepers or janitors. The following month, J. Edgar Hoover, director of what was then called the Department of Justice's Bureau of Investigation, wrote Assistant Attorney General O. R. Luhring blithely asserting that the facts surrounding an attack on a black worker by whites in the Birmingham, Alabama, textile mill didn't merit a federal investigation. "We have an enormous amount of work on hand involving undoubted violations of Federal statutes and I can see no reason for proceeding with this matter," Hoover wrote.48 The case was ignored.
Two months later, a black woman in Birmingham named Rebecca Jones mailed a letter to the White House, asking President Calvin Coolidge to help her free her teenage daughter, Carolina Dixon. The mother said two men claiming to be sheriffs had seized her daughter on a country road when she was just thirteen years old and then held her in collusion with the Butler County judge for five years—forcing her to work and abusing her sexually. When Jones went to the farm of Tom Couch, the man holding her daughter, "I was met with threats under the point of high powered rifles, stating that I could not take my daughter back," Jones wrote. My "child was scarred unmerciful in several places on her body." A federal agent was dispatched to investigate, and the facts of the kidnapping were put before a grand jury. It refused to indict Couch. The matter was dropped.49
Yet even as the federal government did little to check the breadth of the new slavery, the economic logic of the system weakened. Crude industrial enterprises to which slave labor lent itself so effectively for fifty years were being eclipsed by modern technologies and business strategies. Mechanized coal mining—using hydraulic digging tools, electric lights, modern pumps, and transportation—made obsolete the old manual labor mines of Alabama, packed with thousands of slave workers and mules.
When cotton prices fell drastically after World War I, and the new scourge of the boll weevil ravaged millions of acres of cotton fields, depression set in across the rural landscape. The cost of labor plunged yet further. Prisoners offered for sale by state officials who expected the returns on their business in labor to steadily increase grew too expensive for some market conditions. Buying and selling them was less and less sensible. As financial incentives for the states faded, political scandals and abuse outrages gained traction. In even the most notorious states, public cries to end the leasing of convicts to private contractors arose for the first time.
In the winter of 1921, Martin Tabert, a twenty-two-year-old white man from a middle-class farm family in Munich, North Dakota, decided to take a walk-about through the United States, traveling by train, sleeping in railroad camps with tramps, and working to support himself as he crossed the West, Midwest, and finally the South. Running short of money in December, Tabert, along with a group of other itinerant men, hopped aboard a freight train without a ticket.
Unbeknownst to Tabert, the sheriff of Leon County, just south of the Georgia state line, maintained a rich trade from spying on the freight rails that crossed into his territory, seizing men from the train, charging them with vagrancy or "beating" a ride on a railroad, and selling them into slavery. Tabert was arrested, fined $25 for vagrancy and then sold for three months’ work to a turpentine camp owned by Putnam Lumber Company— then a vast enterprise headquartered in Wisconsin but engaged in the harvest of hundreds of thousands of swampy Florida forestland. Within days, Tabert's family wired more than enough to pay the fine, but their son had already been shipped into the maw of Putnam's forced labor system. In sixty-five years, the southern turpentine camp—desperate, hungered, sadistically despotic—had changed hardly at all.
Young Tabert did not last long in the putrid swamp. He was given ill-fitting shoes, and his feet became blistered and swollen. A boil formed in his groin. Accused of shirking work in January 1922, the slight-framed Tabert was forced by the camp whipping boss, Walter Higginbotham, to lie on the ground as eighty-five other prisoners watched. Higginbotham pulled up Tabert's shirt and applied to his back more than thirty licks with a seven-and-a-half-pound leather strap. By the time the beating concluded, Tabert was "twitching on the ground," according to one witness. Higginbotham placed his foot on Tabert's neck to keep him from moving, and then hit him more than forty more times with the strap. The boss ordered Tabert to stand, and when he moved too slowly, the guard whipped him two dozen more times, witnesses later testified. When the young North Dakota man, a thousand miles from home and an immeasurable distance from any measure of sanity or decency, finally made it to his feet, Higginbotham chased him in a circle, striking him over the head and shoulders, shouting repeatedly: "You can't work yet?"
When the beating finally ended, Tabert collapsed into his cot and never stood again. A terrible odor rose from his body. He died the following night. A Putnam Lumber executive wrote to Tabert's family a few days later, informing him that their son had died of malaria and expressing the company's sympathy.
Unconvinced of the explanation for their son's death, the Tabert family triggered a series of legal inquiries and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalistic investigation by the New York World. Higginbotham was tried and convicted of second-degree murder. But his conviction was later overturned by a Florida court. He was never retried or punished.50 Still, public disclosure of the gruesome killing and its subsequent cover-up stirred a wave of outrage—especially as a demonstration that the excesses of the South's new slavery could even extend to a white boy from a family of distinction. The following year, the Florida legislature, after an extended debate, voted to ban the use of the whip on any prisoners in the state.51
Alabama officials were also under growing humanitarian and union pressures to end the worst abuses of the convict leasing system. Over time, state agencies took more direct control of the supervision and punishment of convicts—though through every purported reform, black prisoners continued to be driven beyond reasonable human limits under the cold mandates of the businessmen and companies who captured them.
Most reforms were cursory and superficial, such as requiring that men be clothed during their lashings. The fee system and its profit motivation to encourage sheriffs to make as many arrests as possible remained in force. "Our jails are money-making machines," wrote a state prison inspector, W. H. Oates, in a 1922 report.
At the same time, the number of men being arrested and sentenced to some form of hard labor in Alabama ballooned. In the year ending September 30, 1922, total arrests nearly reached 25,000, driven partly by new prohibition laws. Within another five years, the figure was 37,701 for one twelve-month period.52
In 1924, another ghastly story of death in a slave mine surfaced. Like Martin Tabert's murder, it took on sensational proportions when the public realized that the young white man, James Knox, died while undergoing tortures that in the minds of most whites could only be justified as punishment for African Americans.
Working at Sloss-Sheffield's Flat Top prison outside Birmingham, Knox was first reported to have killed himself. Later, a grand jury collected evidence showing that the whipping boss in charge of Knox's crew punished him for slow work with the water cure so long in use in the slave camps of the South. "James Knox died in a laundering vat, located in the yard of the prison near the hospital, where he was placed by two negroes…It seems likely that James Knox died as a result of heart failure, which probably was caused by a combination of unusual exertion and fear…. After death it seems that a poison was injected artificially into his stomach in order to simulate accidental death or suicide."53
Despite howls of protest that a white could die so ignominiously, Alabama's prisoners continued to struggle against medieval conditions. Monthly memos written by Glenn Andrews, a state medical inspector, recorded scores of routine lashings for offenses such as cursing, failure to dig the daily quota of coal, and "disobedience." One entry in March 1924 reported that in the previous month, "a negro woman was given seven lashes for cursing and fighting. On the same day, a negro man was given seven lashes for burning a hole in prison floor. On Feb. 14, a negro man was given seven lashes for cursing and fighting. On the same day and for the same offense two negro women were given six lashes each." In a 1925 report, two black inmates, Ernest Hallman and R. B. Green, received five lashes each for not obeying a guard. Others were put in chains and given up to a dozen lashes for "not working." White prisoners, now invested in larger numbers, were more often given solitary confinement. 54
In March 1926, the front page of the New York World featured an exposé on southern slavery. The stories reported that in fifty-one of Alabama's sixty-seven counties, nearly one thousand prisoners had been sold into slave mines and forced labor camps the previous year—generating $250,000, or about $2.8 million in modern currency, for local officials. The state government pocketed $595,000 in 1925—or $6.6 million today—selling about 1,300 men to Sloss-Sheffield's Flat Top mine, the successor to Pratt Consolidated—now called Alabama By-Products Corp.—and the Aldrich mine in Montevallo, Alabama, the town where Green Cottenham's mother lived her last isolated years.
Once sold, the prisoners faced beatings with steel wire, hickory sticks, whips, and shovels. The stories described "dog houses"—rough-hewn boxes the size of coffins into which men were locked for up to forty-eight hours. Most prison camps had six to twenty such houses.55
Finally, in 1927, new Alabama governor Bibb Graves moved to stanch the long-running negative depiction of the state and its twentieth-century slavery. He began relocating a hundred prisoners out of the mines and other private businesses each month and sped up construction of new prison facilities and roadwork camps where county prisoners would soon be shackled into chain gangs—seeding the notorious scandals of the next generation.56
On June 1, 1928, the lungs of eight hundred men filled the damp air of the mine shafts at Flat Top with the sounds of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." The white prisoners held here and at Alabama's only other remaining prison mine had already been relocated to work on road gangs.
Only African Americans remained at Flat Top. They rose out of the mile-long manway in two columns—blinking at the sudden brightness of the summer sun. As the plaintive lyric "Coming for to carry me home" wafted into the daylight, the prisoners marched out of the shaft, surrounded by armed guards, and walked to a train platform. Within a few hours, they had been transported to the state's newly constructed Kilby Prison. No more men would be sold into slave mines by the state of Alabama.57
More than a year later, a thirty-six-year-old man born in Tallapoosa County and named Henry Tinsley arrived at the gates of Kilby Prison. Like Green Cottenham, he was born decades after Abraham Lincoln's emancipation of his parents and grandparents. Also like Green, all his years and every facet of his life were shaped and circumscribed by the slavery that succeeded the freedom of his forebears.
It was Henry Tinsley and his brother, Luke, who as children three decades earlier had been captured by John Pace and forced to work on his brutal Tallapoosa plantation. 58 They were the two young boys Warren Reese had discovered still being held by Pace five years after taking them from their mother and long after Pace had been pardoned by President Roosevelt on a promise never to hold slaves again.
Henry had worked for a time in the warehouse of a grocery wholesaler in Birmingham. He had married and fathered a child more than a decade earlier. He had been a soldier too, called in 1917 to fight in the U.S. Army59But the Alabama Henry returned to after World War I was the same state he was born into in 1892. And soon it returned him to the condition Alabama had reserved for him at birth.
His crime in 1929 was recorded as assault with intent to murder. The details of the case are lost, but the sentence of two years’ imprisonment suggests a brawl in which the other man was injured.60 Regardless of whether the man who had grown from that captive thirteen-year-old committed a real crime or whether it was his enslavement by John Pace that led him to do so twenty-three years later, deep into the twentieth century, Henry Tinsley wore chains again.