The Ephemera of Catastrophe
Still the voice of Green Cottenham would not speak. For six years I sought signs of him. Nowhere was there more than the faintest trace. A flicker here that a brother, Sam, almost ten years his elder, died in 1953. Musty evidence that his sisters married and remarried. A last glimpse of Mary, his mother, living her final years at an address on Block Street in the town of Montevallo, a few blocks from where she and Henry moved long before, still in the shadow of the old slavery world. There, sometime in the 1930s, Mary Cottenham, the girl born a slave and married at the dawn of freedom, died alone. In the place of the little house she occupied for so long, only weeds grow.
The black Cottinghams descended from the old plantation on Six Mile Road were scattered, in variant spellings and skin tones, across the United States. I found a woman my own age in Shelby County named Molly Cottenham. She knew little of her family's past.
Molly is descended from Gabe, a toddler in the Cottingham Loop house of Milt Cottingham when he was saved by his brothers from arrest and re-enslavement in 1893. Gabe grew to manhood and scratched together enough to eventually buy land in Shelby County, near a community of farms called Keywater. Nearby, a ferry transported goods across the Coosa River from Fayetteville. A contemporary of Green, living in the same county, Gabe almost certainly would have known of his cousin's fate at Slope No. 12.
Gabe's sons, Edgar, Charlie, and Abraham, joined in the heavy labor of poorly educated workers of the time. Abraham died pouring iron in a foundry, according to the few stories passed down to Molly, who still lives not far from the old Keywater homeplace. Edgar worked in a quarry before retiring and then dying in the 1980s.
Gabe was forced to flee Shelby County after a fight with a white man, Molly was told. Edgar and Charlie lived most of their lives without their father, reared by their mother.
Little else of the context or human familial foundation survives for the descendants of the black Cottingham line. Molly, forty-five years old in 2008, and the mother of two grown children, doesn't remember her grandmother's name. She never knew the identities of her great-grandparents.1
In some respects, it is little surprise that the long-lingering persistence of American slavery has been so largely ignored. Its longevity mars the mythology most white Americans rely upon to explain our past and to embroider our present. At the same time, it grieves and shames the descendants of its victims. They recoil from the implication that emancipated black Americans could not exercise freedom, and remained under the cruel thumb of white America, despite the explicit guarantees of the Constitution, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments, and the moral resolve of the Civil War.
Harold Cottingham lives in a modest house on a quiet street in Centre-ville, Alabama. In an office he built onto his workshop in the backyard, piles of newspaper clippings and letters are heaped where he left them years ago—while piecing together the genealogy of all the acknowledged descendants of Elisha Cottingham. He is Elisha's grandson, four generations removed. Every summer, Harold visits the old family burial ground to make sure the grass has been properly cut back from the tombstones. Today, age and health challenge his dedication to the family plot. Already, the forest has overtaken the sunken unmarked graves of many of those who died black on the Cottingham farm.
On a chilly day, Harold and his wife take me to lunch at Oliver's, a little restaurant in a historic home across the street from the Bibb County courthouse and its monument to Confederate war dead. They know by verse the heroic accounts of how Elisha extracted a legacy from the Alabama wilderness, and each of the succeeding white generations that followed.
Nowhere in the stories is there reference to Scip, the man who worked beside Elisha for most of fifty years, who carved the farm from the forest with him. Harold, a gentle man, is not responsible for the washing away of the memories of the family's partners and likely cousins of the past. They had vaporized long before Harold became the Cottingham storyteller. "I knew there was some slaves out there," he told me. "But I never knew there was so many."2
The residual wealth of W. D. McCurdy's baronic slave farm in Lowndes County still dominates a cluster of fabulous white-columned mansions in the old cotton town of Lowndesboro, Alabama. A family mansion sits at the end of McCurdy Lane. W. D. McCurdy's great-greatgrandchildren still hold much of the family land, but cotton died here long ago. The county's overwhelming black majority elected the first African American sheriff in the 1970s.
The vast wealth of John T Milner began to dissipate with his death in the early twentieth century. The dynasty that grew from his partnership with the Flowers family collapsed in a 1920s bank failure. By 2007, however, a Massachusetts-reared grandson three generations removed, Chris Flowers, had resurrected and exponentially eclipsed the family's prior fortunes. His firm, J. C. Flowers & Co., emerged as one of the most dynamic financiers in the private equity boom on Wall Street.3
Like Elisha Cottingham's antebellum slavery, few others of the thousands of plantation dynasties forged with the modern forced labor of John W. Pace survived its final abolition. The big houses of the great Kinderlou slave farm in Georgia all burned before World War II. The McRee family fell into obscurity. Pace died within a decade of his pardon by President Roosevelt. In 1926, a hydroelectric dam was completed by a Southern Company subsidiary on the Tallapoosa River, several miles south of the convergence with Big Sandy Creek. The rich river-bottom plantation of John Pace, along with many of the other slaveholding farms along Red Ridge Road, was swallowed under 44,000 acres of water, much of it more than one hundred feet deep. Pace's schoolteacher son, Fulton, became a civil engineer for the town of Goodwater and died sometime after World War II. His grandson, Fulton Jr., retired to Florida and died there in 1976. On a hilltop, near the lake's edge, a Cosby family cemetery plot clings to existence amid a cluster of vacation homes.4
The legacy of this slavery is stronger among the corporations that relied on it. In 1969 Walter Industries, Inc., acquired an ailing company called U.S. Pipe & Foundry Company in Birmingham. Seventeen years earlier, that company had merged with Sloss-Sheffield Iron and Steel, the company with the longest record of operating slave mines in Alabama. The purchase included Flat Top mine, where so many black laborers perished under the whip. Later, the company changed the name of the mine and bulldozed the old prison stockade. The sprawling town that surrounded the shafts was abandoned when the mine shut down. In the 1980s, Walter Industries strip-mined the land—consuming the earth and coal with massive machines that obliterated the landscape for miles. Only an abandoned stretch of rail line and the old commissary, its windows blown out, survive.
The old Sloss-Sheffield today is a subsidiary called Sloss Industries. Its parent's best-known enterprise is another division called Jim Walter Homes—a famous maker of inexpensive, prefabricated homes. A sign of aspiration and success among low-income African Americans all across the Black Belt is to leave behind public housing or broken-down trailer homes and purchase the comfort of a Jim Walter home. Descendants of the South's forced laborers are a critical market.
On the Web site of Sloss Industries, the company heralds its long and rich history as a titan of southern industry that helped "launch Birmingham's rise to fame as a major industrial center."5 There is no reference to the human engines that fueled so much economic activity over Sloss's nearly fifty-year reliance on slaves after the Civil War.
In the 1960s, U.S. Steel published a 100th anniversary commemorative book to honor Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co.'s history dating to the 1860s. But the volume says nothing of the tens of thousands of slave workers who passed through its mines, the armies of broken miners, the hundreds buried or burned in its graveyards and ovens.
The executives of Walter Industries in the twenty-first century say they know nothing of that past. "Obviously, this was a dark chapter for U.S. business," Kyle Parks, a spokesman for the company, told me in 2001. "Certainly no company today could even conceive of this kind of practice."
In Atlanta, the fortunes generated at slave mines, plantations, and the nightmarish Chattahoochee Brick became pillars of the economic transformation and social orbits of the city that would outpace all others in the South. A daughter of James W. English married a bank executive named James Robinson Sr., who grew the Fourth National Bank into the most prosperous in the South. The family guided the bank through a series of mergers and acquisitions ending in 1985, when it was purchased by a company that is now part of Wachovia Bank Corp.—the fourth largest in the United States as measured by assets. English's great-grandson, James Robinson III, was the chief executive officer of American Express from 1977 to 1993 and became a member of the board of Coca-Cola Co., where he serves today.
Joel Hurt, who believed the slaves in his coal mines could never be whipped too much, was also chairman of Atlanta's Trust Company Bank. In 1893, Hurt installed as head of his streetcar company his younger brother-in-law Ernest Woodruff. Leveraging his interests in real estate and slave mines, Hurt and his enterprises became Atlanta's most energetic deal makers and buyout artists. Beginning with a sale in 1902, the streetcar company evolved over time into Georgia Power Company—flagship of Southern Company, one of the largest electric utilities in the United States today. In 1919, after succeeding Hurt as chairman of Trust Company, Woodruff engineered the purchase of Coca-Cola for $25 million and the current incarnation of that company. Suntrust Bank, the modern version of Trust Company, remains one of the largest holders of stock in Coca-Cola. Woodruff's son, Robert Woodruff, was named president of Coke in 1923, and ran the company until 1954, becoming the era's most influential business figure in the South. He died in 1985.
But what do these threads to a terrible past tell us? Every figure who chose to continue slavery is dead. None of the actions, however cruel, of long-dead companies or men can be interpreted as a reflection on their current corporate manifestations or on distant lines of familial descent. I wanted to know, though, how the heirs to slave-dependent corporations and the pools of wealth they sometimes left behind perceive that history today—or whether they knew of it at all.
When I contacted descendants of Atlanta's former mayor and extraordinary early entrepreneur James W. English, who died in 1925, the family asked me to speak with Rodney Mims Cook Jr., the son-in-law of James Robinson III. It was obvious that even nine decades after his death, English's descendants are drenched in the lore of his remarkable life and achievements.
Cook is an elite architect, an ardent preservationist, and the driving force behind an ambitious plan to build a dramatic seventy-three-foot-high monument in downtown Atlanta as a tribute to the great families of the city, including the family of Captain English. Once it is completed, exhibition space at the classical stone archway will house the personal papers of English, Joel Hurt, and other pioneering builders of the city. Some black entrepreneurs of later in the twentieth century will be featured as well. Cook told me the museum space is expected to become the primary institution for presenting the positive history of Atlanta and its emergence as a major American city and commercial center.
After a long lunch with Cook and English Robinson, another family member, I was uncertain, however, about how the museum will present the crucial role of the new slavery in building Atlanta and the fortunes of their forebear. "In the proper context, we don't object to it being discussed," Cook told me.6 But they were insistent that no significant abuses of African Americans had ever occurred at the brick factory, coal mines, and lumber camps of a century ago. They cited an admirable account of English's unsuccessfully attempting to calm and disperse the white mobs that rampaged in Atlanta during the bloody race riot of 1906 and a nineteenth-century newspaper article extolling the food and fellowship offered to the forced laborers at the family brick factory. They knew nothing of the real history. I sympathized with their discomfort in encountering my contradictions to the heroic, tutelary portrait of English handed down through generations. But I left our dialogue worried that the slaves who made the bricks with which Atlanta was built would yet be denied their place in the city's history.
Most corporations say it would be terribly wrong to associate their current manifestations with the abuses of convict leasing and twentieth-century forced labor—particularly for actions committed by companies they acquired or merged into decades after the fact.
Drummond Coal Company, founded in 1935,7 says it has no meaningful connection to the use of convict labor, despite its merger in 1985 with Alabama By-Products Corp.,8 a company created through a merger in 1925 with Pratt Consolidated Coal, one of the biggest users of forced labor during the previous two decades and owner of the deadly Banner Mine.
Drummond today is a family-owned coal and real estate company based in Jasper, Alabama, with mining operations in Alabama and South America. "I don't know how we could be tied back to something that happened in the early part of the century," Drummond spokesman Mike Tracy said when I called to inquire about the company's roots. "Drummond wasn't even founded then."9
U.S. Steel executives say that while convict leasing was clearly "abhorrent," their company shouldn't be associated with it—especially events that predated the acquisition of Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad in late 1907. "When it comes to the question of burden, I don't think anybody here at this company today would feel burdened at all by anything that happened before 1908," Richard F. Lerach, assistant general counsel to U.S. Steel, told me in 2001. "If we in fact knew that the people who were there between 1908 and 1911 were forced to work in obviously unsafe conditions, which we don't know that was true, we would feel badly about that."10
Legally, there are few grounds on which to argue that a modern corporation inherits any liability of a predecessor's civil rights violations or other crimes that might have occurred in the distant past. A federal judge in 2004 denounced the horrors of a 1921 rampage by whites in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who killed between one hundred and three hundred African Americans and destroyed more than a thousand homes.11 But at the same time he dismissed a lawsuit brought by elderly plaintiffs whose families were attacked in the riot, saying the statute of limitations had passed for any legal claims and that the passage of time would make it impossible for the truth ever to be fully revealed.
Yet U.S. law is unequivocal that the deaths of executives who were responsible for dubious actions don't end a company's legal obligations. And in the specific area of hazardous waste, the United States has adopted laws forcing companies to take responsibility for contamination by predecessor companies, regardless of the passage of time. "It doesn't matter whether you had nothing to do with this toxic stuff. If you buy a company that failed to clean up this stuff, you're responsible," says Martha Minow, a professor at Harvard University Law School who has written extensively about reparations for social abuses. "Why have we done that on environmental matters, but not race?"12
Indeed, the commercial sectors of U.S. society have never been asked to fully account for their roles as the primary enforcers of Jim Crow segregation, and not at all for engineering the resurrection of forced labor after the Civil War. The civil rights movement focused on forcing government and individual citizens to integrate public schools, reinstate full voting rights, and end offensive behavior.
But it was business that policed adherence to America's racial customs more than any other actor in U.S. society. American banks maintained ubiquitous discriminatory lending practices throughout the country that until the 1960s prevented millions of working-class African Americans from obtaining the lines of credit that millions of white families used to accumulate wealth and move from lower- to middle-class status. Indeed, the opportunity for blacks to pursue the most basic American formula for achieving middle-class status—buying a home in desirable neighborhoods where real estate values were likely to appreciate over time—was openly barred by legions of real estate agents in every city and region. Until the 1950s, rules of the National Association of Realtors made it a violation of the organization's code of ethics for an agent to sell a home in a white neighborhood to an African American, or vice versa. It was hundreds of thousands of individual businesses that refused to give blacks jobs, equal pay, or promotions. It was wealthy men on Wall Street and in the executive suites of southern banks that financed the organized opposition to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.13
U.S. Steel executives say that whatever happened at the company's Alabama mines long ago, it would be impossible to appropriately assign responsibility for any corporation's actions in so remote an era. "Is it fair in fact to punish people who are living today, who have certain assets they might have inherited from others, or corporate assets that have been passed on?" said Lerach. "You can get to a situation where there is such a passage of time that it simply doesn't make sense and is not fair."
U.S. Steel said it knew almost nothing about the cemeteries in Pratt City, where so many are buried. It still owns the properties, and obtained a cemetery property tax exemption on the largest burial field in 1997. But officials say they are unable to locate records of burials there, or of the company prisons that once stood nearby, or for that matter any other aspect of the company's history of leasing forced laborers. The only reference to the graveyards in surviving corporate documents, they say, is a map of the property marked with the notation "Negro Cemetery." Company officials theorize that the graveyard was an informal burial area used by African American families living nearby, with no formal connection to U.S. Steel.
"Are there convicts on that site? Possibly, quite possibly," said Tom Fer-rall, the company spokesman. "But I am unable to tell you that there are."14
A striking contrast to U.S. Steel's approach is that of Wachovia Bank, the North Carolina financial institution that in 1985 acquired FirstAtlanta Corp., the bank born of the wealth created by James W. English's slave-driven brick factory in Atlanta. Prompted by an ordinance passed by the Chicago City Council, Wachovia disclosed in 2005 that two predecessor banks in Georgia and South Carolina owned or held as collateral at least 691 slaves before the Civil War. It formally apologized to "all Americans and especially to African Americans and people of African descent," established scholarship funds for minorities, and promoted a broad discussion of racial issues inside the company. 15
Wachovia's chief executive officer, Ken Thompson, a fifty-seven-year-old native of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, was an enlightened white southerner but had never much considered if the racial climate of earlier eras related to the present. Like many Americans, he was vaguely uncomfortable with the idea of delving into sensitive discussions of race or the past.
"I had the attitude that this was something that happened five generations ago, and we have no responsibility for it," Thompson told me. But he was convinced by a close adviser that the disclosure requirement ought to be taken seriously, both to ensure the bank's ongoing business relationship with the city of Chicago and to demonstrate its willingness to probe a difficult issue honestly.
A team of historians was hired to investigate the past records of Wachovia, all the banks it had acquired, and all their corporate predecessors . Once the results were back, Thompson and other top managers began meeting with employee groups to discuss the findings and repeatedly apologizing for the company's ties to events more than 150 years earlier. What initially felt like a rote "diversity" relations process to fulfill a government regulation quickly became something more profound.
"I was overwhelmed by the emotional impact our apology had …for African American employees," Thompson said. Workers cried, held hands, embraced one another regardless of company rank, and, in an unprecedented way, began speaking to one another.
"Just by going through the act of acknowledging something that happened one hundred fifty years before and talking about it galvanized that group…It was cathartic," Thompson said. "African American employees at our company in my view all of a sudden are always willing to give us the benefit of the doubt on our intentions about anything that's race related. There's a deeper trust…. What you get is more understanding and more ‘Okay let's go forward and figure out solutions for this in the future. Let's not rehash this forever.’ "16
By frankly confronting a past that Wachovia didn't know existed and then expected to stir anger and tumult, an old southern bank found a kind of peace.
I found something similarly gratifying in the life of Judge Eugene Reese, the grandson of the federal prosecutor who worked so assiduously—and unsuccessfully—to beat back slavery in 1903. The contemporary Reese actually knew nothing about that surprising crusade by his grandfather, who died before the eventual judge was born. But like his grandfather, Eugene Reese, a Democrat, is neither a bleeding heart nor willing to shy away from the vestiges of slavery. "Some people say we still have slavery," he said to me. Reese's most controversial ruling was in a 1990s case in which he declared unconstitutional Alabama's system for funding public schools, under which schools serving children in poor areas receive dramatically less than those in more affluent areas. The racial implications of the system, a vestige of the same constitution that ended black voting in 1901, are obvious. Reese was excoriated in conservative circles in his home state.
"We've come a long way in Alabama," he told me. "But we still have a ways to go."17
That most American corporations and families would rather not reopen the details of how they profited from the racial attitudes in the early twentieth century is perhaps to be expected. More puzzling is that as badly as many young African Americans want answers to the question of what truly happened in the century after the Civil War, many others do not.
When Earl Brown18 became a young miner in Birmingham in the 1940s, he was sent to the remains of Flat Top mine. Where once two train lines into the shafts had been used to separate felony prisoners from misdemeanor prisoners, the company by then used the double-track system to separate white miners from black. Among the African Americans, many of the oldest laborers were former prisoners who had taken jobs as free workers in the mine after being freed from bondage. Those men still called the bosses in the shaft "Captain," and told stories to younger men of the bru-talizations that had occurred underground there. When Brown became a union activist, they warned him about the dangers of white managers and they told him stories of how they had been drawn into the mines as slaves on the basis of trumped-up charges and kidnappings by county sheriffs.
Brown listened. But he didn't believe. "I never found it credible," he told me.
Instead, Brown and so many other African Americans accepted a rationale that whites had long foisted upon them. There were "good" black people and "bad" black people. Those who ended up as slave laborers were bad or weak—adding further to the terror of being forced to join them and to share their social stain. Their injuries, and the fear they fostered among all other African Americans, were attributed to them—not their white masters. Whites repeatedly tried to stir this internal black tension. When Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 to tour the terrorized surrounding counties of the Black Belt, he was accused of pitting good blacks versus bad. When he drove to Lowndes County—which a full century after the end of slavery remained a place of desolate black powerlessness and unchecked white brutality—King and his activists were warned not to agitate the docile "good Negroes" of the county. Despite a population overwhelmingly majority-black, whites controlled virtually all the land, and every aspect of politics and economics. The Calhoun School had all but collapsed. Most African Americans remained tenants and sharecroppers, living in unplumbed hovels little changed from the desperate conditions recorded by DuBois in 1906.
No African American had cast a vote there in the twentieth century. Galvanized by the work of civil rights ministers, dozens of young African Americans attempted unsuccessfully during the spring and summer of that year to register to vote outside the Lowndes County courthouse in Hayneville. On August 20, 1965, after releasing from the local jail a group of civil rights workers who had attempted a peaceful march in the county, Deputy Sheriff Tom Coleman—a man cut from the same crude cloth as Sheriff J. W. Dixon, who drove out federal investigators six decades earlier—followed the activists down a sunny street, raised a 12-gauge shotgun, and at point-blank range gunned down two white ministers working with the group. One, Jonathan Daniels, was killed instantly, his body all but cut in half by the force of the blast.19
Reading Charles Silberman's Crisis in Black and White after its publication the prior year, Martin Luther King scribbled a long note in the margins of his personal copy: "The South deluded itself with the illusion that the Negro was happy in his place; the North deluded itself with the illusion that it had freed the Negro. The Emancipation Proclamation freed the slave, a legal entity, but it failed to free the Negro, a person."20 In every aspect and among almost every demographic, how American society digested and processed the long, dark chapter between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the civil rights movement has been delusion.
In my quest to find Green Cottenham, I also discovered an unsettling truth that when white Americans frankly peel back the layers of our commingled pasts, we are all marked by it. Whether a company or an individual, we are marred either by our connections to the specific crimes and injuries of our fathers and their fathers. Or we are tainted by the failures of our fathers to fulfill our national credos when their courage was most needed. We are formed in molds twisted by the gifts we received at the expense of others. It is not our "fault." But it is undeniably our inheritance.
I never expected to discover my own family lines as characters in the narrative of this book. Yet to my great surprise, I learned that the branch of black Cottinghams who left the old farm in Alabama during the Civil War and made their way to Louisiana settled in the parish of my mother's birth, the place where I spent countless summer days on the modest farm of my grandparents. The Cottingham descendants expired generations in the backwoods black settlements of Jackson Parish through the cruel decades of the twentieth century, as my family migrated from arch-poverty to blue-collar stability and finally to the comfort of white middle-class sanctity. Today, an ebullient woman named Maureen Cottenham, my mother's peer, writes a regular column for the parish newspaper on the social life of African Americans in and around Jonesboro, Louisiana. Black Cottenhams are celebrated athletes in the schools of an adjacent town. The law firm of my eldest cousin has represented young Cottenhams who find their way into trouble with the law. There is a measure of relief in that justice.
But there was more. Many times in my childhood, my grandmother Myrtie Wiggins Blackmon told me the epic story, passed down to her by my great-great-grandmother, of the family's passage after the Civil War from a place she called New Light, Alabama, to the hill country of northern Louisiana. Morris Foshee, my great-great-great-grandfather, had returned from four years of fighting with the 48th Infantry to a devastated Alabama. An inconspicuous private who had fought with his brother Wiley from 1861 until their surrender with Lee at Appomattox, he had been too poor to own slaves before the war, and poorer still in its aftermath. But in my visits to Alabama, searching for the shards with which to reconstruct the evil visage of John Pace, I found in the Tallapoosa County courthouse, among the slave deeds, mortgages, and convict contracts, the wedding license signed by Morris and my great-great-great-grandmother. I found the place of their farm, a few miles upstream on the Coosa River from the horrific Threat slave plantation. New Light was actually a tiny misremem-bered and mispronounced town called Newsite. I discovered that a distant Foshee line invested in a sawmill once operated with forced labor.
As I tugged further at the tightly threaded shrouds of the past, I learned that Morris and Wiley served in gallant, if misguided, company—the Tal-lapoosa County men who famously charged the hill called Little Round Top and were repulsed by a hailstorm of Union gunfire and bayonets in the Battle of Gettysburg on July 2, 1863. They attacked that day under the direct command of Lt. Col. Michael J. Bulger, the man who thirty years later rose in defense of John Pace as he climbed to power in Tallapoosa County. Another decade hence, it was Bulger's son—by then the town's most prominent lawyer—who represented Pace in his trial for slavery in 1903.
I had no hand in the horrors perpetrated by John Pace or any of the other twentieth-century slave masters who terrorized American blacks for four generations. But it is nonetheless true that hundreds of millions of us spring from or benefit as a result of lines of descent that abided those crimes and benefited from them.
Over the decades, Birmingham spread to surround the cemetery where convicts in the first Pratt Mines prisons were buried. Low-rent apartments on one side of the graveyard, shabby storefronts on another, an industrial site, a city park designated for "colored" use when it was created. In 1994, industrial archaeologist Jack Bergstresser found the cemetery while conducting a survey for the federal government to map the remains of nearby coke ovens, mine shafts, and railroad lines.
As a boy in the 1930s, Willie Clark, a lifelong resident of Pratt City, already knew what lay deep in the thick underbrush. He and other youngsters played among the unmarked graves of the first cemetery, picking blackberries from the thorny vines that grew wild between the plots. Burials were rare by then. The older graves had begun to collapse, he says, exposing jumbles of human bones.
"The convicts were buried out there," Clark told me, sweeping his arm toward the overgrown field. "I heard my daddy talking about how they would beat the convicts with pick handles. If they didn't like them, they would kill them…. They would put them under harsh punishment. It was gruesome back then."21
Though in his ninth decade, Clark, more than six feet tall, could still walk with me to the site from his nearby home and point out where old mine shafts reached the surface and where dozens of company houses once stood. He told me his father also said that when convicts were killed in the shafts, company officials sometimes didn't take the time to bury them, but instead tossed the bodies into the red-hot coke ovens glowing nearby.
"What can you do about it now?" he says, stepping gingerly through the trees and undergrowth. "But the company…ought to clean that land up, or turn it back over to the city or somebody else who can make some use of it, take care of it."
On a cool fall night, Pearline Danzey the eighty-eight-year-old matriarch of the extended family of Martin Danzy who died as a slave worker in a turpentine camp in 1916, welcomed me to her home. She presided from a worn vinyl recliner in her living room over a parade of nieces, nephews, and children. Across the room, her bewhiskered grandfather—one of Martin's older brothers—squints from a faded photograph above the television set. After all these years, it is hard for Mrs. Danzey to stay focused on the story of Uncle Martin—now commingled with so much time, struggle, and memories of the other privations and violence that came with life as a young black girl on a sharecrop farm. Whether the companies that played a hand in the abuse and death of her uncle and other African Americans should be held accountable today is an abstraction she can't or won't waste time contemplating.
" To kill a colored person then, it wasn't nothing," she says. "We was slaves too in a way."22
For most of the Danzeys gathered that night, this is the first time they have heard "Pearl," as Mrs. Danzey is known to them all, tell the harsh tales of her childhood. Her daughter Ida was of the generation in their country town that as teenagers integrated the local schools and defied the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s. They are filled with a sense of righteous victory over the segregation of their childhoods. But until this night, Ida Hogan and most of the others had never inquired—never considered really—that the childhood Pearline was born into had been one vastly more difficult than their own.
"Our daddy and momma never taught us to hate white people…. We just got taught who always got the job, who had authority, and we were supposed to address them with respect," explained Ida, one of Pearline's nieces. "Until the civil rights movement we didn't know" life could be any other way, she said.
The racial disparities of the 1950s and 1960s were the routine, rarely commented-upon backdrop of rural black life. "We had to pick cotton to buy books, so we picked cotton," said Cynthia James, a great-niece of Pearline's in her late forties. "It was much later on that we realized that the raggedy old books we were getting were just being passed on."
Inspired by Martin Luther King's historic visit to Selma, Ida and six other black children in Abbeville in 1966 insisted on being served in the town's whites-only diner. It was a turning point for the community. Her generation became the family's bridge between the desperate farm life Pearl was born into and today's mystifying era, when relative prosperity, lingering racial tensions, and the occasional biracial marriage all coexist in Henry County.
The Danzeys live in a place where cotton has been grown for most of two centuries and where Mrs. Danzey's family traces its history back to 1832 and a slave, Frank, brought to the county by a local white farmer named John Danzey. Pearline remembered her uncle Martin mostly as a man who spelled his last name without an "e," as did one line of white Danzys who lived nearby. She said she no longer remembered his alleged crime.
"My granddaddy used to talk about him. He went off to prison and died there," she says. "They was real sad about it."
In years past, Pearline had told her granddaughter, Melissa Danzey Craddock, that Uncle Martin and another local man were arrested after a brawl among men gambling outside a rural church. By the end of the fight, one man was dead. It wasn't clear whether the elder Mrs. Danzey's recollection had failed or, as was the case in many black families in Alabama, the stigma of imprisonment makes her uncomfortable discussing the subject. One thing is certain: after his arrest, Uncle Martin never came back.
Pearl's father sharecropped all his life. "The man would take everything that was made," she says of the white man on whose land her father worked. "I worked in the fields for $1 a day." Her three sisters and three brothers worked alongside her. "If a colored man hit a white man, they could come in and kill him."
She told the story of a childhood friend murdered by a white mob after allegedly speaking to a white woman. She tells of another night, when one of her brothers, Henry Edward Danzey, was seized by a mob after an argument at the town movie theater. The sheriff took him to the jail to stop the lynching and then let the black teenager go in the dark. He made his way home, and Pearline's father and uncles waited all night with pistols, sticks, and rocks, expecting the mob to arrive. The whites never came, and Pearl's brother left town to join the army.
Only after Dr. King, she says, did "people see how colored people were treated," and the terror began to subside.
The younger Danzeys aren't sure what to make of the story of Uncle Martin. "You can't go back and change the past. Just don't let it happen again," says Cynthia James. Pearline's granddaughter, Melissa Craddock, disagrees. The companies that made money off the forced labor of Uncle Martin owe something, she says. "If there was something that came out of that, then there ought to be compensation," she says. "That was after slavery ended."
Cynthia's brother, James Danzey, a deeply religious forty-five-year-old, has listened intently as his great-aunt unspooled her stories. James Danzey brings up the talk of slave reparations he has heard recently and of other long-ago abuses of African Americans that have come to light in recent years.
"I believe it's God's hand," says James Danzey, who works as a counselor at a center for behaviorally disturbed children in a nearby town. "I believe there are some good true white people of God, who realize that their ancestors did bad, and they have to make right."
The indictments of white people, despite her own contributions, begin to make Pearline uneasy, though. "There've always been some good white people," she interjects. The younger people nod heads in deference.
But James Danzey doesn't waver. "Think about all the money those companies made on those people," he says later. "Those companies should be investigated for doing that. They should have to pay something."23
The Danzeys were as close as I would ever come to the heart of Green Cottenham. But I did find a version of his voice. Louis Cottingham lives in Montevallo, Alabama, the same small town where Green Cottenham's mother went to live on Block Street after her son's death at the Pratt Mines. Until I called out of the blue in the winter of 2003, he had never heard of Green Cottenham.
Cottingham's wife answered the phone. She was uncertain at the sound of an unknown white man's voice seeking her husband. Admittedly, my appearance in the lives of descendants of twentieth-century slaves was for many akin to the arrival of some unidentifiable creature dropped from the sky. It was, for many, an unnatural, un-credible event. As I explained who I was, where I was calling from, and my interest in the genealogy of the black Cottinghams, she grew impatient. No, I don't want to sell anything, I tried to reassure her. I'm a newspaper reporter in Atlanta, writing a book about African Americans and your husband's family.
My words, increasingly quick and pleading, were disintegrating in the telephone line on the way to Alabama. Mrs. Cottingham was hearing none of it. Finally, I blurted that the book was about a man in their family who had been forced into slavery long after slavery was supposed to have ended.
"Slavery?" she screeched. "You can talk to my husband. But don't nobody round here have anything to say about slavery."
Finally, her husband took the receiver, as his wife continued a querulous mutter in the background. "Slavery! Nothing to say about some slave!"
Louis Cottingham's voice is strong and crisp. It resonates not with the jowly dialect of rural Alabama blacks but the smoothly defiant lilt of urban Birmingham. "Who are you asking about?" he wanted to know. "Green Cottenham. I don't know who that is."
"No, he wasn't a brother to my daddy. I know all the names of my daddy's brothers and sisters."
"My grandfather? No, he wasn't named Henry. His name was Elbert."
"No, not Edgar! Elbert. E-L-B-E-R-T."
Each of his sentences ended with a successively heavier tone of finality, the signal that at any moment, still baffled as to why this young white voice was quizzing him about long-dead family, Cottingham was going to say an absolute goodbye. Asking him to bear with me just a moment more, I scanned the genealogical chart of the Cottenham family I'd constructed over the previous fourteen months. Finally, I spotted Elbert, at a dead end of one branch of the family. His father had been a brother of Green Cottenham's father.
"I see it now, Cottingham," I said. "Elbert Cottingham. Yes. His father was George, born on a plantation in Bibb County in 1825. Your daddy must have been named for him. That was your great-grandfather."
Louis Cottingham went silent for a moment, and then spoke slowly. "Well I never knew that. I never knew past my granddaddy and my grandmother."
His tone was still uninflected. He was curious, for an instant. Perhaps he would talk to me, would help me unlock the enigma of Green Cotten-ham. I dropped what I knew was my only real bombshell.
"I know the name of your great-great-grandfather too," I said. "He was Scip, and he spelled his name Cottinham. He was born in 1802, in Africa. He's the African slave you and your family are descended from."
"You say his name was Scip?" Cottingham said.
"Yes, I think that's short for Scipio."
"A slave named Scip. Born in, when did you say? 1802?"
"Yes sir. That's right."
Cottingham turned away from the phone and repeated to his wife, "Says there was a slave named Scip Cottinham, born in 1802." There was wonder in Cottingham's voice as he relayed the words. But not the wonder I had hoped for. Instead of astonishment, and gratitude, that a stranger had offered up the connection to Africa and lost generations of souls that millions of American blacks claim a visceral, but ultimately almost never requited, need to find, the wonder in Cottingham's voice was flat and heavy and sorrowful. Sorrowful that a past escaped still lived at all. I thought to myself, he's glad to know, but he doesn't want to know anything else. His wife had been right from the first instant. Nobody around here wants to talk about slavery.
Still, I tried again. "Could you help me contact your older brothers who are still alive? Perhaps they remember more," I pressed gently.
"No, I couldn't do that," he said.
Could I come to your home, I offered, and share all that I've found? Perhaps it would jog a recollection. Perhaps there's a younger person with an interest in history. "I could be there in a few days," I said.
"No. No. I don't think so."
As painful as it may be to plow the past, among the ephemera left behind by generations crushed in the wheels of American white supremacy are telling explanations for the fissures that still thread our society. In fact, these events explain more about the current state of American life, black and white, than the antebellum slavery that preceded.
Certainly, the great record of forced labor across the South demands that any consideration of the progress of civil rights remedy in the United States must acknowledge that slavery, real slavery, didn't end until 1945— well into the childhoods of the black Americans who are only now reaching retirement age. The clock must be reset.
Even more plain, no one who reads this book can wonder as to the origins, depth, and visceral foundation of so many African Americans’ fundamental mistrust of our judicial processes.
Most profoundly, the evidence moldering in county courthouses and the National Archives compels us to confront this extinguished past, to recognize the terrible contours of the record, to teach our children the truth of a terror that pervaded much of American life, to celebrate its end, to lift any shame on those who could not evade it. This book is not a call for financial reparations. Instead, I hope it is a formidable plea for a resurrection and fundamental reinterpretation of a tortured chapter in the collective American past.
We should rename this era of American history known as the time of "Jim Crow segregation." How strange that decades defined in life by abject brutalization came to be identified in history with the image of a largely forgotten white actor's minstrel performance—a caricature called "Jim Crow." Imagine if the first years of the Holocaust were known by the name of Germany's most famous anti-Semitic comedian of the 1930s. Let us define this period of American life plainly and comprehensively. It was the Age of Neoslavery Only by acknowledging the full extent of slavery's grip on U.S. society—its intimate connections to present-day wealth and power, the depth of its injury to millions of black Americans, the shocking nearness in time of its true end—can we reconcile the paradoxes of current American life.
A few months before the publication of this book, as I studied a century-old map of coal mines near Birmingham, it dawned on me that the name of an old mining camp town called Docena was a Spanish translation of "dozen"—as in Slope No. 12, the prison mine where Green Cottenham died. I quickly confirmed that Docena, at the top of the long hill above the graveyard at Pratt Mines, was the site of the No. 12 shaft, renamed after U.S. Steel finally stopped using slave laborers to avoid association with the company's last forced labor mine.
I drove there on a Saturday morning, with my wife and young children in the car. On the way we stopped near the ruins of Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad's Ensley furnaces. The giant smokestacks have been dead for decades but still own the sky—like lightning streaks of rust or a frightening amusement park ride, the kids said.
Nearby was Docena. The old mine had long been abandoned. Its opening at the center of the little town was collapsed and unrecognizable. Trees and brush crowded a streambed flowing from the site of the entrance. A disabled white man in a crumbling house nearby told me he remembered an old plot of unmarked graves a short distance down the hill, in a hollow where his father had kept pigs in his childhood. It was the mine burial ground. I knew Green's body was almost certainly buried there, just outside what had been the walls of the Pratt No. 12 prison.
We drove to the site. It was densely covered with undergrowth and pine trees. A path into the forest led from one heap of garbage and refuse to another. A forest fire had opened the way through another part of the woods. The children and I picked our way through the litter and foliage. We found the brick and concrete foundation of a shower room built for free miners after the company lost its slaves. The graves were supposed to be a few feet away. I pressed into the thicket of scrub and briars. We studied the ground for the telltale slumps in the earth like those scattered by the hundreds in the burial field at the bottom of the hill. I searched for the remains of a fence delineating a plot, rocks in the symmetry of graves, a crude headstone, any sign. But there was nothing. Too much time had passed. Too much had been done—or gone undone. The last evidence of Green Cottenham's life and death was obliterated by the encroachment of nature and the detritus of man.