"Niggers is cheap."
Across the South, white southerners were baffled. What to do with .freed slaves like Henry Cottinham and his grandfather Scip? They could not be driven away. Without former slaves—and their steady expertise and cooperation in the fields—the white South was crippled. But this new manifestation of dark-skinned men expected to choose when, where, and how long they would work. Those who could not find employ wandered town to town, presumptuously asking for food, favors, and jobs.
To get from place to place, or to reach locations where work had been advertised, they piled onto the empty freight cars of what few trains still ran. They formed up at night around campfires in the shadows of train depots and cotton warehouses on the fringes of towns. In the face of hostile whites—the Ku Klux Klan and members of other suddenly flourishing secret white societies—they brandished guns and were willing to use them. Beyond gall to their former masters, these meandering swarms of illiterate men also expected to be allowed to vote.
The breadth of white venom toward freed slaves—and the decades of venality that followed it—belied the wide spectrum of perspectives on slavery shared by white southerners before the war. From the earliest years of the North American colonies, whites struggled to resolve vastly differing views even among slaveholders of the place and position of blacks in the new society.
Colonial America began as a place uncertain of the abject subjugation of native Indian populations and thousands of African slaves pouring into the Western Hemisphere. Many were perplexed by the concept of categorizing humans by race and skin color, versus the long-standing European tradition of identification rooted in nationality and place of origin. In the first decades of colonization in the 1600s, "slave" and "Negro" were not synonymous in the American colonies. Slaves were as likely to be Indians as Africans. Some early owners of black slaves were themselves black. Free Africans in Virginia were permitted to vote well into the 1700s. Many indentured white servants were coerced into extending their labor contracts until death—effectively making them light-skinned slaves.
Dispelling that confusion and ensuring the dominant position of whites in general—and Englishmen in particular—colonial legislatures, especially in Virginia, South Carolina, and, later, Georgia, began in the 1650s to systematically define residents by color and lineage. The intentions were twofold: to create the legal structure necessary for building an economy with cheap slave labor as its foundation, and secondly, to reconcile bondage with America's revolutionary ideals of intrinsic human rights. Blacks could be excluded from the Enlightenment concepts that every man was granted by God individual freedom and a right to the pursuit of happiness because colonial laws codified a less-than-fully-human status of any person carrying even a trace of black or Indian blood. Instead of embracing the concept that regardless of color "All men are created equal," with no king or prince born to higher status than any other, colonial leaders extended a version of "royal" status to all whites.
Still, vast swaths of the region, including the rock-strewn Appalachians stretching from northern Alabama, across Georgia, and up through the Carolinas and Virginia, contained virtually no slaves at all. Indeed, in some of those places, companies of men had gathered after secession, armed themselves, and marched north to join with the Union armies moving upon the South.
In other places, men who owned hundreds or thousands of slaves nonetheless wrestled without resolution with the subtle moralities of human bondage and the trafficking of men. Robert Wickliffe, owner of more slaves than any other person in Kentucky and likely anyone in the United States, argued passionately against the exportation of slaves from the coastal regions of the United States to the comparative horrors of Deep South plantations in Georgia and Mississippi. The 1860 census counted among four million blacks in the South more than 250,000 free African Americans in the slave states, more than fifty thousand of them in Virginia. In Louisiana, a handful of black freedmen owned dozens of slaves. In the intricately hued tapestry of New Orleans, more than three thousand free blacks owned slaves themselves.1
But in what came to be known as the Black Belt—a long curve of mostly alluvial cotton farmland stretching across the fertile flatlands ranging from South Carolina through the lower reaches of Georgia and Alabama, and then extending across Mississippi and Louisiana—antebellum society had been built wholly on true chattel slavery. Millions of slaves came to live there under the ruthless control of a minority of whites. Here, the moral rationalization of slavery—and the view of slaves as the essential proof of white men's royal status—became as fundamental to whites’ perception of America as the concept of liberty itself. A century later, this was the paradox of the post-Civil War South—recognition of freed slaves as full humans appeared to most white southerners not as an extension of liberty but as a violation of it, and as a challenge to the legitimacy of their definition of what it was to be white.
The destruction of slavery in the Civil War didn't settle this contradiction. Instead, it made more transparent the fundamental question of whether blacks and whites could ever cohabit peacefully—of whether American whites in any region could recognize African Americans as humans. Faced with the mandated equality of whites and blacks, the range of southern perspectives on race distilled to narrow potency. Even among those who had been troubled by—or apathetic toward—slavery before the war, there was scant sympathy for the concept of full equality. By overwhelming majorities, whites adopted an assessment of the black man parallel to that in the great crescent of cotton country.
The Civil War settled definitively the question of the South's continued existence as a part of the United States, but in 1865 there was no strategy for cleansing the South of the economic and intellectual addiction to slavery. The resistance to what should have been the obvious consequences of losing the Civil War—full emancipation of the slaves and shared political control between blacks and whites—was so virulent and effective that the tangible outcome of the military struggle between the North and the South remained uncertain even twenty-five years after the issuance of President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. The role of the African American in American society would not be clear for another one hundred years.
In the first decades of that span, the intensity of southern whites’ need to reestablish hegemony over blacks rivaled the most visceral patriotism of the wartime Confederacy. White southerners initiated an extraordinary campaign of defiance and subversion against the new biracial social order imposed on the South and mandated by the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery. They organized themselves into vigilante gangs and militias, undermined free elections across the region, intimidated Union agents, terrorized black leaders, and waged an extremely effective propaganda campaign to place blame for the anarchic behavior of whites upon freed slaves. As the United States would learn many times in the ensuing 150 years, a military victor's intention to impose a new moral and political code on a conquered society was much easier to wish for than to attain.
Bibb County, home of the Cottinghams, was edged on the south by that great fertile prairie of plantation country where by the 1850s slaves accounted for the majority of most local populations. Bibb whites harbored no equivocation about the proper status of African Americans in their midst. There had been no agonized sentiment of doubt in this section of Alabama regarding the morality of slaveholding. No abolitionist voices arose here. In the 1840s, when the northern and southern branches of the Methodist Church divided over the issue of slavery, its Bibb County congregations—certainly including Cottingham Chapel—emphatically went the way of the southern church.2
There were no free blacks there before the war. The explosion in slave numbers in the adjoining counties—where tens of thousands of black men and women populated plantations strung along the Tennessee, Alabama, and Tombigbee rivers—offered a huge inventory of readily available African Americans and sustained a thriving local traffic in slaves.3
In Montgomery, the state capital seventy miles from the Bibb County seat, a huge wholesale market in slaves preoccupied the commercial life of the bustling city. Richard Habersham, a Georgian traveling through the town in 1836, described a sprawling slave market with scores of black men and women and crowds of white men closely inspecting them. "I came suddenly upon ranges of well dressed Negro men and women seated upon benches. There may have been 80 or 100 all in different parcels…. With each group were seated two or three sharp, hard featured white men. This was the slave market and the Negroes were dressed out for show. There they sit all day and every day until they are sold, each parcel rising and standing in rank as a purchaser approaches. Although born in a slave country and a slave holder myself and an advocate of slavery, yet this sight was entirely novel and shocked my feelings."4 Twenty-five years later, three months after the opening of the Civil War, a correspondent for the Times of London watched a twenty-five-year-old black man sold for less than $1,000 during a day of slow bidding at the same market. "I tried in vain to make myself familiar with the fact that I could for the sum of $975 become as absolutely the owner of that mass of blood, bones, sinew, flesh, and brains as of the horse which stood by my side," wrote W H. Russell. "It was painful to see decent-looking men in European garb engaged in the work before me…. The negro was sold to one of the bystanders and walked off with his bundle God knows where. ‘Niggers is cheap,’ was the only remark."5
Elisha Cottingham might have acquired Scipio at the Montgomery market, or from one of the speculative traders who moved between the big urban slave markets at Montgomery and Mobile, Alabama. They traveled the crude roads of the backcountry acquiring lots of slaves and then pushing "droves" of them shackled together from town to town. They pitched their tents in crossroads settlements to showcase their wares, and paraded slaves before landowners in need of labor.
During the 1850s, a man named J. M. Brown styled himself as "not a planter but a Negro raiser," growing no cotton on his Bibb County plantation but breeding slaves on his farm specifically for sale on the open market.6 On the courthouse steps, Bibb County sheriffs routinely held slave auctions to pay off the unpaid taxes of local landowners. County officials authorized holding the sales on either side of the Cahaba River for the convenience of potential buyers in each section of the county.
The South's highly evolved system of seizing, breeding, wholesaling, and retailing slaves was invaluable in the final years before the Civil War, as slavery proved in industrial settings to be more flexible and dynamic than even most slave owners could have otherwise believed.
Skilled slaves such as Scipio, churning out iron, cannons, gun metal, rifled artillery, battle ships, and munitions at Selma, Shelby Iron Works, and the Brierfield foundry, were only a sample of how thousands of slaves had migrated into industrial settings just before and during the war. The extraordinary value of organizing a gang of slave men to quickly accomplish an arduous manual task—such as enlarging a mine and extracting its contents, or constructing railroads through the most inhospitable frontier regions—became obvious during the manpower shortages of wartime.
Critical to the success of this form of slavery was dispensing with any pretense of the mythology of the paternalistic agrarian slave owner. Labor here was more akin to a source of fuel than an extension of a slave owner's familial circle. Even on the harshest of family-operated antebellum farms, slave masters could not help but be at least marginally moved by the births, loves, and human affections that close contact with slave families inevitably manifested.
But in the setting of industrial slavery—where only strong young males and a tiny number of female "washerwomen" and cooks were acquired, and no semblance of family interaction was possible—slaves were assets to be expended like mules and equipment. By the early 1860s, such slavery was commonplace in the areas of the most intensive commercial farming in Mississippi and parts of Alabama.
It was a model particularly well suited to mining and first aggressively exploited in high-intensity cotton production, in which individual skill was not necessarily more important than brute strength. In those settings, black labor was something to be consumed, with a clear comprehension of return on investment. Food, housing, and physical care were bottom-line accounting considerations in a formula of profit and loss, weighed primarily in terms of their effect on chattel slave productivity rather than plantation harmony.
On the enormous cotton plantations unfolding in the antebellum years across the malarial wasteland of the Mississippi Delta, absentee owners routinely left overseers in charge of small armies of slaves. In an economic formula in which there was no pretense of paternalistic protection for slaves, the overseers drove them mercilessly.
Frederick Law Olmsted, traveling through the South prior to the Civil War, wrote of the massive plantations of Alabama and Mississippi as places where black men and women "work harder and more unremittingly" than the rest of slave country. "As property, Negro life and Negro vigor were generally much less encouraged than I had always before imagined them to be."7
Another observer of Mississippi farms said that on the new plantations "everything has to bend, give way to large crops of cotton, land has to be cultivated wet or dry, Negroes to work hot or cold."8 Under these circumstances, slave owners came to accept that black laborers would also die quickly9 "The Negroes die off every few years, though it is said that in time each hand also makes enough to buy two more in his place," wrote planter James H. Ruffin in 1833.10
An English traveler visiting the great plantations in the final years of slavery described African Americans who "from the moment they are able to go afield in the picking season till they drop worn out in the grave in incessant labor, in all sorts of weather, at all seasons of the year without any change or relaxation than is furnished by sickness, without the smallest hope of any improvement either in their condition, in their food, or in their clothing indebted solely to the forbearance and good temper of the overseer for exemption from terrible physical suffering."11
Even large-scale slave owners who directed their business managers to provide reasonable care for slaves nonetheless advocated harsh measures to maintain the highest level of production. "They must be flogged as seldom as possible yet always when necessary," wrote one.12
An overseer's goal, a Delta planter said, was "to get as much work out of them as they can possibly perform. His skill consists in knowing exactly how hard they may be driven without incapacitating them for future exertion. The larger the plantation, the less chance there is, of course, of the owner's softening the rigor of the overseer, or the sternness of discipline by personal interference."13
Scip saw those changes coming. In the 1830s, a water-driven cotton mill was constructed on a creek seven miles north of the county seat, not far from the Cottingham plantation.14 Employing several dozen white laborers , the mill ginned cotton and spun it into thread and rope. Of far more portent for Scip's future, and that of his descendants, had been a chance discovery in the 1820s by a white settler named Jonathan Newton Smith. On a hunting trip near the Cahaba, Smith was surprised when large stones pulled from a creek to encircle a campfire ignited. Smith had tripped across the massive deposits of coal abounding in Alabama, and over the next fifty years would be a pioneering exploiter of the serendipitous proximity of immense brown iron ore deposits scattered across the ridges and, beneath the surface, the perfect fuel for blasting the ore into iron and steel.15 It was a combination that would transform life in Alabama, reshaping Scip's last years of slavery and radically altering the lives of millions of individuals over the next century.
Smith ambitiously assembled thousands of acres of land containing mineral deposits, and by 1840, he and others had opened small iron forges on all sides of the Cottingham farm. One was built on Six Mile Creek, a few miles down the mail road toward the nearest settlement. Another was across the Cahaba River. A third was constructed on a tributary of the big river just north of the plantation.16 These were crude mechanical enterprises, belching great columns of foul smoke and rivers of effluent. But they were marvels of the frontier in which they suddenly appeared. A giant water-powered wheel first crushed the iron ore, which was fed into a stone furnace and heated into a huge red molten mass. The "hammer man," working in nearly unbearable heat and using a red-hot bar of metal as his tool, then maneuvered the molten iron onto an anvil where a five-hundred-pound hammer, also powered by the waterwheel, pounded it into bars. Primitive as was the mechanism, the rough-edged masses of iron were the vital raw material for blacksmiths in every town and on every large farm to craft into the plows, horseshoes, and implements that were the civilizing tools of the Alabama frontier.17
In addition to Smith, two other white men living near the Cottingham farm, Jonathan Ware and his son Horace, were aggressively expanding the infant industry18 To Smith's geological observations, Horace Ware, a native of Lynn, Massachusetts, brought a keen instinct for the market among southern cotton planters for locally forged iron. He had learned the iron trade from his father, and bought land near the Cahaba coalfields and on a rich vein of iron ore in 1841. He put his first furnace into blast in 1846.19
Slaves were the primary workers at the earliest recorded coal mines in Alabama in the 1830s. Moses Stroup, the "father" of the iron and steel industry in Alabama, arrived in the state in 1848, acquired land on Red Mountain just south of present-day Birmingham, and erected his first furnaces. By the early 1850s, he was constructing a much larger group of furnaces in Tuscaloosa County, entirely with slave labor.20
Indeed, nearly all of the early industrial locations of the South were constructed by such slaves, thousands of whom became skilled masons, miners, blacksmiths, pattern makers, and furnace workers. Slaves performed the overwhelming majority of the raw labor of such operations, working as fillers, who shoveled iron ore, limestone, and coal into the furnaces in carefully monitored sequence; guttermen, who drew off the molten iron as it gathered; tree cutters, who felled millions of trees, and teamsters to drive wagons of ore and coal from the mines and finished iron to railroad heads.21Alabama's first recorded industrial fatality was a slave named Vann, killed in the early 1840s by falling rock in an iron ore pit near Alabama's earliest known forge.22
Southern railroads also became voracious acquirers of slaves, purchasing them by the hundreds and leasing them from others for as much as $20 per month in the 1850s.23 By the beginning of the Civil War, railroads owned an estimated twenty thousand slaves.24
All of the early iron masters of the region relied on slaves for the grueling menial work of clearing their property, constructing hand-hewn stone and brick furnaces and forges, and gathering the ore and coal exposed on outcrops or near the surface.25 As the forges went into production, slaves were trained to perform the arduous tasks of the blast furnace. Quickly, the Wares and other budding industrialists began a traffic in the specialized category of slaves trained in the skills of making iron.
During the late 1830s, the Wares took on as an apprentice from a businessman in Georgia a slave named Joe. Five years later, Jonathan Smith purchased the slave at auction for $3,000, and set him to work as the hammer man in one of his Bibb County forges.26By the late 1850s, the Wares, having shifted their iron-making operations to adjoining Shelby County, operated the largest metal works in the Deep South, largely with skilled slaves. Horace Ware's son, John E. Ware, would later reminisce about the most valued slaves at the forge. He recalled that "Berry, Charles, Anderson, Clark and Obediah" held key positions.27
The Hale & Murdock Furnace near Vernon, Alabama, was built in 1859 and then dramatically expanded to meet war needs in 1862 by a force of 150 men, most of whom were slaves.28 In December 1862, a Montgomery businessman began work on an iron ore mine and furnace north of the Cane Creek forge using a force of two hundred slaves moved from Tennessee as federal forces advanced from the North.29 Shortly after the operation was fully under way, Union general Wilson's raiders wrecked it.
In 1860, a year before the Civil War erupted, Jonathan Smith launched his most ambitious effort ever, the enormous ironworks at Brierfield, less than nine miles from the Cottingham farm. A partner of Smith's, Col. C. C. Huckabee, was a planter and longtime major slaveholder. His forced workers were a key element of his investment in the enterprise, and in its expansion during the war. Enormous numbers of men were needed to provide the quantities of wood, ore, and limestone required by a nineteenth-century furnace. "I set all my niggers to work in the woods," Huckabee later recalled, "and for many a day after that, the axes sounded like thunder in the pines."30
At the Wares’ Shelby Iron Works, slaves were the salvation of the operation's ability to continue supplying thousands of tons of iron to the Confederacy. Perhaps owing to his New England origins, Ware had never seriously considered extensive use of black labor in the first fifteen years of business. In 1859, however, he inquired about the industrial use of slaves in a letter to Joseph R. Anderson, manager of the Tredegar Works and perhaps the most famous southern industrialist of the era. Anderson responded enthusiastically and offered to sell Ware some of Tredegar's well-trained factory slaves.31
Ware didn't buy any of the African Americans available from Virginia, but he did bring in as partners several of Alabama's most prominent proponents of industrialism.32 They in turn began to acquire black laborers aggressively Soon, Shelby Works, with dozens of African American forced laborers on its balance sheet, was the largest owner of slaves in the county. Nearby, the Alabama Coal Mining Co. owned another dozen slaves, all men aged twenty-six to sixty.33
In 1862, the Shelby Works contracted with the Confederate government to produce the vast quantity of twelve thousand tons of iron a year for the war effort, effectively placing the operation under the control of the Confederate chief of ordnance in Richmond, Col. Josiah Gorgas, and his iron agent at the rebel arsenal and munitions factory in Selma, Col. Colin J. McRae. For the course of the war, the Shelby Works attempted to keep its furnaces in near constant blast—producing huge quantities of iron to be shipped to gun barrel makers in Mississippi and Georgia,34 and to the cannon and plate armor manufacturers at Selma. A second furnace was added in 1863 to boost the war effort.35
With most of the white male population already mustered or conscripted into fighting units, the company's only option for fulfilling its obligations was to rely almost entirely on slaves. Borrowing from the practices of railroads and the few other industrial systems already familiar to businessmen of the South, the Shelby Works quickly came to rely on "leased" slave labor that would prove both extraordinarily effective and resilient.
To procure the slaves, the Shelby Works hired a labor agent named John M. Tillman to lease African Americans from plantation owners in central Alabama, northeastern Mississippi, and eastern Georgia. Tillman's duties also included acquiring as many mules as possible, and the feed corn to feed both the four-legged and two-legged creatures he collected.36
Leased slave laborers typically cost $120 a year near the beginning of the war, but their cost more than doubled by the crisis years of 1864 and 1865. Slaves with a particularly useful skill, such as carpentry or prior iron-making experience, fetched $500 or more per year. The great majority were men aged twenty to forty-five, engaged in the back-breaking work of cutting timber in nearby forests and digging iron ore and limestone. They were supplemented by a much smaller number of women and their children who performed menial tasks such as cooking and cleaning. Soon, Ware was the master of between 350 and 400 slaves. His company remained hungry for more.37
Ware's slaves worked under the control of a white overseer, mostly in gangs of men assigned to specific tasks. Under terms of the contracts, owners received quarterly payments, and their slaves were provided with basic food, clothing, and shelter. If a slave escaped, it was the responsibility of the company to pay a fee for the slave's arrest and return to the ironworks. As an incentive to work hard and follow rules, slaves were permitted to earn small amounts of cash for themselves—typically less than $5 a month—by agreeing to perform extra tasks such as tending the furnace at night, cutting extra wood, or digging additional ore.38
The company overseer, called "boss" or "captain" by the slaves, was not empowered to severely discipline the leased slaves in his charge. Punishment remained the province of the owner. When slaves attempted to flee, stole, or refused the orders of the overseer, Shelby Works wrote the owner for instructions on how to handle his property. The punishments meted out by plantation masters to the slaves who worked under their direct employ were often harsh in the extreme, even torturous by modern sensibilities. But few slave masters encouraged the forge operators to treat their valued stock with brutality, particularly when the efficiency of the slave had no bearing on his financial return to the owner. Slaves who at Christmas reported to their owners that the managers of the ironworks had abused them often were not made available to the company again. Moreover, slaves with wives still living back at the plantations from which they had come were allowed to return home periodically, sometimes several times a year.
Industrialists were embracing the same practices across the South. An advertisement placed by the Empire State Iron and Coal Mining Company of Trenton, Georgia, in the Huntsville, Alabama, Confederate in 1863 sought to "hire or buy, 100 able-bodied hands, to be employed at their works … 20 miles southwest of Chattanooga."39
In 1862, an Alabama engineer named John T Milner and his business partner, Frank Gilmer, convinced the Confederate government to finance the construction of a blast furnace on Red Mountain in Jefferson County to produce iron for the war effort. The plant, constructed and operated primarily by slaves, marked the birth of the vast industrial complex that would surround the new city of Birmingham by the end of the century. By the time the Red Mountain furnace was in operation in 1863, Milner and Gilmer had also opened a complex of mines operated with slave labor near the town of Helena, Alabama.40 Within a decade after the war, the Helena mines would be manned entirely by convict forced laborers and set an early standard for the depredations against ostensibly emancipated African Americans.
Everywhere in the South that could produce coal or iron during the war, southern industrialists were being pressured to increase production at existing mines and furnaces, or to seize and reopen idled business. In a move that would hang ominously over the descendants of the Cottingham slaves, southern industrialists in 1861 took over a mining company near Tracy City, Tennessee, previously controlled by a syndicate of northern investors.
With the outbreak of war, the formerly New York-controlled mines of Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co. were placed in the hands of Confederate-sympathizing businessmen. Arthur S. Colyar, the southerner who took over management of the company in 1861, immediately placed forty slaves in the concern's Sewanee Mines. He was quickly pleased with their performance, telling a newspaper reporter: "In a few months they were doing good service and not one of the party failed in the effort to learn to dig coal."41
The business would become the largest commercial enterprise in the South, and a half century later the largest subsidiary of U.S. Steel, and the company that would acquire Scip's grandson Green Cottenham four decades later.
To the enterprising industrialists who would reshape the southern economy in the half century after the Civil War, the new concepts of industrialized black labor had taken firm hold. Long before the end of chattel slavery, Milner was in the vanguard of that new theory of industrial forced labor. In 1859, he wrote that black labor marshaled into the regimented productivity of factory settings would be the key to the economic development of Alabama and the South. Milner believed that white people "would always look upon and treat the negro as an inferior being." Nonetheless—indeed for that very reason—blacks would serve a highly useful purpose as the clever mules of an industrial age, "provided he has an overseer—a Southern man, who knows how to manage negroes."42 Milner's intuition that the future of blacks in America rested on how whites chose to manage them, whether in slavery or out of it, would resonate through the next half century of national discourse about the proper role of the descendants of Africa in American life.
Milner was no mere theorist. He was a dogged executor of his vision. It was men like Milner who would seize the opportunity presented by convict leasing to reclaim slavery from the destruction of the Civil War. As Alabama began selling its black prisoners in large numbers in the 1870s, he scrambled to acquire all that were available—plunging them by the hundreds into a hellish coal operation called the Eureka mines, and later illegally selling hundreds of these new slaves in the 1880s, along with another coal mine, to the Georgia Pacific Railroad Co.
In every setting that Milner employed convict slaves in the late nineteenth century, he and his business associates subjected the workers to almost animalistic mistreatment—a revivification of the most atrocious aspects of antebellum bondage. Records of Milner's various mines and slave farms in southern Alabama owned by one of his business partners—a cousin to an investor in the Bibb Steam Mill—tell the stories of black women stripped naked and whipped, of hundreds of men starved, chained, and beaten, of workers perpetually lice-ridden and barely clothed.
Milner took center stage in Alabama's new industrialization, urging southerners to "go to work…eradicating the diseases that are destroying us." Part of that eradication would be to successfully re-regiment freed slaves. "I am clearly of the opinion, from my own observation, that negro labor can be made exceedingly profitable in rolling mills," Milner had written of steel production in 1859. "I have long since learned that negro slave labor is more reliable and cheaper for any business connected with the construction of a railroad than white."43
Milner and others had seen his theory of the black slave as an effective industrial forced worker vividly fulfilled during the war. The system emerging with the end of Reconstruction would mimic it repeatedly. African Americans driven by the right men, in the correct ways, could be the engines of far more complex enterprises than the old bourbon-soaked planters would ever have believed possible. Black laborers might not quite be men, the industrialists reasoned, but they recognized that African Americans were far more than apes. The renting of slaves, as much as anything, had taught them that masses of black laborers brought under temporary control of a commercial enterprise could be powerfully leveraged in commerce.
The attitudes among southern whites that a resubjugation of African Americans was an acceptable—even essential—element of solving the "Negro question" couldn't have been more explicit. The desire of white farmers to recapture their former slaves through new civil laws was transparent. In the immediate wake of emancipation, the Alabama legislature swiftly passed a measure under which the orphans of freed slaves, or the children of blacks deemed inadequate parents, were to be "apprenticed" to their former masters. The South Carolina planter Henry William Ravenel wrote in September 1865: "There must… be stringent laws to control the negroes, & require them to fulfill their contracts of labour on the farms."44
With the southern economy in ruins, state officials limited to the barest resources, and county governments with even fewer, the concept of reintro-ducing the forced labor of blacks as a means of funding government services was viewed by whites as an inherently practical method of eliminating the cost of building prisons and returning blacks to their appropriate position in society. Forcing convicts to work as part of punishment for an ostensible crime was clearly legal too; the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1865 to formally abolish slavery, specifically permitted involuntary servitude as a punishment for "duly convicted" criminals.
Beginning in the late 1860s, and accelerating after the return of white political control in 1877, every southern state enacted an array of interlocking laws essentially intended to criminalize black life. Many such laws were struck down in court appeals or through federal interventions, but new statutes embracing the same strictures on black life quickly appeared to replace them. Few laws specifically enunciated their applicability only to blacks, but it was widely understood that these provisions would rarely if ever be enforced on whites. Every southern state except Arkansas and Tennessee had passed laws by the end of 1865 outlawing vagrancy and so vaguely defining it that virtually any freed slave not under the protection of a white man could be arrested for the crime. An 1865 Mississippi statute required African American workers to enter into labor contracts with white farmers by January 1 of every year or risk arrest. Four other states legislated that African Americans could not legally be hired for work without a discharge paper from their previous employer—effectively preventing them from leaving the plantation of the white man they worked for. In the 1880s, Alabama, North Carolina, and Florida enacted laws making it a criminal act for a black man to change employers without permission.
In nearly all cases, the potential penalty awaiting black men, and a small number of women, snared by those laws was the prospect of being sold into forced labor. Many states in the South and the North attempted to place their prisoners in private hands during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The state of Alabama was long predisposed to the idea, rather than taking on the cost of housing and feeding prisoners itself. It experimented with turning over convicts to private "wardens" during the 1840s and 1850s but was ultimately unsatisfied with the results. The state saved some expense but gathered no revenue. Moreover, the physical abuse that came to be almost synonymous with privatized incarceration always was eventually unacceptable in an era when virtually every convict was white. The punishment of slaves for misdeeds rested with their owners.
Hardly a year after the end of the war, in 1866, Alabama governor Robert M. Patton, in return for the total sum of $5, leased for six years his state's 374 state prisoners to a company calling itself "Smith and McMillen." The transaction was in fact a sham, as the partnership was actually controlled by the Alabama and Chattanooga Railroad. Governor Pat-ton became president of the railroad three years later.45 Such duplicity would be endemic to convict leasing. For the next eighty years, in every southern state, the questions of who controlled the fates of black prisoners, which few black men and women among armies of defendants had committed true crimes, and who was receiving the financial benefits of their re-enslavement would almost always never be answered.
Later in 1866, Texas leased 250 convicts to two railroads at the rate of $12.50 a month.46 In May 1868, four months after Henry and Mary's wedding, the state of Georgia signed a lease under which the Georgia and Alabama Railroad acquired one hundred convicts, all of them black, for $2,500. Later that year, the state sold 134 prisoners to the Selma, Rome and Dalton Railroad and sent 109 others to the line being constructed between the towns of Macon and Brunswick, Georgia.
Arkansas began contracting out its state convicts in 1867, selling the rights to prisoners convicted of both state crimes and federal offenses.47Mississippi turned over its 241 prisoners to the state's largest cotton planter, Edmund Richardson, in 1868. Three years later, the convicts were transferred to Nathan Bedford Forrest, the former Confederate general, who in civilian life already was a major planter and railroad developer. In 1866, he and five other former rebel officers had founded the Ku Klux Klan. Florida leased out half of the one hundred prisoners in its Chatta-hoochee penitentiary in 1869.
North Carolina began "farming out" its convicts in 1872. After white South Carolinians led by Democrat Wade Hampton violently ousted the last black government of the state in 1877, the legislature promptly passed a law allowing for the sale of the state's four hundred black and thirty white prisoners.
Six years earlier, in 1871, Tennessee leased its nearly eight hundred prisoners, nearly all of them black, to Thomas O’Conner, a founding partner along with Arthur Colyar of Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co.48 In the four decades after the war, as Colyar built his company into an industrial behemoth, its center of operations gradually shifted to Alabama, where it was increasingly apparent that truly vast reserves of coal and iron ore lay beneath the surface.
Colyar, like Milner, was one of those prominent southern businessmen who bridged the era of slavery and the distinct new economic opportunities of the region at the end of the nineteenth century. They were true slavers, raised in the old traditions of bondage, but also men who believed that African Americans under the lash were the key to building an industrial sector in the South to fend off the growing influence of northern capitalists.
Already, whites realized that the combination of trumped-up legal charges and forced labor as punishment created both a desirable business proposition and an incredibly effective tool for intimidating rank-and-file emancipated African Americans and doing away with their most effective leaders.
The newly installed white government of Hale County—deep in the majority-black cotton growing sections of Alabama—began leasing prisoners to private parties in August 1875. A local grand jury said the new practice was "contributing much to the revenues of the county, instead of being an expense." The money derived from selling convicts was placed in the Fine and Forfeiture Fund, which was used to pay fees to judges, sheriffs, other low officials, and witnesses who helped convict defendants.
The prior year, during a violent campaign by Ku Klux Klansmen and other white reactionaries to break up black Republican political meetings across Alabama, a white raiding party confronted a meeting of African Americans in Hale County. Shots were fired in the dark and two men died—one white and one black. No charges were brought in the killing of the African American, but despite any evidence they caused the shooting, leading black Republicans R. H. Skinner and Woodville Hardy were charged and convicted of murder. They were sent to the Eureka mines south of Birmingham in the spring of 1876.49
By the end of 1877, fifty convict laborers were at work in Milner's Newcastle Coal Company mine outside Birmingham. An additional fifty-eight men had been forced into the Eureka mines he founded near Helena. A total of 557 prisoners had been turned over that year to private corporations by the state of Alabama. 50
By the end of Reconstruction in 1877, every formerly Confederate state except Virginia had adopted the practice of leasing black prisoners into commercial hands. There were variations among the states, but all shared the same basic formula. Nearly all the penal functions of government were turned over to the companies purchasing convicts. In return for what they paid each state, the companies received absolute control of the prisoners. They were ostensibly required to provide their own prisons, clothing, and food, and bore responsibility for keeping the convicts incarcerated. Company guards were empowered to chain prisoners, shoot those attempting to flee, torture any who wouldn't submit, and whip the disobedient—naked or clothed—almost without limit. Over eight decades, almost never were there penalties to any acquirer of these slaves for their mistreatment or deaths.
On paper, the regulations governing convict conditions required that prisoners receive adequate food, be provided with clean living quarters, and be protected from "cruel" or "excessive punishment." All floggings were to be recorded in logbooks, and indeed hundreds were. But the only regularly enforced laws on the new slave enterprises were those designed primarily to ensure that no black worker received freedom or experienced anything other than racially segregated conditions. In Alabama, companies were fined $150 a head if they allowed a prisoner to escape. For a time, state law mandated that if a convict got free while being transported to the mines, the sheriff or deputy responsible had to serve out the prisoner's sentence. Companies often faced their strongest criticism for allowing black and white prisoners to share the same cells. "White convicts and colored convicts shall not be chained together," read Alabama law.51
In almost every respect—the acquisition of workers, the lease arrangements, the responsibilities of the leaseholder to detain and care for them, the incentives for good behavior—convict leasing adopted practices almost identical to those emerging in slavery in the 1850s.
By the late 1870s, the defining characteristics of the new involuntary servitude were clearly apparent. It would be obsessed with ensuring disparate treatment of blacks, who at all times in the ensuing fifty years would constitute the vast majority of those sold into labor. They were routinely starved and brutalized by corporations, farmers, government officials, and small-town businessmen intent on achieving the most lucrative balance between the productivity of captive labor and the cost of sustaining them. The consequences for African Americans were grim. In the first two years that Alabama leased its prisoners, nearly 20 percent of them died.52 In the following year, mortality rose to 35 percent. In the fourth, nearly 45 percent were killed.53