"The negro dies faster. "
In the two decades after Henry and Mary Cottinham exchanged vows at Wesley Chapel, the pair had successfully established their own self-sustained lives apart from the old Cottingham plantation. They and many of the other former slaves who had banded together with Scipio and lived in proximity at the crossroads of Six Mile eventually moved into the settlement at Brierfield, the remnants of the town surrounding the old furnaces where Scipio had worked as a slave and a freedman and the location of a basic school for black children.
The Cottingham slaves scratched out a tenuous self-reliant life. But the years did not pass easily. Mary's increase, as Elisha Cottingham had called the future offspring of the slave girl Francis when he gave her away in 1852, had been great, but leavened with pain and sorrow. She carried nine children to birth. Only six survived early childhood. Cooney the little freedom baby who had arrived with such expectation, was not among them.
The last of Henry and Mary's children, a fourth boy, came in May of 1886. Henry called him Green, the same name as Henry's mulatto uncle born on Elisha Cottingham's plantation more than fifty years earlier.
Beyond the confines of the family's strained domesticity, little else was evolving in the way that Henry and Mary and millions of other black southerners, had imagined at the dawn of freedom.
As Green grew into school age and then adolescence, the family increasingly felt the repercussions of two convulsive crescendos building toward a climax early in the next century. First was the progressively more overt effort to obliterate all manner of black independence and civic participation in the South—the effective reversal of the guarantees of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments. Then came a fevered movement to follow the great American territorial expansions of the nineteenth century with an era of unprecedented government-engineered social and economic uplift almost wholly reserved for whites. The two campaigns arrived like successive storms on a shore—the first violent wave smashing any creation of man, the second scouring what had been, scattering the remains, and saturating the soil with salt.
The totality of the destruction to be wrought on American blacks was underscored by a remarkable and little acknowledged facet of southern life in the final two decades of the 1800s. African Americans, by the most critical economic measures, were not significantly disadvantaged in comparison to the great mass of poor whites that surrounded them in the South. Of 4.4 million black southerners, poverty was abject and daunting. But millions of white southerners shared the same plight. And while more than half of southern blacks—about 2.5 million—could not read, there were 1.3 million whites among their neighbors who also were illiterate.
The prolonged economic inferiority and social subjugation of African Americans that was to be ubiquitous in much of the next century was not a conclusion preordained by the traditions of antebellum slavery.
Indeed, optimism and an expansive sense of opportunity pervaded black life in the years surrounding Green Cottenham's birth in 1886. African Americans still felt strongly that they were on the cusp of authentic integration into mainstream American life. Inspired by the moral force of the Civil War victory and the pronouncements of evangelical uplift, self-reliance, and personal improvement offered by an army of black pastors and statesmen of abolition such as Frederick Douglass, and soon Booker T Washington, black Americans were poised to assimilate fully into American society. Already, African Americans were seeing concrete dividends from the black public schools established during Reconstruction.
The challenges of freedom's aftermath remained surmountable, and the United States, just beginning to emerge as a truly modern nation, was embarking upon an unparalleled period of strategic social uplift. Blacks and poor whites alike were ready to exploit the opportunities of what would become a fifty-year campaign by federal and state governments to dramatically elevate the horizons of tens of millions of Americans living in crude frontier towns, urban tenements, and the isolation of remote rural farms.
By World War II, millions of white southerners had been raised from profound poverty, illiteracy, and ignorance to at least modest middle-class status. Free public schools, consistent medical care, passable roads, clean tap water, electricity, even the concept of regular hourly wage work—all still rarities across the South and much of the rest of the nation at the dusk of the nineteenth century—were promulgated upon millions of the most dispossessed of Americans with a speed and efficacy that in hindsight made the Great Society initiatives of the 1960s appear timid and indolent.
Even as southern whites rampaged violently and blacks suffered a grinding series of legal and political reverses, African American men continued to save meager funds to buy farms, mules, and plows. Black land ownership surged. New communities were established. Additional schools were opened against extraordinary odds. Most African Americans were resigned to the reality that whites would hold a dominant position in southern society, but found it incomprehensible that they and their descendants might be relegated again to a permanent, inferior social and legal position. Many, probably a majority, were reconciled to the likelihood of second-class citizenship. But, as argued by Booker T. Washington, they saw this status as a way station to full participation in society—a time to build economically and overcome the most obvious vestiges of slavery. Tens of thousands of blacks continued to exercise their vote, and a not insignificant number of white leaders still accepted, even if reluctantly, that the equal citizenship of former slaves could not be constitutionally revoked. The legal construct of separate-but-equal segregated government services—which would define the long era of Jim Crow in the twentieth century—had not yet been clearly established. Even the practice of identifying in government records every citizen as either "Negro" or "White"—a nearly obsessive American compulsion by early in the next century—in many areas had not yet become routine.
But the succeeding years would come as if the masses of povertystricken whites and blacks were twin siblings of a parent indulgent to one and venomous to the other. A new national white consensus began to coalesce against African Americans with shocking force and speed. The general white public, the national leadership of the Republican Party, and the federal government on every level were arriving at the conclusion that African Americans did not merit citizenship and that their freedom was not valuable enough to justify the conflicts they engendered among whites. A growing body of whites across the nation concluded that blacks were not worth the cost of imposing a racial morality that few in any region genuinely shared. As early as 1876, President Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union army of liberation, conceded to members of his cabinet that the Fifteenth Amendment, giving freed slaves the right to vote, had been a mistake: "It had done the Negro no good, and had been a hindrance to the South, and by no means a political advantage to the North."1 "The long controversy over the black man seems to have reached a finality," wrote the Chicago Tribune, approvingly. Added The Nation: "The Negro will disappear from the field of national politics. Henceforth, the nation, as a nation, will have nothing more to do with him."2 That the parent had once sacrificed enormously to rescue the less favored child only made its abandonment deeply more bitter.
By the end of the 1940s, when Green Cottenham might have been easing toward a workman's retirement, it was only his white peers who approached old age as the first American generation with socially guaranteed security. Emerging among the children and grandchildren of those whites was a level of modest wealth, educational attainment, and personal achievement unimaginable to anyone in the South of 1886. For the first time in U.S. history, a geographically broad and stable national middle class had evolved—an anchor of sustained wealth and shared values that would sculpt American life through the end of the twentieth century. But it would be defined in white-only terms.
The South was in the midst of an economic and cultural convulsion, one that should have offered an opening for a radical redefinition of the roles of blacks and whites in American life. A terrible depression in the 1870s had finally eased as the South began to emerge from economic ruin. In the disputed presidential election of 1876, white southern political leaders leveraged the electoral college system to rob the winner of a huge majority of the popular vote, Samuel J. Tilden, of the White House. In return, the Congress and the administration of the fraudulent new Republican president, Rutherford B. Hayes, finally removed the last Union troops from the South and ended a decade of federal occupation of the region.3 An era of southern economic revitalization appeared to be at hand. In 1886, Henry Grady the dynamic young editor of the Atlanta Constitution,famously declared the creation of a "New South"—one in which industrialism would replace agriculture and in which the conflicts of region and race that had paralyzed the nation for more than twenty-five years were at an end.
In some places, the economic evolution was truly phantasmagoric. In 1880, large portions of Alabama remained as sparsely populated as the newest western territories of the United States. Most of the state averaged fewer than twenty residents per square mile. A decade later, nearly all of Alabama was as thickly populated as most states to the east.
Birmingham illustrated the tectonic forces at work in U.S. society more than any other place. The booming city erupted out of abandoned forest in the 1870s and suddenly became a national center for the making of iron and steel. As coal production in Alabama surged from 10,000 tons in the early 1870s to 400,000 tons in 1881, the city built thousands of new homes, laid streets, installed the infrastructure of a major capital, and opened schools, churches, and colleges. Jefferson County, center of the boom, nearly quadrupled from fewer than 25,000 residents in 1880 to nearly 90,000 ten years later. By 1900, the number approached 150,000.4
The entire U.S. economy was surging with industrial fervor, generating a ravenous appetite for Alabama's coal and iron ore. Wall Street financiers joined with the South's new generation of industrialists, men such as Col. James W Sloss, James DeBardeleben, and Truman Aldrich, to aggressively exploit the deposits of iron ore and apparently limitless seams of coal that riddled the Appalachian foothills of northern Alabama. In 1878, Sloss— one of the original lessors of Alabama prisoners sixteen years earlier— DeBardeleben, and Aldrich formed the Pratt Coal and Coke Co., and took over what would become the underground behemoth known as Pratt Mines.
Recognizing the vast potential of the mineral deposits, the Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co. soon moved its center of operations from Nashville to the coalfields of Alabama. The coming economic boom, unprecedented in the South, would require thousands of men, working deep in the earth, in a never-stopping excavation.
In 1886, Sloss sold his massive Birmingham furnace complex to a group of New York-backed investors. A year later, with additional financial backing from the North, the new owners formed a corporation that would come to be known as Sloss-Sheffield Iron and Steel Company. The corporation quickly purchased the territory and mining operation at Coalburg owned by John Milner.
Production boomed. The crude mines and simple furnaces of Bibb County now paled in the glow of this industrial revolution. The old shafts and digs were being abandoned. The work they represented to families such as the black Cottinghams melted away. Word spread that soon there would be no work except in the new city exploding less than fifty miles away— Birmingham. The family's center was slipping too. Sometime in the 1880s the old slave Scipio, the man who had carved a world from the wilderness, had fathered and grandfathered so many in slavery but defiantly never forgotten his African roots, died at Brierfield.
The furnaces near Six Mile, where Scipio, Henry, and their clan had sustained a measure of economic independence, ceased operations. Only the families of grandson Henry and his much younger half-brother Elbert remained in the community. Most of the former Cottingham slaves and their descendants, many now using the more phonetically correct names Cottinham or Cottenham, had already been pulled toward the lure of activity and wealth of Birmingham. Huge numbers of other poor blacks and whites from across the South were pouring into the city. Henry and Mary could not resist the inexorable current of the new era, tugging them toward the bulging, smoky new metropolis.
Yet already, the opportunity for the rise of new industries to open substantial new doors for black citizenship and economic advancement was being ignored. Even black leaders such as Booker T. Washington were urging blacks to accept a deferential, second-class position in American society, in return for less racial violence by whites. African Americans increasingly found themselves trapped between the accommodationist retreat of Washington and the hollow claims of harmony and goodwill by white men such as Henry Grady
Few companies riding the southern boom saw any value in integrating black workers into their expanding enterprises. African Americans’ value in the new order was greatest as a defense against unions attempting to organize free workers—especially in Alabama's coalfields. The utility of forced labor as a bulwark against disruptions of the South's biggest enterprises was obvious. Coal mines, timber camps, and farms worked by imprisoned men couldn't be shut down by strikers, or have wages driven up by the demands of free men. The new slave labor provided an ideal captive workforce: cheap, usually docile, unable to organize, and always available when free laborers refused to work.
By the end of the 1880s, at least ten thousand black men were slaving in forced labor mines, fields, and work camps in the formerly Confederate states.5 The resubjugation of black labor was a lucrative enterprise, and critical to the industrialists and entrepreneurial farmers amassing capital and land.
In Georgia, near the town of Athens, former state senator James M. Smith held hundreds of debt slaves on a farm that stretched thirty miles from the town he named after himself: Smithonia. In the post-Civil War economy, Smith nurtured a small farm into the state's largest plantation. He became a major buyer of convicts soon after Georgia's Reconstruction government was toppled by a campaign of voter fraud and Ku Klux Klan violence.
On thousands of acres, he raised cotton, corn, sorghum, and timber, and operated small factories.6 For workers he relied on an army of terrified convict slaves, including many African Americans he had owned before the war or their descendants. John Hill, a former slave who said his relatives had been held at Smithonia for decades after the end of slavery, described the farm in an interview given in the 1930s: "He had what they called chain-gang slaves. He paid them out of jail for them to work for him," Hill recounted. "He let them have money all the time so they didn't never get out of debt with him. They had to stay there and work all the time, and if they didn't work, he had them beat."
If workers tried to flee, Smith relied on deputy sheriffs to recapture them and his own overseers to inflict brutal punishments. "They had dogs to trail them with so they always got caught, and then the whipping boss beat them almost to death," Hill said. "It was awful to hear them hollering and begging for mercy. If they hollered ‘Lord have mercy!’ Marse Jim didn't hear them, but if they cried, ‘Marse Jim have mercy!’ then he made them stop the beating. He say, ‘The Lord rule Heaven, but Jim Smith ruled the earth.’ "7
Another former governor and U.S. senator of Georgia, Joseph E. Brown, worked hundreds of black forced laborers in his coal mines in the northern mountains of his state. Other slave laborers helped rebuild Brown's iron furnaces that had been destroyed by Union troops in the Civil War. In North Carolina, the tracks of the critical, state-owned Western & Atlantic Railroad were being laid by huge gangs of black men compelled by sheriffs to work for the company. In Louisiana and Mississippi, thousands of impoverished African Americans were building levees and working massive cotton plantations under the lash.
In Atlanta, an expert in the prewar use of slaves to build railroads, John T Grant, and his son William Grant leased nearly four hundred of Georgia's state and county convicts to perform the extraordinarily harsh work of building a seventy-one-mile railway line between the towns of Macon and Augusta. Despite reports of terrible abuse and high mortality among the forced laborers, the business—Grant, Alexander & Company—soon controlled nearly all of Georgia's prisoners. Though the Civil War was nearly a decade past, Grant, Alexander was soon laying track on projects across the state—all of it performed with slave labor.8
Meanwhile, John Grant's railroad building partner from before the war, Col. Lemuel P. Grant, was developing his extensive landholdings into the city's first major suburb, called Grant Park. The colonel, an engineer and railroad builder unrelated to John Grant, had directed construction of the extensive fortifications surrounding Atlanta during the Civil War using slave labor. The neighborhood surrounded the growing city's first substantial green space, a Frederick Law Olmsted firm-designed park that would permanently bear the colonel's name. Nearby, Joel Hurt—one of the state's wealthiest men and a major leaseholder of convicts for his Georgia Iron and Coal Company—was building another of the city's finest residential enclaves.
The bricks used to pave the streets and line the sidewalks of these flourishing new Victorian areas were sold in lots of a million to the Atlanta City Council by former mayor James W. English. His brick-making concern, Chattahoochee Brick Co., would by the end of the century churn out 300,000 hot red rectangles of hardened clay every day—all made by forced laborers. On Sunday afternoons, white men frequently met in the yard of the English brick factory to swap or buy black men, little changed from the slave markets of a half century earlier.9
As leases for forced laborers proliferated across the South, whites re-adopted a sense of ownership reminiscent of antebellum days. After the death of a partner in Stevens Bros. & Co., a pottery factory in Georgia's Baldwin County, in 1890, an auction was held to sell off all the assets. The newspaper advertisement for the sale could just as well have been from the world of Elisha Cottingham in the 1850s. "Will be sold … to the highest bidder …Eleven mules, 1 horse, 1 bull, 800 bushels of corn …lease of 30 convicts with various terms to serve, 1 grist mill."10
Thousands more forced laborers slaved on extraordinarily profitable farms stretching across the old slavery belt of Texas, where prisoners were chained at the neck and held in boxcars at night. Working from sunup to sundown, they survived on "food buzzards would not eat" and suffered sadistic punishments. Hundreds of men charged with petty crimes were simply worked to death and then buried unceremoniously wherever they fell. To escape that fate, Texas convicts mimicked the desperate tactics of slaves before them—slicing their heel strings, hacking off their hands, or gouging out their eyes. A few chronicled their nightmares in the written word. I spent "the prime of my life …as a slave," exclaimed one prisoner, while another lamented that he was "buried alive …dead to the world."11
Speaking to a gathering of prominent black writers and thinkers on the twentieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1883, Frederick Douglass, the aging black leader of pre-Civil War years, lamented that despite the bloody sacrifice of black soldiers in the fight for liberation, "in all relations of life and death, we are met by the color line. It hunts us at midnight …denies us accommodation …excludes our children from schools …compels us to pursue only such labor as will bring us the least reward."12
A few months later in 1883, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1875, the one federal law forcing whites to comply with the provisions of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments—awarding voting and legal rights to blacks—could be enforced only under the most rare circumstances. Civil rights was a local, not federal issue, the court found.
The effect was to open the floodgates for laws throughout the South specifically aimed at eliminating those new rights for former slaves and their descendants. Justice John Marshall Harlan, the only member of the court to oppose the opinion, publicly worried that the amendments representing the ideals of equality and freedom articulated by Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address, as well as the arching moral justification for the carnage of the Civil War, had been renounced.
Douglass, despondent, wrote to an acquaintance: "We have been …gruesomely wounded …in the house of our friends."13 In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling, the federal government adopted as policy that allegations of continuing slavery were matters whose prosecution should be left to local authorities only—a de facto acceptance that white southerners could do as they wished with the black people in their midst.
The significance of those legal and political developments can hardly be overstated. The era of Reconstruction and black political control on any statewide level in the South had ended fifteen years earlier, but in the early 1880s, large numbers of African Americans continued to vote, particularly in majority-black cotton-growing counties. As a result, even deeply racist white politicians were compelled to temper—or at least consider—their rhetoric and positions with racial implications. Funding for public schools remained equally apportioned to black and white children, and African Americans in many places maintained at least some level of access to local courts and other government services. But a declaration by the country's highest courts that the federal government could not force states to comply with the constitutional requirement of the equal treatment of citizens, regardless of race, opened a torrent of repression.
In 1888, Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad entered into its first contract with the state of Alabama to lease convicts into the Pratt Mines. The big company took over operations from J. W. Comer, who had long held thousands of forced laborers in his farm fields and mines. After acquiring Pratt Mines, the Tennessee company competed for the lease on all state prisoners in an auction against companies representing nearly every major economic figure in Alabama or the South. Other bidders included Sloss-Sheffield, several companies controlled by Milner, and a partnership between DeBardeleben and Comer's sometime associate, Lowndes County planter William D. McCurdy Within five years, more than one thousand men, nearly all of them black, were working under the whip at the Pratt Mines, and Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co. in effect owned all state convicts for the next quarter century.
Fueled by access to this large pool of forced laborers and fresh investment from New York, the company began a dramatic expansion. By the end of 1889, there were eight major mine openings in the Pratt complex, producing 1.1 million tons of coal in that year alone—a nearly 25 percent increase over the prior year. Each shaft descended several hundred feet, and then branched into passageways following a seam of coal. Off the passageways, miners excavated "rooms," leaving columns of coal at specific intervals to hold up the roof of the mine. A few men returned to the same room each day, removing more coal using varying combinations of picks, levers, dynamite, and hydraulic jackhammers. The coal was loaded into small cars running on narrow gauge rails through the passageways back to the bottom of the main shaft, where the cars were consolidated into larger wagons. There, a mechanized hoist, powered by a steam engine on the surface, hauled the wagons out into daylight.
The coal was pulled to the "tipple," a huge wooden structure atop a railroad trestle, and tipped. The coal was dumped into much larger railroad cars waiting below. A steam locomotive hauled the trainload from there to one of several nearby sites where the company operated more than eight hundred ovens to produce the dense-carbon coke used as fuel by the growing number of steel and iron furnaces in and around Birmingham. In addition to nearly one thousand forced prison laborers regularly on hand, the company soon employed another two thousand free miners, the majority of whom were also black, many of them former convicts.14
Forced laborers were priced depending on their health and their ability to dig coal. Under state rules, a "first-class" prisoner had to cut and load into mine cars four tons of coal a day to avoid being whipped. The weakest inmates, labeled "fourth-class" or "dead hands," were required to produce at least one ton a day. A first-class state convict cost a company $18.50 a month, according to a convict board financial report. A dead hand cost $9. The leasing of convicts soon was generating in excess of $120,000 a year for the state of Alabama, an extraordinary sum for a state whose total general tax revenue—and budget—at the time barely exceeded $1 million.
To boosters of southern industry, the rapidly expanding operations at Pratt Mines were the fulfillment of a once impossible fantasy. The success not only defied caricatures of the slumbering rural South, but actively challenged a citadel of northern capitalism. "Nothing has ever been done in the South that looks so much like being a real competitor of Pennsylvania in the iron business," boasted the Nashville Union.15
In 1889, the Pratt Mines moved their prisoners into new barracks in the company's wooden stockade at the Shaft No. 1 mine. In a report to the governor, mine inspectors said the prison, designed to hold 480 men, was "as neat and clean as …the best regulated hotels" and that "the drinking water is filtered and in warm weather is cooled with ice."16 A second prison was opened at Slope No. 2 later in 1889, nearly doubling the number of convicts the company could house. The company claimed to have spent $60,000 building the structures and surrounding compound.
For the men beneath the surface, the view was very different. Pratt Mines was a scene of nightmarish human suffering and brutal retaliation. Subjected to squalid living conditions, poor medical treatment, scant food, and frequent floggings, hundreds died—the victims of mine explosions, rock falls, fires, neglect, and, most commonly, recurring outbreaks of disease. Many more left the mines and work camps alive but physically shattered. If unclaimed by relatives, those who died were quickly interred in crude burial places adjacent to the prison camps or incinerated in one of the company's coke ovens.
In hushed tones, survivors recounted to friends and relatives how slave miners labored under ghastly conditions, working in pools of putrid water that seeped out of the rock or leaked from equipment used to soften the coal. The seepage was contaminated by mineral residues and the prisoners’ own body waste, but was often the only water available to drink. The contaminated seepage frequently triggered waves of dysentery, a painful malady caused by drinking water contaminated with human waste. Dysentery causes inflammation of the large intestines, terrible stomach pains, and uncontrollable diarrhea that leads to severe dehydration and, ultimately for many, death. Dozens died each year during epidemics of diarrhea and intestinal sickness that swept through the mines with grim regularity, according to death registries maintained at some mines. Gas from the miners’ headlamps and smoke from blasts of dynamite and gunpowder choked the air. Deadly methane, which occurs naturally in seams of coal, accumulated in poorly ventilated sections of mines. An 1890 convict inspector described "more sickness" at the Pratt Mines "than any other place."17
An unintended distinction between antebellum slavery and the new forced labor system became increasingly clear—and disastrous for the men captured into it. Slaves of the earlier era were at least minimally insulated from physical harm by their intrinsic financial value. Their owners could borrow money with slaves as collateral, pay debts with them, sell them at a profit, or extend the investment through production of more slave children. But the convicts of the new system were of value only as long as their sentences or physical strength lasted. If they died while in custody, there was no financial penalty to the company leasing them. Another black laborer would always be available from the state or a sheriff. There was no compelling reason not to tax these convicts to their absolute physiological limits.
The private guards who staffed the slave labor mines and camps were vulgar, untrained, and often inebriated. Placed under the complete control of the companies and businessmen who acquired them, the laborers suffered intense physical abuse and the deprivation of food, clothing, medical care, and other basic human needs. Guards, rarely supervised, hung men by their thumbs or ankles as punishment. Convict slaves were whipped for failure to work at the rate demanded by their overseers, commonly receiving as many as sixty or seventy lashes at a time. Accounts of men or women lashed until skin literally fell from their backs were not uncommon. Convicts who attempted repeated escapes were subject to many of the same torturous restraints as their slave forebears—shackles, balls and chains, or objects riveted to iron cuffs or collars to limit their mobility. A convict recaptured after escaping a labor camp in Muscogee County, Georgia, had a steel ring placed around his neck to which "was fixed a spike, curling inward, so that rapid running was impossible."18
Underfed and overworked convicts traveled from the Pratt Mines stockade to the mine through an underground manway before dawn each day, and back through the same tunnel after dark. Only on Sundays, when mining ceased for a day, would the prisoners see sunlight. An 1889 report by Alabama legislators reported an "immense amount of whipping" of inmates at Pratt and other prison mines.
During 1888 and 1889, seven of the black laborers forced into the Slope No. 2 mine were children under the age of ten. Prison inspection reports indicated that among nearly 1,100 men brought there, only one third could read. Fewer than forty had prior criminal records. Of the 116 prisoners who died, a large number were teenagers.
The official registry of casualties listed the death of twelve-year-old Arthur Easter in March 1888 for unknown reasons. Fifteen-year-old George Wolfork, a waiter before being seized into the prison, died in May 1888 of typhoid after first being stabbed in the arm. Malachi Coleman, a sixteen-year-old trained as a bricklayer, serving a four-month term, died in May after having his "leg mashed." Luther Metcalf, sixteen years old, died of unknown causes in October. John Cotton expired in November, six weeks after arrival. The cause of death was listed as "arm off below shoulder." Other common causes of death from just one page of the registry included: "yellow fever; abscess lower jaw; shot in neck; shot in shoulder and finger; right eye out; skull fractured."19
Volatile mixtures of fumes or combinations of "afterdamp"—air with dangerously elevated levels of carbon monoxide and other gases—and coal dust collected in the poorly ventilated shafts, sometimes igniting to cause huge explosions. Gas ignited in Shaft No. 1, killing eleven men in one 1891 incident, all but one of whom were forced workers. At other times, gas did not explode but began burning as it passed out of the coal—igniting the seam itself and turning the mine passage into a tunnel of literally flaming rock.20 Some fires could only be extinguished by flooding the mine shafts entirely.
Under such execrable conditions, prisoners attempted increasingly brazen escapes, with almost monthly frequency. More than once, convicts themselves attempted to set fire to the mine in hopes of breaking free during the ensuing melee. Invariably, escapees or others died in the plots. The company reported one such breakout in May of 1890, claiming that three white prisoners and one black convict staged a fire alarm in the middle of the night. "In the terror and confusion, while the officers were trying to restore quiet," the four broke free of the stockade, guards said. One prisoner remained free for some time; a second was mortally shot. Two others— Bob Crawford and Noah Marks—were immediately recaptured, most likely by the prison's bloodhounds.21
In the meantime, the pent-up hostilities of the stockade erupted into riot. "It became necessary for us to adopt some prompt and severe measures to reduce the insubordinates to subjection. But everything was settled in a short time," read the company report. It is not difficult to imagine what those measures were. Mine officials said Crawford, a white man from outside the South, "committed suicide on the day afterwards."22
Conditions at Sloss-Sheffield's Coalburg slave camp were even worse than at the Pratt Mines. Several hundred prisoners purchased from judges and sheriffs in twenty-three Alabama counties—including the Cottingham homeplace of Bibb—had been acquired along with the purchase of the mines. In 1889, an epidemic of measles and dysentery swept through the men.
"The sickness hung on as if loathe to give up its hold upon this unfortunate place," wrote one state inspector. He called the place "disastrous." Of 648 forced laborers at the mine in 1888 and 1889, 34 percent did not survive. At the Pratt Mines, 18 percent died. All but a handful were black.23 Another visitor in the same period wrote the Alabama governor that every slave worker who had been in the mine for at least six months had contracted dysentery. He called the death rate "enormous, frightful, astonishing."24
Convicts in Sloss-Sheffield's prison compound reached the mine by shuffling through a long, low-ceilinged shaft extending from inside the walls of their prison compound.25 A special committee of the Alabama legislature studying the convict system in 1889 reported that "many convicts in the coal mines …have not seen the sun shine for months." In the first two weeks of June of that year, 137 floggings were given to the 165 forced laborers at the mine.26
Conditions were so demoralizing at the Coalburg mine, the convicts so beaten and bedraggled, that laborers did not even choose to attend church services on Sundays—the one regular diversion permitted forced workers. "There are but few of the convicts that manifest any interest in any kind of religious services," wrote Evan Nicholson, a chaplain at the camp in 1890.27
The horror of the mortality rates and living conditions was underscored by the triviality of the alleged offenses for which hundreds of men were being held. At the end of the 1880s, thousands of black men across the South were imprisoned in work camps only for violations of the new racial codes, completely subjective crimes, or no demonstrable crime at all. Among the "felons" sold to the Pratt Mines in 1890, seven men were working for the crime of bigamy, four for homosexuality, and six for miscegenation—an offense almost solely prosecuted against black men who engaged in sex with white women. Many others had been arrested and sold for ostensible crimes that explicitly targeted blacks’ assertions of their new civil rights: two for "illegal voting" and eleven on a conviction for "false pretense," the euphemism for new laws aimed at preventing black men from leaving the employ of a white farmer before the end of a crop season.28
The application of laws written to criminalize black life was even more transparent in the prisoners convicted of misdemeanors in the county courts. Among county convicts in the mines, the crimes of eight were listed as "not given." There were twenty-four black men digging coal for using "obscene language," ninety-four for the alleged theft of items valued at just a few dollars, thirteen for selling whiskey, five for "violating contract" with a white employer, seven for vagrancy two for "selling cotton after sun set"—a statute passed to prevent black farmers from selling their crops to anyone other than the white property owner with whom they share-cropped—forty-six for carrying a concealed weapon, three for bastardy, nineteen for gambling, twenty-four for false pretense. Through the enforcement of these openly hostile statutes, thousands of other free blacks realized that they could be secure only if they agreed to come under the control of a white landowner or employer. By the end of 1890, the new slavery had generated nearly $4 million, in current terms, for the state of Alabama over the previous two years.29
By then, local sheriffs, deputies, and some court officials also derived most of their compensation from fees charged to convicts for each step in their own arrest, conviction, and shipment to a private company. The mechanisms of the new slavery reached another level of refinement, as trading networks for the sale and distribution of blacks emerged over wide areas. Sheriffs were now incentivized to arrest and obtain convictions of as many people as possible—regardless of their true guilt or whether a crime had been committed at all. Ever larger numbers of other whites also began to seek their own slice of the growing profits generated by the trade in compulsory black labor.
"It is plain that [prisoners] are fed as cheaply as possible in order that the sheriffs may have wide margin of profit," wrote one jail inspector, Dr. C. F. Bush. "I have had several sheriffs to admit to me that, without profit from the feed bill, they would not have the office, as it was one of their greatest sources of revenue."
Another official said the system "legalized graft" and "resulted in starvation." A third prison doctor wrote that men held in the county jails routinely "made their appearance pale, weak and anemic, and the bodies covered with ulcers due to have been confined in vermin ridden, insanitary and poorly ventilated jails and the lack of a sufficient amount of…food."30
In J. W. Comer's remote home territory, Barbour County, in the cotton country of southern Alabama, nearly seven hundred men were leased between June 1891 and November 1903, most for $6 a month, each logged elegantly into a leather-bound Convict Record. Most were sent to mines operated by Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad or Sloss-Sheffield.31
Steady streams of telegrams and letters radiated from sheriffs, labor agents, and company executives in a furious search for additional laborers or to induce men in positions of petty power to arrest ever more men under any circumstances. Offers to bring in a particular black man for sale or pleading that certain African Americans be seized for sale poured into the office of Shelby County sheriff Lewis T Grant in 1891. G. Bridges, an agent of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, wrote Grant on February 24, complaining about the number of itinerant men near the station in the town of Calera, one stop away from Columbiana. "We are suffering from a surplus of loafing negroes and white tramps, and car breaking and pilfering is frequently indulged in…. Perhaps you might have a lot of them arrested for trespassing on the property of the Railroad Co."32
Bridges was less than thrilled when Sheriff Grant suggested that the railroad pay him for the arrest of the unwanted men. "Thank you for the offer of services you so kindly make," the railroad man responded a day later. He suggested that instead the sheriff's deputy be sent out. "Would it not be more convenient and expeditious, to call on him to arrest trespassers?" These were business transactions, not law enforcement.33
Escambia County sheriff James McMillan wrote on March 13 asking Grant to watch out for a seventeen-year-old "yellow" boy and an accompanying woman with a little girl. "Please get them up for me and if they fail to make bond which I expect they will I will come or send after them."
Jefferson County sheriff P. J. Rogers telegrammed on April 9 to "look out for Andrew Cubes a yellow negro about 22 years old who escaped from guards at Calera last night while in transit to our place from Selma, $50 reward."34
Sloss-Sheffield sent preprinted fill-in-the-blank postcards to sheriffs in every county, announcing the escape of convicts and the reward placed on their head. "$25 REWARD!" read the card mailed on April 21, 1891, seeking 175-pound Dan Homer, a twenty-two-year-old county convict with dark black skin, black whiskers, and scars on his left thumb and left hand.35
Often the sheriffs’ correspondence reflected a simple gamble by some treacherous white man that if he pointed out a promising black laborer, a sheriff or deputy would find a reason to arrest him and share the financial benefits. "There is a negro up there at the Public Works by the name of Peter McFarland …he is a ginger cake color Black hair Black eyes hair cut close …he is wanted for Burglary if you will arrest him and put him in jail. I will give you $10 …wire me at once if you get him," wrote F. E. Burfitt, from Selma, on May 26.
The next day, Calhoun County deputy sheriff John Rowland wrote Grant: "Is there a reward for one Will Riddle wanted in your county for disturbing public worship?"
W. B. Fulton of Pensacola, Florida, wrote the Shelby County sheriff on November 23, 1891, asking if a black man with the last name of Elliott had perhaps stabbed a man at the Shelby Iron Works some years earlier. "Look into the matter and see if there is any Reward for him, and if so I will bring him to you and divide the Reward. I know where he is and can get him anytime. Hoping to hear from you at your earliest convenience."36
A week later, a telegraph to Grant on November 29, 1891, from the constable in Waverly Alabama, warned that he had arrested an African American named Frank Hubbard but "will not hold unless there is an ample reward." Scores upon scores of such letters—some penned in refined script of educated men, more often in the scrawl of county brutes, sometimes crisp and terse telegrams—piled in heaps in a drawer of the sheriff's wooden desk.37 Scattered among them were reminders from Jefferson County's Sheriff Rogers, who later became general manager of convicts for the Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co., to send along bills and receipts related to the transportation of prisoners from Columbiana to the Pratt Mines—by then the ultimate destination of nearly every one of the hundreds of black men unfortunate enough to encounter Sheriff Grant.38
The opportunities for abuse in these dealings were immense and obvious. Blacks who fell into the disfavor of white officials anywhere in the South could be swept into the penal system on the most superficial pretense. The ability of blacks to resist these developments became more and more circumscribed.
The sudden rise of this new threat was shocking to blacks at a time when thousands still actively participated in southern political life. But that too was soon under a new and corrosive attack. In the Alabama election of 1892, the political dynamics of the state were cloaked in what appeared to be a clash of ideals between a new populist rhetoric aimed at uniting agrarians and laborers against the "Bourbon" alliance of plantation owners and industrialists who controlled the Democratic Party—a theme echoing across the South.
The Alabama populists were led by gubernatorial candidate Reuben Kolb. It was widely believed that his victory in the previous election had been stolen in 1890, when Democrats stuffed the ballot boxes with thousands of ostensible African American votes in overwhelmingly black counties. The result had been the fraudulent but irreversible coronation of Governor Thomas Goode Jones, a former Confederate who a decade later would play a pivotal role on the issue of continuing the South's new slavery.
In 1892, both Kolb and Jones ran for the governor's office again. Kolb promised to support crop prices and regulate the abusive railroad cartels that imposed high freight fees on farm goods being shipped to market. Philosophically, he had the support of new activist black farmer's groups who shared the populist concerns over laws and practices that abused poor people, sharecroppers, and tenant farmers. In a nod to black voters, Kolb, the former state agriculture secretary and a Confederate veteran as well, also said he opposed the practice of leasing convicts.
Governor Jones vowed to revive the state by encouraging the explosive growth of Birmingham and continuing to help wealthy cotton plantation owners in the state's predominantly black, southern counties. Whites were in turmoil over the choice, with poorer hill country counties breaking for Kolb and whites in the rich flatlands once again supporting Jones. To win reelection, Jones knew he had to once more pack the voting polls with thousands of black Republicans on his side. Despite their shared economic interests with black sharecroppers and tenants, Kolb's poor-farmer white followers responded to Jones's currying of African American voters with the most shrill white supremacist rhetoric.
Jones's conservative Democrat backers, including the state's major newspapers, shamelessly turned the tables—accusing Kolb populists of supporting black political rights and dubbing him the candidate of the "nigger party." Kolb's supporters reacted with even more odious anti-black invective. The South was tracing out the lines of the violent racial ideology and vernacular that would consume it for the next seventy-five years.
John Milner, the Alabama industrialist who had so aggressively pushed for the state to adopt laws helping him fill his mines with forced black labor, published a pamphlet denouncing even the vaguest suggestion of allowing black political rights.
Titled "WHITE MEN OF ALABAMA, STAND TOGETHER!," the pamphlet blared: "It would be better … if left in the control of their negroes, that Alabama …sink beneath the waves and be forever lost."39
That was the real substance of the campaign. Most of the philosophical clash between the two sides was a sham, as the South was swept by the latest wave of white animosity toward African Americans. Whites realized that the allies of blacks in the North appeared to be abandoning the former slaves. A time had come to settle scores and relay the foundations for a society based on the harshest racial divisions. Further inflaming the passions of 1892 was the Federal Election Bill sponsored by Massachusetts representative Henry Cabot Lodge. The act, known to opponents as the "Force Bill," mandated that black voting rights be protected in the South through federal supervision of elections. Two years earlier, the measure was approved by the House of Representatives but failed in the Senate. The new version raised the sensational specter of reintroducing federal troops in the southern states to force compliance.
In reality, the Force Bill was the last gasp of the dwindling numbers of Civil War-era Republican idealists in Washington to compel adherence to the mandates of the constitutional amendments granting citizenship to African Americans. The measure was doomed from introduction. But its consideration left southern whites seething at the vision of another Union invasion and a return of power to blacks. It spurred the push to eliminate African American political activity once and for all. On election day in Alabama, there was virtually no doubt that Kolb outpolled Governor Jones. But once again, thousands upon thousands of ballots purportedly cast by blacks who clearly were no longer being allowed to vote turned the balance for Jones. He was declared the winner, after official returns showed 127,000 votes for Jones to the challenger's 116,000.
The reelection was followed by an astonishing surge of activity against African Americans. The opening of the next session of the state legislature marked the beginning of the final push to end all black political involvement, to consolidate the segregation codes that would define the Jim Crow era, and to begin cutting African Americans out of the most important efforts of government to improve public life. Legislators voted to join seven other southern states that already mandated segregated seating for blacks and whites on trains. Public education, a new but increasingly popular government function, was the most critical target of the racial attack.
Whites had chafed at the notion of black education as long as Africans had been imported to the United States. Instruction of slaves was illegal in the antebellum South. After emancipation, government-collected property taxes were used to open new schools for all children. Whites gawked at the schools opened for blacks during Reconstruction—even the crude one-teacher variations that predominated in the region. Per pupil spending on education for black children and white children was essentially identical, leading to wide resentment among whites—especially in the cotton plantation regions where whites owned the vast majority of land and paid nearly all the taxes, but were enormously outnumbered by African Americans in population. That "white taxes" were spent for the education of black children, rather than solely their own, was infuriating.
White leaders began to openly espouse that schools for blacks were bad for the emerging new economic order. "Education would spoil a good plow hand," opined a state legislator, J. L. M. Curry, in a speech to the Alabama General Assembly.40 Most worrisome to leading whites was that schooling illiterate blacks would encourage "the upper branches of Negro society, the educated, the man who after ascertaining his political rights, forced the way to assert them."41
In the 1880s, the Alabama legislature attempted to enact laws specifying that school funds would be apportioned on the basis of which taxpayers contributed them: whites would fund white schools, blacks would fund black schools. Federal courts quickly declared that openly discriminatory scheme in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.
As the popularity of state-funded free public schools surged, the friction caused by black education grew. The number of white children attending public schools in Alabama raced from 91,202 to 159,671 between the 1870s and late 1880s. At the same time, the number of black pupils increased from 54,595 to 98,919. But the amount of funding spent for every student was declining, and attempts to raise taxes were doomed. Whites saw the money spent in black schools as the only viable source of additional funds for their own children.
In the legislative session of 1892, white leaders simply changed the law so that school taxes were no longer distributed among all schools in equal per pupil allotments. Instead, the total number of students, white and black, would determine how much funding a county or town received from the state. But it would be up to local officials to divide the money among schools "as they may deem just and equitable." The author of the bill was hailed by another elected official who said he "deserved a vote of thanks from the white people of the state."42 The effect on blacks was catastrophic. Overnight, white schools came to receive the vast majority of all funds for education. In one predominantly African American county, the total budget for black teachers’ salaries in 1891 was $6,545—in approximate parity with what was being spent per student at white schools in the county. After turning over control of funding to local officials, black teacher salaries were slashed. Later the length of the black school year was cut to just six months—reducing costs and eliminating school as an excuse for African American children not to work in the fields during planting and harvest. Forty years later, the total salaries for teachers instructing 8,483 black children in the county had risen negligibly to just over $8,000. The budget for white teachers, with fewer than two thousand pupils, had climbed by a factor of almost 30, to nearly $60,000.43
If any doubt remained about the intentions of southern whites in 1892, vigilante and mob violence soon dissolved it. More lynchings of blacks occurred in the United States in 1892 than in any other year—in excess of 250. Executions peaked in Alabama the following year, with the deaths of twenty-seven blacks.
At the same time, the region's biggest industrial concerns continued to expand explosively. In December 1892, Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad bought outright the Cahaba Coal Mining Company and its 44,000 acres of coal-rich property—some of it extending to within a few miles of the old Cottingham plantation in Bibb County. In addition to the coalfields, the company acquired a fifteen-mile railroad, nearly five hundred coke ovens, much of the town of Blocton, and seven mines producing up to three thousand tons of coal a day44 The number of men forced into Alabama slave mines surged with the growth, swelling by half to 1,200 in 1892 from 845 just three years earlier.
As labor strife surged in the early 1890s, company officials privately worked on plans to shift even more of the company's operations to captive forced laborers. One Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad official visiting Montgomery wrote to the superintendent of the Pratt Mines: "[T]he probability is we will have to arrange to take care of a great many more convicts."45
On the fourteenth day of February 1893, a new era opened for the black men of Shelby County—where Green Cottenham would be arrested fifteen years later. Four men were loaded onto the Birmingham train, headed to the new buyer of Shelby's prisoners. Ben Alston, Charles Garnes, and Issac Mosely had each been convicted of assault six weeks earlier. Henry Nelson was arrested the previous day for using "abusive language in the presence of a female"—a phony charge available for arresting "impudent" black men. Scratched into the record of prisoners was the same entry for all four men, a destination so new that the jailer hadn't yet learned to spell it: "sent to prats mines."46
Voices of opposition to what was happening in the South were dying. Some reform-minded activists protested the physical abuses of prison labor, but the explicitly racial aspect of the new forced labor system was often largely unacknowledged. White southerners responded with galling mendacity to the occasional criticism expressed by northern newspapers. Many whites were thrilled by the patina of legitimacy presented by Charles Darwin's new concepts of human evolution, which were being twisted to offer a genetic, seemingly objective rationale for black inferiority. The dark-skinned race was capable of learning less, so blacks needed fewer and smaller schools, according to this logic. Blacks could work effectively only under threat of a whip.
In a speech to the National Prison Congress in Cincinnati, Ohio, in October 1890, Alabama's new inspector of convicts, W. D. Lee, coolly defended the appalling conditions at the mines in Coalburg and Pratt City. Virtually all criticism of Alabama's and the South's forced labor system were "exaggerations" and "falsehoods," he said.
The prisons were clean, the prisoners well fed and humanely treated. The hounds used to track escapees were "nothing more than the fox or deer hounds that have been used in the South for the chase from time immemorial, trained to run the human track." Never once had a dog injured a convict, Lee maintained.
Prisoners in Alabama received generous amounts of corn bread, bacon, fresh meat, bread, coffee, and tobacco. "Hundreds of convicts have been sent to the penitentiary with diseases of which they would have died at home for want of medical attention, who have been cured and sent home, at the end of their terms, sound men," Lee continued.
He said he was mortified by allegations that the prisoners were underfed and overworked. "In some form or other I have had the management and control of negroes ever since I came to the years of discretion," Lee said. "In the days of slavery, I fed, clothed and worked them, and since they became free, I have employed and managed them on the plantation. I see what, as free men, they have to eat and wear, and the houses they live in. And I assert here, without fear of successful contradiction, that the negro convicts …are better housed, better fed, better clothed, and receive better medical care and treatment in sickness than do the majority of the same class, as free men, in their homes."47
The truth was that African Americans were trapped in a catch-22 between the laws criminalizing the mores of black life and other laws that effectively barred them from assimilating into mainstream white American society or improving their economic position.
Even ostensible friends of African Americans succumbed to the increasingly mandatory dismissal of black intellectual faculties. "The population of our prisons is mostly a population of negroes. These people are proverbially weak, improvident, credulous—the victims of impulse and circumstances. Many of those in the prisons have been guilty of only trivial offense; and many of these offenses are not in themselves criminal, or even immoral, but which have been made penal simply by statutory enactment," wrote Jerome Cochran, state health officer, in 1892.
"It is the peculiar misfortune of the negro," Cochran continued, "that his investment with the privileges of citizenship, and of the elective franchise has also subjected him to the operation of laws made by men for the government of white men—law which he does not understand, and the moral obligations of which he is not able to appreciate."48
In 1895, Thomas Parke, the health officer for Jefferson County, investigated conditions at Sloss-Sheffield's Coalburg prison mine. He found 1,926 prisoners at toil. Hundreds had been charged with vagrancy gambling, carrying a concealed weapon, or other minor offenses, he reported. In many cases, no specific charges were recorded at all. Dr. Parke observed that many were held for minor infractions, fined $5 or $10, and, unable to pay, leased for twenty days to Sloss-Sheffield to cover the fine. Most then had another year or more tacked onto their sentences to cover fees owed to the sheriff, the clerk, and the witnesses involved in prosecuting them.
"The largest portion of the prisoners are sentenced for slight offenses and sent to prison for want of money to pay the fines and costs…. They are not criminals," Dr. Parke wrote in his formal report.
Male prisoners were barracked in a primitive wood-plank prison beside the putrid Five Mile Creek, near a row of coke ovens. The miners spent nearly half of each twenty-four hours in the mine, six days a week. The shaft was minimally ventilated; coal cars were pushed out of the earth by the miners themselves, rather than with mechanized equipment. Medical care was dispensed occasionally from a primitive shack; scores of miners worked with serious illnesses, including untreated and open wounds inflamed with infected boils and pus. Parke's tally of prisoners held at Coal-burg in 1895 included at least five hundred workers not accounted for in the state's official records at the time—indicating that hundreds of laborers had been sold into the mine through extralegal systems. More than a hundred forced laborers died at the mine during the two years prior to Parke's visit.
The physician, even one burdened with intensely racist perspectives, was shocked by the inhumanity. He asked whether "a sovereign state can afford to send her citizens, for slight offenses, to a prison where, in the nature of things, a large number are condemned to die."
Embarrassed by the publication of Parke's report, Sloss-Sheffield commissioned the physician it paid to care for the forced laborers, Dr. Judson Davie, to write a response. He claimed the extraordinary rate of mortality among blacks was their own fault. But even his apologia for health conditions at Coalburg was telling. He said many convicts, once injured, tried not to become well to avoid a return to the mine. "Some eat soap; some rub poisonous things into their sores or cuts; but by far the greater obstacle to their making quick and good recoveries is the mental depression of the new men," he wrote. He added that many miners chose to drink the polluted "seep water" in which they worked "of their own accord in preference to going to springs or other usual places of getting drinking water." He also contended that nearly every black man contracts syphilis by adulthood. No blame for that could be ascribed to the mine, he contended.
The larger issue, Davie wrote, was genetic: "It is a fact that the negro race is inferior to the white race physically as well as mentally and morally— their powers of resistance, so far as a great many diseases are concerned, notably tuberculosis, does not compare at all favorably with the white race."
Still, Dr. Parke's criticism of the lethal conditions in Sloss-Sheffield's slave mine embarrassed the company enough that a month later its president, Thomas Seddon, sent a letter to local officials defending his treatment of black workers. He summed up the explanation neatly: "The negro dies faster."49
Sentiments like that were hardly rare in the three decades after the Civil War. Yet throughout that difficult time, African Americans still clung at some level to the idea that whatever white men such as Parke said or did, the United States as a whole still stood squarely to the contrary. This, the Civil War proved, was immutable.
Then, in 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a thirty-year-old white shoemaker with a trace of African blood, named Homer Plessy the right to ride in the white compartment of an East Louisiana Railroad train. On its face, the ruling sanctioned only the newly conceived concept of "separate but equal" public facilities for blacks and whites. But its actual import was vastly greater. Plessy v. Ferguson legitimized the contemptuous attitudes of whites like the top executives of Sloss-Sheffield. Moreover, it certified that any charade of equal treatment for African Americans was not just acceptable and practical at the dawn of the twentieth century, but morally and legally legitimate in the highest venue of white society.
It was a signal moment in America's national discourse. From the lowliest frontier outposts to the busiest commercial centers, Americans had shared a consensus that the highest definition of a citizen was his veracity, that truth telling and fulfillment of a man's commitments were the highest measures of virtue. The near cult of honesty that pervaded public discussions was quaint by the sensibilities of more than a century later. But in a still new nation born of the eighteenth-century Age of Reason, it was an utterly sincere expression of a fundamental national creed.
That allegiance to logical purity, combined with the basic tenets of equality embodied in the philosophies of the Revolution, had impelled the nation toward civil war during the antebellum decades, as the inherent contradiction between the new republic's noblest ideals and slavery grew more apparent. In spite of the prevailing view among all white Americans that blacks were in some manner lesser to them, the nation nonetheless made war upon itself at devastating cost, in a conflict ultimately justified as a struggle to end the bondage of slaves. Northern soldiers who had doubted whether emancipation was worth the blood it required were transformed by scenes of new freedom they encountered in the South. The morally bewildering sacrifice of the war became a concrete demonstration that a nation could steadily mold itself toward the "more perfect union" of the Founding Fathers. The surrender of the South, the emancipation of the slaves, and passage of the civil rights amendments of the 1870s were the zenith of that vision.
The Supreme Court's endorsement in 1896 of the flagrantly duplici-tous doublespeak of Jim Crow segregation represented a resignation of America's white institutions to the conclusion that the emancipation of black slaves had been folly. Most agreed that the elimination of slavery per se was an adequate remedy to the past abuses of blacks. In the eyes of the vast majority of white Americans, the refusal of the southern states to fully free or enfranchise former slaves and their descendants was not an issue worthy of any further disruption to the civil stability of the United States. Black Americans were exchanged for a sense of white security.
There had always been lies and misrepresentations in U.S. politics, but the new consensus represented by Plessy v. Ferguson marked an extraordinary turning point in the political evolution of the nation. Thousands of northern whites had fought not because of their fondness or empathy for African Americans but because the principles of the Declaration of Independence coupled with the American compulsion for honesty demanded it. The abandonment of that principle, and embrace of an obviously false mythology of citizenship for black Americans, brought an end to the concept that abstract notions of governance by law and morality could always be reconciled to reality. It marked a new level of unvarnished modern cynicism in American political dialogue. And it established a pattern over the ensuing twenty years in which almost any rationalization was sufficient to excuse the most severe abuses of African Americans.
Emboldened by the betrayal from the nation's most eminent legal minds, the men controlling the mines and labor camps of the South adopted even more flimsy ruses of justification for black men's imprisonment. The level of physical coercion increased terrifyingly At the Pratt Mines, an observer for a special Alabama legislative committee in 1897 wrote a report describing 1,117 convicts, many "wholly unfit for the work," at labor in the shaft.50 In an 1898 convict board report, the largest category in a table listing charges on which county convicts were imprisoned was "Not given." 51 No one even bothered to invent a legal basis for their enslavement.
In a 1902 report, one man was in the mines for "disturbing females on railroad car." More than a dozen were incarcerated for "abusive and obscene language." Twenty convicts were digging coal for adultery, twenty-nine for gambling. Dozens of prisoners were at labor for riding a freight train without paying for a ticket. 52 In 1902 and 1903, local officials in Jefferson County prosecuted more than three thousand misdemeanor cases, most of them yielding a convict to work in a Sloss-Sheffield mine—the vast majority of whom were black.53
One of those convicts was John Clarke, a miner convicted of "gaming" on April 11, 1903. Unable to pay, he ended up at Sloss-Sheffield. Working off the fine would take ten days. Fees for the sheriff, the county clerk, and the witnesses who testified against him required that Clarke spend an additional 104 days in the mines. Sloss-Sheffield acquired him from Jefferson County for $9 a month. One month and three days later, he was dead, crushed by "falling rock."54
At least 2,500 men were being held against their will at more than two dozen labor camps across Alabama at the time Clarke died. More than nine hundred were in the Pratt Mines. Sloss-Sheffield held nearly three hundred. The McCurdys still controlled nearly one hundred in Lowndes County. Scores more were imprisoned in the turpentine and lumber camps of the Henderson-Boyd and Horseshoe Bend lumber companies and other remote prison compounds scattered deep in the forests of southern Alabama. Payments to the state that year exceeded a half million dollars, the equivalent of $12.1 million a century later and a figure nearly equal to 25 percent of all taxes collected in Alabama.55
As the dark cloud of the new slavery was descending on those men and the hundreds of thousands of friends, acquaintances, and family members across the South, the descendants of the old slave Scipio struggled to maintain emancipated lives. Abraham Cottingham and his sons Jimmy and Frank, descendants of Mitt, another son of Scipio, were among nearly four hundred black voters who still participated in Shelby County elections in 1892. Defiant, even as the vast majority of other black men in the county were intimidated or obstructed from the polls, Abraham paid an increasingly onerous poll tax and complied year after year with burgeoning requirements established by the state of Alabama for blacks to qualify for a ballot. Each election year, under hostile eyes, he signed his name boldly in the register of voters maintained in the worn-brick county courthouse across the street from the jail.56 But even Abraham could not resist the new state constitution adopted in 1901, under which virtually no black person could again vote in Alabama. No black Cottingham would cast a ballot for at least six decades.57
Sometime in the 1890s, Henry Cottinham died. The circumstances of his death weren't recorded. In June of 1900, Mary Cottinham abandoned Brierfield, where so many black descendants of the Cottingham farm had once congregated, leaving behind only Henry's younger brother Elbert, with his own wife and ten children.
Struggling to survive, Mary, the former slave girl from the Bishop farm, moved the remaining family to Montevallo, a town just inside Shelby County, where a new mining company was expanding quickly. She found work as a washerwoman. Her two daughters, Ada and Marietta, sixteen and twenty, were anxiously hoping for marriage. Soon, the girls would leave home, and Mary was alone with her youngest. Her baby boy, Green, was fourteen and had learned to read and write. Surrounded by the terrible tempest of hostility engulfing black America, he was rising into the muscle, hair, and boisterous curiosity of a teenage man.