"We shall have to kill a thousand …to get them back to their places."
The spring of 1903 arrived in Alabama with a surreal, portentous fury. Farmers pushed hard to put a new cotton crop in the ground, only to see nearly every seedling killed by an inexplicable late freeze. Rain and fungus plagued the corn stands rising in countless thousands of new rows.
In the black of night on April 8, a funnel cloud descended without warning from a vertiginous sky, zigzagging north of Birmingham, shearing one-hundred-yard-wide swaths of trees, homes, and fields as it bounded madly into the earth and back to the sky across a path of eighteen miles. The horizon coruscated with astonishing arcs of lightning. By the time the wind and rain stopped, a dozen people were dead. Five days later, another storm lashed Bibb County, scraping past the old Cottingham farm, obliterating small buildings and stripping the buds beginning to swell on fruit trees. On the same day, another tornado—mysteriously pouring hail but no rain—ripped through south Alabama, killing three more.
Finally, as evening fell on April 19, an unnatural cold swept across the state as the sky opened above Goodwater and Tallapoosa County, pouring a deluge of hail and rain. Trees were stripped bare of leaves and fruit blossoms. What was left of the cotton, corn, purple-hull field peas, and early sprouts of squash and okra was beaten flat into the soil. Farmers, sharecroppers, and day laborers—free and enslaved—rushed into the fields to replant.
But by the end of April, another kind of zephyr, something just as twisted and contradictory to the new order of the white South, was lurking on the horizon. Whispered at the train stations and among black laborers on Sunday mornings was a story so unbelievable most people said it must be fable. A man who claimed to be a federal Secret Service detective was visiting black residents in Goodwater. Some had been sent by train to testify before a federal grand jury collecting evidence that white people in Tal-lapoosa County were still holding slaves.
By the middle of May the rumors were rampant—and seemingly confirmed by the nearly continual presence of a burly federal agent named E. P. McAdams. Then on May 27, newspapers across the state carried an astounding press release issued from the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.:
Washington, May 26—At the request of the Department of Justice, the United States Secret Service has undertaken the work of investigating the charge of peonage, or holding another in servitude to work out a debt, which has been made against persons living in the vicinity of Montgomery, Ala. The punishment provided by the statute for this crime is a fine of not less than $1,000 nor more than $5,000 or imprisonment of not less than one year nor more than five.
One man, named Robert N. Franklin, has already been indicted for keeping a negro in servitude for at least a year. Information in the hands of [Secret Service] chief Wilkie tends to show that a regular system has been practiced for a long time between certain magistrates and persons who want negro laborers.
It is said the plan is to bring a poor negro before a magistrate on a flimsy charge. He is convicted and, having no money to pay a fine, the white man offers to advance him the money, provided the negro will make a labor contract with him for a length of time sufficient to reimburse him for the money and trouble he has taken to keep the negro out of jail. He is thereupon taken away and begins what is frequently a long term of cruel servitude, being frequently whipped for failure to perform work to the satisfaction of his employer.
An agent of the secret service who is now on the ground will make a thorough investigation of the whole alleged system and turn over to the United States Attorney of that district all information he may secure with a view to the prosecution of said offenders.1
Unexpectedly and without explanation, a flash of hope bolted across the dark curtain falling on black life. Most amazing was that it commenced in Montgomery, the city that had served briefly during the early months of the Civil War as the national capital of the Confederacy2 It remained the seat of a government that since the war had eviscerated black citizenship more completely and enthusiastically than any other.
That the federal government would initiate such an inquiry was mind-boggling to white southerners. Investigations of any kind by federal agencies were extraordinarily unusual in an era that predated the creation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Moreover, the South's long asserted right to manage the affairs of black residents without northern interference had finally been achieved. Nearly every southern state, including Alabama, had completed the total disenfranchisement of African Americans by 1901. Virtually no blacks served on state juries. No blacks in the South were permitted to hold meaningful state or local political offices. There were virtually no black sheriffs, constables, or police officers. Blacks had been wholly shunted into their own inferior railroad cars, restrooms, restaurants, neighborhoods, and schools. All of this had been accomplished in a sudden, unfettered grab by white supremacists that was met outside the South with little more than quiet assent. During the thirty years since Reconstruction—despite its being a period of nearly continuous Republican control of the White House—federal officials raised only the faintest concerns about white abuse of black laborers. Southern leaders were astonished that such a protest had inexplicably arisen now.
For blacks it seemed that a true friend had miraculously come to occupy the White House, that somehow the assurances of American democracy might actually fulfill themselves. "The South … is in the hands of unfriendly white men…It has been left to the Federal Government, under that administration of President Roosevelt, to expose this iniquity …and stretch out the long arm of the Nation to punish and prevent it," wrote the black commentator Charles W Chesnutt. "The President has endeavored to stem the tide of prejudice, which, sweeping up from the South, has sought to overwhelm the Negro everywhere; and he has made it clear that he regards himself as the representative of the people."3
This dramatic turn of events—so revolting to southern whites, so euphoric to blacks—began with the assassination of President William McKinley two years earlier in September 1901.
McKinley had represented more than any other American leader at the turn of the twentieth century the experiences of those who directly participated in the war between the North and the South and came to see that struggle as a moral crusade against slavery and for the preservation of the union. A young private when he volunteered, McKinley rose steadily to the rank of major by the end of the war on the basis of modest acts of heroism. He was the last president who had served as an officer in Abraham Lincoln's Grand Army, and millions of aging Union veterans continued to greet him affectionately as Major McKinley.
But by the fall of 1901, the veterans he marched with through the great battles of the conflict had become a geriatric generation, their luster increasingly pale against the new economic dramas playing out between fabulously rich titans of manufacturing and production such as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and banker John Pierpont Morgan and the masses of laborers and immigrants streaming into the bulging metropolises of the North and Midwest.
Theodore Roosevelt came to serve as McKinley's vice president in 1900 almost accidentally. His place on McKinley's presidential ticket was engineered by old-guard Republican leaders in New York primarily to get Roosevelt, the state's unexpectedly popular new governor, out of their way. Roosevelt was barely settled into Washington when McKinley was shot by an anarchist while standing on a receiving line for public visitors at an international exhibition in Buffalo, New York. McKinley died eight days later, and Roosevelt was sworn in as president on September 14, 1901.
Roosevelt, who had been a child when the Civil War was fought, saw himself not as heir to McKinley's archaic nineteenth-century political regimes and the contradictory outcomes of Reconstruction and industrialization. Instead, he imagined his rise to the White House as a catalyst for reconciling Americans to what Roosevelt perceived as the great missed opportunities of the nation's political and economic freedoms.
Roosevelt was also at least nominally concerned about the chasm between blacks and whites, and the gap between the conditions of African Americans and the promises made to them at the end of slavery. But none of this was to Roosevelt an intractable dilemma. Just forty-two years old upon becoming president, the youngest yet in U.S. history, he believed that Americans were a people of seminally good character, reasonable thinking, and, as a body, of singular wisdom. Reminded of their fundamental principles, all white Americans would see the necessity of fairness to freed slaves and their descendants, Roosevelt thought—just as he was confident that the leaders of the new steel, coal, railroad, and banking trusts ultimately could be relied on to balance profits against the needs of all the nation's workers.
The United States was emerging as an authentic global power for the first time in its history. The country's economic and military prowess outside the national borders was greater than at any time since the declaration of the republic. The nation was in the midst of an explosion of new economic production and wealth. In the South, centers of industry were rising in Birmingham and Atlanta. Industrial combinations such as Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co. were moving to challenge northern rivals like U.S. Steel and Carnegie Steel. The landscape of the South remained defined by the abject poverty of millions of plebeian black and white farmers, but there was a sense of psychic resurgence in the region. The actual horrors and injuries of the Civil War were receding from collective memory. Nostalgia for the antebellum South and calls for reunion and reconciliation among veterans of the armies for both sides were becoming national obsessions. The literature of Joel Chandler Harris and scores of imitators—chock-ablock with white writers’ stylized depictions of "Negro" dialect and the most benevolent images of slave masters and slaves imaginable—had supplanted the canon of abolitionist novels and firsthand accounts of slaves that dominated American book sales and lecture tours in the previous generation.
The long-standing excuse for southern malevolence toward blacks— that the region left prostrate by war, the ending of slavery, and the ostensible agonies of Reconstruction couldn't help but abuse its former slaves—struck Roosevelt and his breed of proactive Americans as tired, dull, and simply wrong. The assertion by white southerners of a de facto right to reverse the guarantees of voting rights and citizenship to blacks seemed to Roosevelt so absurd that it could only be truly supported by extremists. He reckoned— using the same logic that compelled him to challenge the abuse of immigrant and impoverished laborers in the factories and coalfields closer to his home at Oyster Bay, New York—that a reasonable and progressive northern man such as himself could surely safeguard the fundamental needs of southern blacks while still reassuring southern whites that they had nothing to fear from allowing authentic citizenship for all.
Roosevelt could hardly have been more wrong in his judgment of the political and racial realities of the South. But in addition to his instinctive, if ultimately naive, sympathy for African Americans, Roosevelt had explicitly political motivations for befriending blacks as well. The new president was anything but a celebrated figure within his own Republican Party. Viewed suspiciously by Republican leaders in New York, he was despised by leaders of the national party's archconservative big business faction, who in the previous three decades had engineered the steady drift of Republicans from radical abolitionist roots toward a new position as the party of unrestrained commerce. Roosevelt needed a novel strategy if he hoped to secure the nomination for the presidential election in 1904.
A key element of the strategy was to forge a political base among southern Republicans, almost all of whom were black. Roosevelt believed he could cement those loyalties without stirring white hostilities by appointing "reasonable" white Democrats to many key federal positions—such as judgeships. The plan relied on one of the oddest curiosities of the American electoral circumstances at the beginning of the twentieth century. While African Americans were almost wholly barred from voting in general elections—having been disenfranchised in every state in which black voters constituted statistically significant numbers—black delegations continued to be accorded full rights at the national conventions of the Republican Party. The result was that while African American voters had little practical impact upon national elections, given that they were wholly unable to deliver any electoral votes from the southern states where nearly all blacks resided, black Republicans nonetheless remained an essential swing factor in selecting presidential nominees for their party.
Theodore Roosevelt made this calculation long before gaining the presidency, and intentionally cultivated cordial relations with African American leaders he considered moderate. Chief among them was Booker T. Washington, the erudite former slave who had risen to become the nation's most prominent black leader and the founder of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The two men grew progressively more friendly during Roosevelt's months of service as vice president. In early 1901, Roosevelt accepted an invitation to speak at Tuskegee later that year, as part of a short tour of the South that was to include a brief homage to the Georgia plantation home in which his mother had been reared.
With the death of Frederick Douglass in 1895, Washington was by far the best known and most influential of black leaders in the United States— emphasizing black self-improvement, industrial education, and acquiescence to white political power. Washington's gradualist message to African Americans was epitomized in a speech on September 18, 1895, at the Cotton States and International Exhibition in Atlanta, urging that blacks accommodate white demands for subservience while building up their own industrial skills, farms, and basic education.
To thunderous applause from southern whites, Washington said of the two races: "In all things purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress." The black educator, named a "commissioner" of the event, urged African Americans across Alabama to use the exposition's "Negro Building" as a showcase for black skills in mining, lumbering and farming, the very industries in which they remained most oppressed across the South.45
This ideal of a class of politically and legally passive but industrious African Americans deeply appealed to white economic leaders. Near the closing day of the fair in late December 1895, when Washington returned to speak on "Colored Teachers Day," the exposition program featured on its last page a drawing of the Negro Building and a caption praising its black attendants for "attractive neatness." The exhibits were "evidence of the growing skill, advancing intelligence and promotive industry of the race."
Washington's Tuskegee Institute, located less than fifty miles from the farm of John Pace, in the town of Tuskegee, became celebrated among white northern philanthropists. Washington spent much of his time touring the country to raise funds for the school and attempting to quietly manipulate government officials and the political process on racial issues.
Younger black intellectuals such as Professor W E. B. DuBois in Atlanta came to bitterly criticize Washington as too willing to accept a secondary position for African Americans. But Roosevelt perceived Washington's views as sensible, pragmatic, and clearly in keeping with his own progressive, but eminently paternalistic, beliefs. Washington's emphasis on personal self-reliance and moral and religious rectitude as the keys to individual progress corresponded to Roosevelt's vision for uplifting yeoman farmers, immigrant laborers, ranch hands, and factory workers of whatever race or region. Roosevelt was convinced that if the "common man," whether black or white, followed these principles and that government ensured that no unjust legal obstacles impeded him, then the United States could achieve immeasurable progress. All of this could happen, Roosevelt insisted, without disrupting the exponentially expanding business, industrial, and banking sectors whose fortunes had made families such as Roosevelt's richer than most Americans could begin to imagine.
Washington's approach appealed to Roosevelt, though, only because the new president was unwilling to confront the realities of southern whites’ venom toward any African American seeking social or political equality. Roosevelt's father was an ardent Lincoln Republican, but his mother was born to a slaveholding family in Roswell, Georgia, not far from Atlanta. President Roosevelt was drawn to a view of the Civil War that emphasized the valor of both sides, rather than the evils of whites such as his mother's family in perpetuating slavery. Gradual change, during which no one was forced to fully acknowledge past cruelties to blacks, made sense to Roosevelt. "I am confident the South is changing," Roosevelt wrote in a postscript to a letter to Washington in 1901.6Roosevelt's approach to the status of African Americans, fundamentally acceding to the inferiority of African Americans and anticipating no significant full integration into U.S. society, would be the conventional wisdom shared for the next six decades by the vast majority of white Americans who considered themselves "progressive" on race.
"I so cordially sympathize," Roosevelt wrote, with Washington's "purpose of fitting the Colored man to shift for himself and establishing a healthy relation between the colored man and the White man who lives in the same states."7 Roosevelt was thrilled with Washington's best-selling autobiography, Up from Slavery, when it appeared in 1901, with the message that quiet perseverance and humility—rather than anger against his slave birth—had been the keys to the author's success. Roosevelt wrote Washington: "I do not want to flatter you too much …[but] … I do not know who could take your place in the work you are doing."8
Washington's theories also corresponded to Roosevelt's benign but seminal racism. Principles of fair play told Roosevelt that nothing should inhibit the individuals in any group who have the ability to achieve great success. The extraordinary achievements of black men such as Washington were dramatic proof of this to Roosevelt. But at the same time, Roosevelt believed that, collectively, no one should or reasonably could deny the obvious racial superiority of whites over all others. Indeed, Roosevelt ultimately took the view that even when whites most gravely abused the world's darker-skinned races—as in the African slaving trade, the removal of native populations in the Americas, and his own brutal suppression while in the White House of the Philippine Islands—that the outcome was overwhelmingly good. "The expansion of the peoples of white, or European, blood during the past four centuries …has been fraught with lasting benefit to most of the peoples already dwelling in the lands over which the expansion took place," Roosevelt said in remarks to a group of white missionaries during his second term as president.9
But even as the southern states used similar logic to justify the elimination of black participation in general elections, the Republican Party—the party of emancipation—was not yet able to do the same. Delegations of African Americans from the southern states—even though they could cast no more than the most scant votes in the general elections—remained full-fledged and prominent players in the national conventions of the Republican Party. (Not until after 1912 would Republicans succumb and allow African Americans to be tossed from the party organizations of the South.) Roosevelt turned to Booker T Washington to build his base among black southern Republicans.
Before the day of his inauguration was over, Roosevelt had written Washington to cancel his visit to Tuskegee and implore the black leader to visit him quickly in Washington. "I must see you as soon as possible. I want to talk over the question of possible future appointments in the south exactly on the lines of our last conversation," Roosevelt wrote.10 Washington made immediate arrangements to see the new president.
Less than three weeks later, U.S. District Court Judge John Bruce, the longtime federal jurist who presided over much of central Alabama, died. Roosevelt and Washington were presented with a serendipitous opportunity. The judgeship in Alabama could be an early demonstration of Roosevelt's willingness to reward a progressive southern white leader with an important position—regardless of his party affiliation. The policy left the small number of white Republicans who had hung on in the South—many of whom continued to be viewed by other southerners as radical carpetbagger allies left over from the Reconstruction era—in the cold. However, Roosevelt insisted that his cross-party appointments go to Democrats who expressed opposition to lynching and support for at least minimal citizenship rights for African Americans—and most important that they had not actively supported William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic nominee for president in the 1900 election.
Washington immediately recommended to Roosevelt that he appoint as successor the state's former governor, Thomas Goode Jones,11 the political figure about whom John W. Pace and Fletch Turner had so vigorously faced off during Alabama's political warfare a decade earlier.
On the surface, it was paradoxical that Washington became the champion of former governor Jones, a Confederate veteran who served under Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson and Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon, and who was present at Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox. He was reputed to have carried the white flag of southern surrender. Jones's successful gubernatorial bids in 1890 and 1892 were based primarily on the interests of wealthy white plantation owners—men who abused African American laborers on a greater scale than any other whites. During those campaigns he was a vocal critic of black political power. Nonetheless, Jones was also the cynically willing beneficiary of his faction's reliance on coerced or falsified votes cast in those years by thousands of blacks.
Yet Washington and Jones had been secret allies for years—even as Jones was manipulating black votes in the 1890s.12 It is also possible that as a result of Washington's secret influence, some of the thousands of Jones votes cast by blacks and long assumed by historians to be fraudulent, were in fact legitimate.
But Washington knew that as an officer in the state militia in 1883, Jones also had called out troops to prevent a lynching. He had spoken publicly on many occasions of the importance of respecting other new rights granted to freed slaves by the amendments to the U.S. Constitution passed in the 1870s. As governor, he blocked efforts to divert funds for black schools to white ones. At the same time, Jones maintained his base of support with the state's business elite by calling out troops to suppress a major strike by newly unionized miners in the 1890s.
Over the years, Jones appeared to have moderated even further on race. More recently, he had been a delegate to the just completed 1901 Alabama constitutional convention. The document agreed to at the meeting and later ratified, which would govern Alabama for the duration of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, finally eliminated virtually all vestiges of the electoral and civil rights given to blacks after emancipation. But Jones defied the political winds of the day, vigorously pushing for one of the few measures approved that benefited blacks, a law allowing for impeachment of any sheriff who allowed a prisoner to be seized by a lynch mob. Jones also opposed efforts to eliminate all black voting and to require that public schools for African American children be funded only with those taxes collected from blacks. Jones quietly strategized with Washington throughout the convention, consistently engaged in a tone of equals, addressing the black leader with the honorific "Dear Sir."13
On the day after Judge Bruce's death, and only two weeks after Roosevelt had been sworn in as president, Washington sent a letter through an aide imploring the new chief executive to name Jones as the new federal judge in Alabama. "He stood up in the constitutional convention and elsewhere for a fair election law, opposed lynching, and has been outspoken for the education of both races," Washington wrote. "He is head and shoulders above any of the other persons who I think will apply to you," Washington wrote to Roosevelt on October 2, 1901.14
Roosevelt took the advice and appointed Judge Jones less than a week later. The decision elicited the effect Roosevelt hoped for. Many southern whites were impressed by the president's willingness to turn to one of their "best men" for a critical federal position, despite Jones being a prominent Democrat. Newspapers in the region hailed the move.
Ten days after the appointment, the president was informed that Washington was in the capital city. He insisted that the black educator come to a private dinner at the White House with the Roosevelt family. It was a dizzying sequence of events for Washington and other African Americans who shared his belief that accommodating discrimination while incrementally working to reverse it was the best route to black freedom. Here was proof, it seemed. Regardless of the struggles still faced by the majority of slave descendants, black men of accomplishment could rise to unprecedented levels of influence.
Blacks had visited the White House before, and prior presidents had sought the advice of black men. But never had a black man appeared to be among the very most influential figures in a president's execution of so critical a task as selecting federal officials in an entire region. Yet more astonishing was that the white president who had taken his advice won accolades for the resulting decision. Black men could not be the leaders of whites in this regime, but they could quietly wield great influence as to who the rulers would be. Now, the president wished his African American counselor to openly sup with himself, his wife, and his children—making no effort to conceal the event or minimize its significance.
Roosevelt had no hint of the reaction that would ensue. Notwithstanding Washington's national fame and his widely known view that blacks should in most regards accept their legally inferior position in the South, word that "a Negro" had dined at the same table as the president, his wife, and his children—violating one of the most sacrosanct protocols of southern racial custom—provoked a sensational backlash.
U.S. senator Ben "Pitchfork" Tillman of South Carolina sputtered: "Now that Roosevelt has eaten with that nigger Washington, we shall have to kill a thousand niggers to get them back to their places." The Memphis Press Scimitar called the evening meal "the most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States." The Rich-mond News declared that Roosevelt "at one stroke and by one act has destroyed regard for him. He has put himself further from us than any man who has ever been in the White House." The governor of Georgia, Allen Candler, said, "No southerner can respect any white man who would eat with a negro."15
Laced throughout the vilifications was the implicit or explicit message that Roosevelt's decision to allow Washington to share his personal dining room amounted to an endorsement of sexual relations—and predations— between black men and white women. "It is simply a question of whether those who are invited to dine are fit to marry the sisters and daughters of their hosts," said Governor Miles Benjamin McSweeney of South Carolina.16
The opprobrium continued for months, growing more virulent with each announcement of another in the slow trickle of black appointees made by the White House. After several black officeholders and their wives attended a White House reception in early 1903, the race-baiting Mississippi politician James K. Vardaman called Roosevelt a "little, mean, coon-flavored miscegenationist." The White House, Vardaman said, was "so saturated with the odor of the nigger that the rats have taken refuge in the stable." Vardaman was elected governor of Mississippi the following year.17
A century later it is difficult to comprehend the degree to which most southern whites had so thoroughly adopted the rationale embodied by the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling less than ten years earlier—which effectively held that African Americans had no basis of legitimate complaint regarding the racial climate at the turn of the century, regardless of how overtly apparent was the disparate treatment of and opportunities for whites and blacks.
Roosevelt's overtures to blacks were not just violations of an accepted social custom, but galling because they suggested that in fact African Americans did have reason to object to their current status in the United States. White southerners by and large shared a consensus that this view was simply nonsensical. They were certain that the vast majority of blacks were entirely content and that their contentment would only increase as freed-men were pushed nearer to a legal status barely distinguishable from those of their parents in antebellum society.
The Birmingham Ledger newspaper—describing a state in which African Americans could no longer vote, could not hold office, could not serve on local juries, were proscribed from most higher-wage work, could arrange only the slimmest legal representation in the courts, and were subject to utterly arbitrary enforcement of the law—summed up the fantasy shared by millions of southerners: "The court of Alabama and schools of Alabama are open to negroes and every door of opportunity can be entered and above all it is easier for a negro to get rich here than anywhere else in the world."18That delusion would not waver in the South for at least another fifty years, until the very climax of the civil rights movement.
The Dadeville Spot Cash, the voice of John Pace's Tallapoosa County, enunciated this white delusion—and its offense at the inherent impudence of Roosevelt's attitudes—in a detailed fulmination in early March 1903. "Alabama has many negroes and many kinds of negroes, as little boys have many kinds of marbles. We have good negroes and bad negroes, industrious negroes and idle negroes, negroes determined to better their own condition and negroes who care no more about the future than the birds care. Alabama has negroes who have earned the respect and regard of the people who know them, and Alabama has negroes who wear the stripes of the convict."19
The Dadeville editor also reflected the broadly shared paranoia that any effort to change or improve the conditions of blacks amounted to an effort to seize control of society: "Alabama has negroes who own land and cattle and who are rearing their families respectably and who can go to the bank and borrow money without security. There are negroes who are teaching and many who are following honorable lines of work, and it has some who think with the president that the door of hope for them means governing white people as officials. All these we have and others."20
The message was clear, and shared almost universally among whites: whatever happens to black men is strictly the result of their own choices. Those choices ultimately were to submit quietly to the emerging new order or be crushed by it.
The reaction of southern leaders to Roosevelt's gesture to Washington further underscored how far southern whites could extend their ability to reconcile the obvious and extraordinary abuses of blacks occurring around them with their rhetorical insistence that African Americans were entirely free, content, and unmolested. Never before in American history had so large a portion of the populace adopted such explicitly false and calculated propaganda. Many southern whites actually came to believe claims that black schools were equally funded, black train cars were equally appointed, and that black citizens were equally defended by the courts—as preposterous as those claims obviously were.
Those who truly knew better nonetheless relished the clever fabrication of this mythology, and how it so effectively stymied the busybody friends of African Americans in the North. The most cynical thread in the mosaic of racial myth was the outrage of southern white men at Roosevelt's supposed encouragement of sexual interrelations between blacks and whites. White men openly forced black slaves into their beds for two centuries before the Civil War, and sexual access to local black women remained a running point of confrontation between white landowners and their black laborers deep into the twentieth century—a phenomenon that continued to demonstrate itself a century later with the public revelation that South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond fathered a black child with an African American family servant in 1925.
"The whole country well knows that white men of the South have come into closer relations with negroes and committed far grosser sins than that of sitting down to meat with a reputable and representative colored person," wrote William A. Sinclair, a black physician, in 1905. "And in the eyes of their fellows they suffered no disgrace."21
President Roosevelt was shocked by the calumnies and vitriol spewing from the South regarding his friendliness toward blacks. He moderated slightly— never inviting another black man to his dinner table again—but continued to insist that good Americans could not legitimately object to the view that law-abiding and industrious blacks should be treated with equity and full protection of the law.
Roosevelt concluded a long circuit of speeches across much of the country in the spring of 1903 with an address in Springfield, Illinois, on June 4, at the monument there to Abraham Lincoln. Arriving on a 10:15 A.M. train, Roosevelt was greeted euphorically first by aging Union soldiers in the Lincoln-McKinley Veteran Voters’ Association, then by more than five thousand schoolchildren massed along the street leading past the state capitol and furiously waving American flags. Businesses and homes were decorated in elaborate patriotic bunting and flags. A gathering of ten thousand impatiently awaited the president at a nearby new armory he would dedicate later in the day. Also in the crowd at the Lincoln memorial were several detachments of the Illinois National Guard, including the all-black Company H of the Eighth Regiment. "It seems to me eminently fitting that the guard around the tomb of Lincoln should be composed of colored soldiers," Roosevelt said, citing his own service in Cuba beside black soldiers. "A man who is good enough to shed his blood for his country is good enough to be given a square deal afterward."22
The words were a modest anodyne for black Americans, given the scale of the campaign over the previous two decades to circumscribe their constitutional protections and limit their free participation in American society. Yet the sentence—condensed by newspaper reporters and repeated ubiquitously as a promise by Roosevelt of "a square deal for the negro"—inflamed white southerners yet again. What most galled whites was the implication by Roosevelt that African Americans were not already receiving as square and fair a deal as they could possibly deserve.
In Alabama, as Secret Service agents scoured the countryside for slavery, whites recognized that Roosevelt's remarks might be more than the pitiable window dressing of equal civil rights they had heard from McKinley and the other Republican leaders of the previous decade.
By early June 1903, Alabama was aflame. Judge Jones—only nineteen months into his service as the new member of the federal bench—had proven to be precisely the figure Roosevelt hoped. The slavery investigation announced in late May was spreading across the state. Prominent white landowners in a half dozen counties had learned they were under examination or at least allegation. Black laborers—while still acutely aware that the investigation subjected them to a new degree of jeopardy with angry whites—quietly expressed a level of anticipation unlike anything since first word of the coming emancipation had arrived forty years earlier.
The inquiry began when an attorney named Erastus J. Parsons was hired to represent a black prisoner being held in Shelby County. Local authorities obstructed Parsons's efforts to find the prisoner and refused to say why he was being held. Parsons contacted the U.S. attorney in Montgomery, who in turn told Judge Jones. The first handful of frightened witnesses were brought before a grand jury sitting in Birmingham and presided over by Jones. They told the first shocking account of Pace's slaving network.23
In March, Judge Jones fired off a bewildered letter to Attorney General Philander C. Knox in Washington, D.C. "Some witnesses before the Grand Jury here developed the fact that in Shelby County in this District, and in Coosa County in the Middle district, a systematic scheme of depriving Negroes of their liberty, and hiring them out, has been practiced for some time," Jones wrote. "The plan is to accuse the negro of some petty offense, and then require him, in order to escape conviction, to enter into an agreement to pay his accuser so much money, and sign a contract, under the terms of which his bondsmen can hire him out until he pays a certain sum. The negro is made to believe he is a convict, and treated as such. It is said that thirty negroes were in the stockade at one time." Already, at least one witness had been seized from a train after testifying. Judge Jones ordered a deputy U.S. marshal to protect the man. He urged the attorney general to send a special investigator into the area quickly24
Attorney General Knox, a shrewd lawyer from Pennsylvania who before entering government service had amassed a fortune as counsel to some of the largest U.S. corporations, was hardly an obvious ally of southern blacks. A dapper man who contravened current fashion with a clean-shaven face and sported high collars and broad French cuffs, he had no natural affinity for the South or its black inhabitants. His greatest claim to fame was as legal counsel to Andrew Carnegie's vast steelmaking enterprises. In 1901, he played a key role in the merger of Carnegie Steel with J. P. Morgan's Federal Steel Company and virtually every other major steel and iron concern in the nation. The new organization was U.S. Steel Corporation—the largest and most powerful business entity created up to that point. It immediately controlled 7 percent of the nation's gross domestic product. Four days after the merger was officially consummated, President McKinley, a close friend since his college years, named Knox attorney general. Less than six months later, McKinley was dead, and Knox was part of Theodore Roosevelt's cabinet.
In light of Roosevelt's pledge of a renewed commitment to black civil rights, Attorney General Knox could hardly ignore Judge Jones's report of slavery still being practiced forty years after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Moreover, the allegations reanimated a running legal dilemma for the Justice Department. At least some federal officials, especially native southern Republicans serving as prosecutors, judges, or in government posts in the South, were acutely aware that slavery had never truly disappeared.
The Justice Department was already on notice. Four years earlier, in 1899, the colorful federal prosecutor in Atlanta, Edward A. Angier, went so far as to mount a lone prosecution against one of Georgia's most prominent planters, William Eberhart, in Oglethorpe County, for conspiracy to hold blacks in a state of peonage—a crime defined by an obscure and never before used 1867 federal law passed to prohibit the long-standing Mexican practice of debt slavery in the new territory of New Mexico.
Relying on his brother-in-law, a justice of the peace, to convict black laborers on any charge the planter wished to use, Eberhart enslaved men and women and forced them to bind their children to him as apprentices. He routinely claimed to have loaned money to black workers and then held them on his plantation near the town of Winterville to work off the debt— often for years at a time. Before a grand jury, witnesses described Eberhart as a sadistic brute who routinely beat adults and children to the edge of death. When laborers fled to Atlanta, Eberhart sent deputy sheriffs into the city to hunt them down, beat them into submission, and drive them back to the plantation in chains.
In one count of the indictment, Eberhart was charged with enslaving a black man named Charley Calloway in January 1896 by falsely claiming he owed the planter money. When Calloway resisted, Eberhart assaulted and degraded the laborer at every imaginable physical and emotional level: witnesses said that Eberhart brutally beat Calloway's wife, Mary, and then at gunpoint forced the woman to "yield her body to the lustful embraces" of the plantation owner.
When Charley Calloway attempted to escape the farm, Eberhart had him hauled back and placed in handcuffs. Eberhart then beat him "upon the back, head, face and body" and, in an overt act of sexual humiliation, had Calloway stripped naked and chained into a bed with a sick laborer named Orange Neeley
Later, Eberhart brandished his pistol and forced Calloway "to pinion his own beloved son, Robert Calloway, outstretched to the ground, and did make the said Charley Calloway hold his said son while the said William Eberhart did violently and unmercifully beat the said Robert Calloway with heavy sticks and other weapons" until the boy was crippled. As a final indignity, Eberhart—like the Alabama slavemasters who attempted to seize the children of freedmen in the 1860s—forced Calloway to sign contracts apprenticing his remaining children, two of whom were still nursing babies, into Eberhart's control until they turned twenty-one years old.25
Despite wide knowledge of Eberhart's sadism, scores of local white citizens rallied to Eberhart's defense, signing a petition that labeled the evidence against him as "the testimony of irresponsible negroes." Angier, the prosecutor, pressed on with the case, but acknowledged to his superiors in Washington that "we are the pioneers in this movement, and as this is the first time this ‘peonage’ section has ever been invoked." Angier saw clearly that he was attacking more than debt slavery perpetrated by a single man. He sought permission from the Department of Justice to widen his investigation into adjoining counties and warned: "In this proceeding we have attacked the most powerful combination and formidable ‘Convict Ring’ (as it is called) in the State.
"Every resource known and unknown to the law will be resorted to by these potent and opulent influences to break down this Bill [of indictment], as we have selected the ring-leader for the first case," Angier wrote.26
In the end, it took no more than another audacious argument and a compliant federal judge to collapse the case. Before a trial could be convened, Eberhart's attorneys challenged the most fundamental premise of the case—arguing that no federal statute specifically made it a crime to hold a person in slavery. The presiding judge agreed: "The indictment did not state an offense within the jurisdiction of the federal courts."27 The case was never tried. "The judge …indicated that the State Court alone had jurisdiction of the matters and things embraced in these indictments," Angier wrote to Washington.28
Despite the horror of the allegations, no local courts took up the case. The fate of the Calloway family was never known.
Two years later, unaware of the failed peonage prosecution in Georgia, a U.S. commissioner named Fred Cubberly, living in the Florida Panhandle town of Bronson, witnessed turpentine farmer J. O. Elvington seize a black man and his wife at gunpoint, claiming they could not leave his camp deep in the malarial swamps until a $40 debt had been paid. The incident confirmed to Cubberly rumors he had heard that forced labor was rampant among the crude forest labor camps across northern Florida and adjoining areas.29 Nearly thirty thousand men toiled in the turpentine farms under excruciating conditions to supply a booming market for pine tar, pitch, and turpentine used to caulk the seams of wooden sailing ships and waterproof their ropes and riggings.
Workers carved deep V-shaped notches into the trunks of millions of massive slash and longleaf pines towering in the still virgin forests. Small galvanized iron boxes or gutters were attached to the trees to collect the thick, milky pine gum that oozed from the wounds in winter. During spring and summer, as sap began to run, millions of gallons of pine resin oozed into the containers. Working feverishly from before dawn to the end of light, turpentine workers cut fresh notches into every tree once a week, gathered the gum and resin by hand, boiled it into vast quantities of distilled turpentine, and hauled it in hundreds of thousands of barrels out of the deep woods. When trees stopped producing gum and resin, the camp owners harvested them for lumber. As the demand for turpentine products soared, the timber companies relentlessly acquired fresh tracts of forest to drain and armies of men to perform the grueling work.
Imprisoned in stockades or cells, chained together at night or held under armed guards on horseback, the turpentine farms were bleak outposts miles from any chance of comfort or contact with the outside world. Workers were forced to buy their own food and clothes from a camp commissary and charged usurious interest rates on the salary advances used to pay for the goods—typically at least 100 percent.
A week after witnessing Elvington's seizure of two black workers, Cubberly encountered three "man hunters" at the local train station, led by Samuel M. Clyatt, a turpentine farmer from Georgia searching for several men who had run away from his camp. Clyatt and the others, including a deputy sheriff from his home county, forced two workers, Will Gordon and Mose Ridley, back to Georgia at gunpoint.
Cubberly began investigating similar complaints and making reports to the U.S. attorney in Pensacola, Florida. In the summer of 1901, the federal prosecutor there, John Eagan, passed on to the newly appointed Attorney General Knox letters from Cubberly and a local attorney in the area alleging that "it is common practice among parties engaged in Turpentine business in the Northern District of Florida, to hold laborers … in a state of Involuntary Servitude."
Eagan added that he personally confirmed some of the allegations and ordered that an indictment be sought. The system of coercion he had discovered in Florida, authorized under an 1891 state law making it a crime for a worker to leave his employer after wages had been advanced, was virtually identical to that of Eberhart in Georgia and what Alabama investigators were soon to discover. "The laborers in this line of business are as a general rule colored men and are imposed on and treated outrageously by their employers," Eagan wrote. "A warrant is issued by a Justice of the Peace and placed in the hands of a constable or sheriff who proceeds to forcibly deliver laborer to the possession of the employers who made the complaint, and the employer holds him in service until his claim, including all costs and charges of the proceedings, are worked out."30
In November 1901, a Tallahassee federal grand jury indicted Clyatt for peonage. He stood trial five months later—despite the unexplained disappearance of Gordon and Ridley, who were never again seen after their seizure and return to Georgia. Clyatt was found guilty and sentenced to four years in the federal penitentiary.
Recognizing that the conviction could destroy the underpinning of their industry—and a critical element of the southern economy—an association of turpentine and timber companies rallied to Clyatt's defense. They hired as attorneys U.S. senator Augustus Octavius Bacon and U.S. congressman William G Brantley both of Georgia. In the lawyers’ appeal of the conviction, they observed to the higher courts that the holding of slaves in the United States was not technically a crime. "Congress has never passed a law providing punishment for slavery or for involuntary servitude," Brantley reminded the gallery during a speech before the U.S. House of Representatives.31
The peonage statute, they claimed, amounted to unconstitutional federal interference into matters of state jurisdiction. It was improper to apply it to Clyatt because no formal "system of peonage" existed in the South.
As Clyatt's case languished in the Circuit Court of Appeals throughout 1902, new allegations of slavery in the turpentine camps continued to surface . Then came the letter to Attorney General Knox from Judge Jones describing a whole new manifestation of the involuntary servitude system in Alabama, potentially extending across an even larger area of the South.
Knox responded by directing the federal prosecutor in Montgomery, Warren S. Reese Jr., to investigate the allegations. "I have this day addressed a communication to each deputy marshal in this district …requesting them to make a special investigation of the peonage question," Reese responded enthusiastically. "If from these reports I am satisfied that attempts are being made or have been made to deprive citizens of African descent of their liberty, I will report the same in full to you and request the detail of a Secret Service Operative if I deem the same necessary"32
It took less than two weeks for federal marshals to report the discovery of scores of black slaves in Shelby, Coosa, and Tallapoosa counties. The grand jury in Birmingham issued indictments against nine Shelby County men near the end of April.33
But the original allegations made before the Birmingham grand jury were tepid compared to what other agents in the field began to learn. It was clear that not just one slavery ring existed in Alabama, but layers upon layers of them, blanketing the state. The men forced into labor in Shelby and Coosa counties were victims of only the outermost edge of a network emanating from the farms and other business interests of John Pace and his partners in Tallapoosa County. A separate operation run by the sheriff of Lowndes County in the southern section of the state—where more than 25,000 black farm laborers and sharecroppers lived—appeared to involve hundreds or thousands of slaves and dozens of local landowners. More rings operated in at least a half dozen other locations.
In some areas, local whites who were appalled by the conduct of their neighbors, or attorneys who had attempted in the past to free forced black laborers in the southern courts, volunteered tales of excruciating abuse to federal investigators. But in most locales, few whites expressed any misgivings about the forced labor going on in plain sight.
A lawyer named L. E. White, from Columbus, Georgia, a bustling town on the main train line running through Tallapoosa County, told Reese how he had traveled to Dadeville the previous summer looking for a missing young black man named Esau Williams. He tracked him down at a farm owned by Fletch Turner, where Williams and several other black men were being forced to cut wood. White bought his freedom for $25 and returned the boy to his mother.
A few weeks later, the family of Glennie "Speedy" Helms, another young black man who had been traveling with Williams, sent the lawyer back looking for their son. White found him and more than a half dozen others working at a sawmill owned by Turner near the settlement called Jackson's Gap. He had to pay $48 for Helms. But most striking to White were the execrable working conditions he found—a scene that must have been strikingly similar to the operations of the slavery-driven sawmill near the Cottingham plantation half a century earlier. "When I found this boy he was at the sawmill at work completely naked, no clothes on at all, absolutely naked," White said. "And there were some six or eight other negroes there working in the same naked condition."34
Reese was astonished by the evidence piling up in his office, and quickly asked for the assignment of two Secret Service agents to assist. "I never comprehended until now the extent of the present method of slavery," he wrote to Attorney General Knox,35 asking for a meeting in Washington to plan a dramatic legal attack.
The investigation could only have occurred with a man such as Warren Reese in the role of U.S. attorney. Reese and two part-time assistants constituted the sum total of the U.S. government's regulatory and judicial reach into the portion of Alabama he served. It would be another five years before the agency that became the Federal Bureau of Investigation was created in Washington. Until then, the handful of investigators employed by the U.S. Justice Department were nearly all accountants temporarily retained from the examiners section of the Treasury Department. The reach of federal power in a place as remote as Alabama was only as strong as the capabilities and political wills of the local U.S. attorney and federal judge.
The thirty-seven-year-old Reese exemplified the new phenotype of political and racial moderate that Roosevelt believed could emerge as a new leadership class in the South—a counterpoint of reason and modernism to noxious characters like John Pace and other men who perverted judicial and political systems against blacks and the constitutional amendments that were supposed to have freed them.
Born just after the Civil War, Reese was a new husband and fast-rising attorney in the state's capital city in 1903. Handsome, with an academic air, Reese's piercing gaze at juries was softened by a long, narrow face. An eloquent speaker and a florid writer, the attorney was just mature enough to win credibility in the courtroom, just youthful enough to ignore the obvious jeopardy that would mount as he pressed an attack on slavery and some of his state's most powerful men. As allegations of slavery in his jurisdiction multiplied, Reese demonstrated a prehensile comprehension of the murky legal framework governing black labor, and a hard-nosed unwillingness to ignore the implications of the extraordinary evidence that soon poured into his office.
Despite Reese's Republican affiliation in rabidly Democratic and white supremacist Alabama, he carried the social credentials of a true son of the South. His father, W. S. Reese Sr., was a war hero who at the age of nineteen earned a commission as a Confederate colonel for gallantry during the fighting at Chickamauga Creek in Georgia. After the war, the elder Reese became an activist in Republican politics, successfully serving as mayor of Montgomery in the 1880s and running unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1896 as a Republican "fusion" candidate—attempting to attract both black and white voters. Reese's maternal grandfather, John A. Elmore, was among Alabama's most famous attorneys—an architect of the national government of the Confederacy and a key player in secessionist politics at the dawn of the Civil War.
Even Alabama's leading Democrats could muster no authentic opposition to Reese's appointment to the federal post. Dozens of endorsements poured into the White House and headquarters of the Department of Justice in 1897, including each state Supreme Court justice, local judges across Alabama, bankers, railroad executives, the president of the state senate, the speaker of the Alabama house, Governor Joseph F. Johnston, the secretary of state, U.S. senators, and every Republican member of the Alabama legislature. White Republicans in Alabama saw in Reese the profile of a potentially dynamic new base of support—a fresh antidote to the planter class that dominated Democratic politics, but one who could avoid the carpetbagger taint of the Reconstruction-era Grand Old Party. "He is a young man of promise, belongs to an old and influential family of this state—the source from which we must have recruits if we expect permanent and lasting growth for republicanism in the South," wrote one Alabama GOP leader, in a letter endorsing Reese's candidacy. He was sworn in as U.S. attorney by President McKinley in April 1897.36
Four years later, Roosevelt's optimism that men such as the Reeses and Judge Thomas Jones could change the course of southern thinking failed to account for the most powerful social currents surging through the region. Not incidentally, Colonel Reese and Judge Jones knew each other at least partly through their prominent roles in the years-long drive in the 1880s to erect a massive monument to Confederate war dead and veterans in Montgomery. Their participation underscored the treacherous political and social straits through which white southern moderates were forced to navigate at the turn of the century. In the first four decades after the war, southern nativity and service in the war, as Reese and Jones each claimed, were enough to meet the prerequisites for elected office and leadership—and enough to at least partly inoculate them against the charge that any white man who supported legal rights for freed slaves was a traitor to his region.
As the twentieth century neared, though, the orthodoxy of southern patriotism was mutating virulently. It was no longer enough to have served honorably. The South now demanded in public forums an increasingly rabid level of absolute adherence to a baroque new mythology of the honorable southerner, the contented slave, and the tragically defeated secession. The new monument in Montgomery, one of the largest such memorials anywhere in the South, was that mythology incarnate. The aging former rebel president, Jefferson Davis, personally laid its cornerstone on the grounds of the state capitol, just a short distance from the spot where he had taken the oath of office as president of the Confederacy. The completed edifice consisted of four statues representing the four branches of military service spaced around the base of an enormous column rising seventy feet above a bronze bas-relief of a battle scene.
Atop the shaft of Alabama limestone stood a ten-foot bronze statue of a soldier titled Patriotism. After two decades of planning and fund-raising, the monument was finally unveiled before tens of thousands of spectators in 1898. Undoubtedly, young Warren Reese Jr. was among them.
A series of orators extolled the virtuousness of the southern rebellion and the bravery and tenacity of its soldiers. Flanking the scene was a contingent of young maidens, dressed in pure white, gray caps, and crimson sashes, each representing one of the Confederate states. Below the sculpture entitled Cavalry, an inscription honored the horsemen of the rebellion as "the knightliest of the knightly race."37 As special agents scoured the backcountry of Alabama five years later, and brought tales of horror to Montgomery in the spring of 1903, the cynicism of the South's claim to hold a special position among the most noble civilizations could not have escaped Reese's acute powers of observation.
An unnamed prisoner tied around a pickax for punishment in a Georgia labor camp. Photograph by John L. Spivak, during research for his 1932 book, Georgia Nigger.
Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad coke ovens at the Pratt Mines near Birmingham, Alabama.
A southern chain gang in 1898. Photograph by Carl Weis.
"Warden and his pack after capture," at Sprague Junction labor camp in Alabama. Photograph taken sometime in the 1890s.
A prisoner receiving punishment in a Georgia labor camp. Photograph by John L. Spivak.
A 1905 scene from Thomas W. Dixon Jr.'s white supremacist stageplay The Clansman. From a postcard distributed by opponents of the drama's racist message.
Black convicts forced to work in Thomasville, Georgia, in the late 1880s. Photograph by Joseph John Kirkbride.
James Fletcher Turner.
W. D. McCurdy, baron of Lowndes County, Alabama.
U.S. Attorney Warren S. Reese Jr.
John T. Milner.
John W. Pace.
U.S. District Court Judge Thomas G. Jones.
An 1880s political pamphlet distributed in Georgia by opponents of the convict labor system.
Federal courthouse and post office in Montgomery Alabama. Scene of the slavery and peonage trials of 1903. H. P. Tresslar Publisher, Montgomery Alabama.
Abandoned convict "keep" at a lime quarry in Lee County Alabama. Photography by E. W. Russell, 1937.
Barracks at Slope No. 12 mine for forced laborers acquired by Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Company.
African Americans forced to help build river levees, probably in Mississippi in the 1930s. Photographer unknown.
Convict wagons like these in Pitt County, North Carolina, 1910, were used across the South to transport and house African Americans compelled to work in road gangs, lumber camps, and farms.
Black prisoners at work in a rock quarry, most likely in the early 1940s. Photographer unknown.