From Alabama's Past, Capitalism Teamed with Racism to Create Cruel Partnership

By Douglas A. Blackmon

The notorious chain gangs of some Southern states, in which convicts engaged in physical labor outside the prison were shackled together, no longer exist, but Alabama briefly and unsuccessfully attempted to revive the chain gang in the

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- On March 30, 1908, Green Cottenham was arrested by the Shelby County, Ala., sheriff and charged with vagrancy. After three days in the county jail, the 22-year-old African-American was sentenced to an unspecified term of hard labor. The next day, he was handed over to a unit of U.S. Steel Corp. and put to work with hundreds of other convicts in the notorious Pratt Mines complex on the outskirts of Birmingham. Four months later, he was still at the coal mines when tuberculosis killed him.

Born two decades after the end of slavery in America, Green Cottenham died a slave in all but name. The facts are dutifully entered in the handwritten registry of prisoners in Shelby County and in other state and local government records.

In the early decades of the 20th century, tens of thousands of convicts -- most of them, like Mr. Cottenham, indigent black men -- were snared in a largely forgotten justice system rooted in racism and nurtured by economic expedience. Until nearly 1930, decades after most other Southern states had abolished similar programs, Alabama was providing convicts to businesses hungry for hands to work in farm fields, lumber camps, railroad construction gangs and, especially in later years, mines. For state and local officials, the incentive was money; many years, convict leasing was one of Alabama's largest sources of funding.

'Assault With a Stick'

Most of the convicts were charged with minor offenses or violations of "Black Code" statutes passed to reassert white control in the aftermath of the Civil War. Mr. Cottenham was one of more than 40 Shelby County men shipped to the Pratt Mines in the winter of 1908, nearly half of them serving time for jumping a freight train, according to the Shelby County jail log. George Roberson was sent on a conviction for "assault with a stick," the log says. Lou William was in for adultery. John Jones for gambling.

Subjected to squalid living conditions, poor medical treatment, scant food and frequent floggings, thousands died. Entries on a typical page from a 1918 state report on causes of death among leased convicts include: "Killed by Convict, Asphyxia from Explosion, Tuberculosis, Burned by Gas Explosion, Pneumonia, Shot by Foreman, Gangrenous Appendicitis, Paralysis." Mr. Cottenham was one of dozens of convicts who died at the Pratt Mines complex in 1908.

This form of government and corporate forced labor ended in 1928 and slipped into the murk of history, discussed little outside the circles of sociologists and penal historians. But the story of Alabama's trade in human labor endures in minute detail in tens of thousands of pages of government records stored in archives, record rooms and courthouses across the state.

These documents chronicle another chapter in the history of corporate involvement in racial abuses of the last century. A $4.5 billion fund set up by German corporations, after lawsuits and intense diplomatic pressure from the U.S. and others, began making payments last month to the victims of Nazi slave-labor programs during the 1930s and 1940s. Japanese manufacturers have come under criticism for their alleged use of forced labor during the same period.

Swiss banks agreed in 1998 to a $1.25 billion settlement of claims related to the seizure of Jewish assets during the Holocaust.

Traditions of Segregation

In the U.S., many companies -- real-estate agents that helped maintain rigid housing segregation, insurers and other financial-services companies that red-lined minority areas as off-limits, employers of all stripes that discriminated in hiring -- helped maintain traditions of segregation for a century after the end of the Civil War. But in the U.S., recurrent calls for reparations to the descendants of pre-Civil War slaves have made little headway. And there has been scant debate over compensating victims of 20th century racial abuses involving businesses.

The biggest user of forced labor in Alabama at the turn of the century was Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co., the U.S. Steel unit that owned the mine where Mr. Cottenham died. Dozens of other companies used convicts, too, many of them now defunct or absorbed into larger businesses.

Executives at some of the corporate descendants say they shouldn't be asked to bear responsibility for the actions of executives long dead or the practices of businesses acquired decades ago.

U.S. Steel says it can find no evidence to suggest that the company ever abused or caused the deaths of convicts in Alabama. U.S. Steel spokesman Thomas R. Ferrall says that concerns voiced about convict leasing by Elbert H. Gary, the company's chairman at the time, helped set the stage for "knocking the props out from under" the system. "We think U.S. Steel proper was a positive player in this history ... was a force for good," Mr. Ferrall says.

A headstone sits at the edge of what nearby residents call the "U.S. Steel cemetery" on the outskirts of Birmingham, Ala. Hundreds of sunken graves lie behind the stone, located about 30 feet from a recently closed shaft into one of the company's Pratt Mines.

The company's early presence in Alabama is still evident a few miles from downtown Birmingham. There, on a hillside overgrown with brush, hundreds of sunken graves litter the ground in haphazard rows. A few plots bear stones. No other sign or path marks the place. Only a muddy scar in the earth -- the recently filled-in mouth of a spent coal mine -- suggests that this is the cemetery of the Pratt Mines complex.

"The convicts were buried out there," says Willie Clark, an 82-year-old retired coal miner. He grew up in a house that overlooked the cemetery and the sprawling mine operation that once surrounded it. "I heard my daddy talking about how they would beat the convicts with pick handles. If they didn't like them, they would kill them."

He and other older people living in the ramshackle "Pratt City" neighborhood surrounding the old mining site still call the graveyard the "U.S. Steel cemetery." There are no records of those buried on the hillside. Mr. Cottenham could be among them.

When Mr. Cottenham died in 1908, U.S. Steel was still new to convict leasing. But by then, the system was decades old and a well-oiled machine.

After the Civil War, most Southern states set up similar penal systems, involving tens of thousands of African-Americans. In those years, the Southern economy was in ruins. State officials had few resources, and county governments had even fewer. Leasing prisoners to private individuals or companies provided revenue and eliminated the need to build prisons. Forcing convicts to work as part of their punishment was entirely legal; the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1865, outlaws involuntary servitude -- except for "duly convicted" prisoners.

Convict leasing in other states never reached the scale of Alabama's program. By the turn of the century, most states had ended the practice or soon would because of opposition on humanitarian grounds and from organized labor. Convict leasing also wasn't well-suited to the still largely agrarian economies of most Southern states.

But in Alabama, industrialization was generating a ravenous appetite for the state's coal and iron ore. Production was booming, and unions were attempting to organize free miners. Convicts provided an ideal captive work force: cheap, usually docile, unable to organize and available when free laborers went on strike.

Under the convict-leasing system, government officials agreed with a company such as Tennessee Coal to provide a specific number of prisoners for labor. State officials signed contracts to supply companies with large blocks of men -- often hundreds at a time -- who had committed felonies. Companies entered into separate deals with county sheriffs to obtain thousands more prisoners who had been convicted of misdemeanors. Of the 67 counties in Alabama, 51 actively leased their convicts, according to one contemporary newspaper report. The companies built their own prisons, fed and clothed the convicts, and supplied guards as they saw fit.

In Barbour County, in the cotton country of southern Alabama, nearly 700 men were leased between June 1891 and November 1903, most for $6 a month, according to the leatherbound Convict Record still kept in the courthouse basement. Most were sent to mines operated by Tennessee Coal or Sloss-Sheffield Steel & Iron Co., another major industrial presence in Birmingham.

Sheriffs, deputies and some court officials derived most of their compensation from fees charged to convicts for each step in their own arrest, conviction and shipment to a private company. That gave sheriffs an incentive to arrest and obtain convictions of as many people as possible. They also had an incentive to feed the prisoners as little as possible, since they could pocket the difference between what the state paid them and what they spent to maintain the convicts while in their custody. Some convicts had enough money to pay the fees themselves and gain their freedom; the many who didn't were instead put to work. Company lease payments for the convicts' time at hard labor then were used to cover the fees.

In 1902 and 1903, the only period for which a complete prisoner ledger survives for Jefferson County, where Birmingham is located, local officials prosecuted more than 3,000 misdemeanor cases, the great majority of them yielding a convict to work in a Sloss-Sheffield mine.

One of those convicts was John Clarke, a black miner convicted of "gaming" on April 11, 1903. Unable to pay, he ended up at the Sloss-Sheffield mines. Working off the fine would take 10 days. Fees for the sheriff, the county clerk and even the witnesses who testified in the case required that Mr. Clarke serve an additional 104 days in the mines. Sloss-Sheffield acquired him at a rate of $9 a month, Jefferson County records show. One month and three days later, he was dead, crushed by "falling rock," according to the Alabama Board of Inspectors of Convicts, the agency that monitored the system.

Charge: 'Not Given'

In an 1898 convict-board report, the largest category in a table listing charges on which county convicts were imprisoned was "Not given." 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, 29 for gambling. At any given time, the convict board's reports show dozens of prisoners at labor for riding a freight train without paying for a ticket. In 1914, convict-board records show, five black men were in prison for allegedly having sex with white women.

In 1895, Thomas Parke, the health officer for Jefferson County, investigated conditions at Sloss-Sheffield's Coalburg prison mine. There, Dr. Parke 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 convicts had been arrested for minor infractions, fined $5 or $10 and, unable to pay, leased for 20 days to Sloss-Sheffield to cover the fine. Like Mr. Clarke, most of those prisoners then had another year or more tacked on to 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. 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."

The company's explanation for the lethal conditions in its convict mines: "The negro dies faster," Sloss-Sheffield's president wrote in a letter to local officials a month later.

At Sloss-Sheffield's Flat Top mine a few miles north of Birmingham, convicts reached the mine by shuffling through a long, low-ceilinged shaft extending from inside the walls of their prison compound, according to a 1904 map of the site. 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." Another state inspector reported that at the Flat Top mine prison, which had 165 inmates, there were 137 "floggings" with a whip in one month of 1899.

In a 1904 report to acting Gov. Russell Cunningham, the state's top prison official, J.M. Carmichael, reported that Sloss-Sheffield had been "required to move its prison" at the Flat Top mine to a new location "because of the death rate at the prison formerly occupied by them." Mr. Carmichael added: "Hundreds and hundreds of persons are taken before the inferior courts of the country, tried and sentenced to hard labor for the county, who would never be arrested except for the matter of fees involved.

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