Once I had a daddy and he worked down in a hole.
Diggin’ and a-haulin’; haulin’ that Birmingham coal.
Many times I wondered when they took my daddy down
Will he come back to me–Will they leave him in the ground.
Something like the pitcher that they sent down in the well
Wond’rin’ will they break it. Lawdy, lawdy who can tell.
MINING CAMP BLUES by Trixie Smith, 1925
Did you ever wonder what it would be like if there had been no liberals, no radicals and no wobblies in old Montana?
On April 9, 1911, an explosion at the Banner coal mine in Littleton, Alabama blew 129 miners to bits.
Which is no surprise.There are few states or countries, anywhere in the world, that match the depravity of the Alabama past.
Doubters of such a statement can quickly become familiar with the history of mining, not just in Alabama, but in the Dixieland Red states that just sent George Bush back to the White House.
Now–it must be admitted – mining fatalities were no big deal in America’s “Progressive Era.” In 1917, in one pop, we had 170 so miners killed right here on the Butte hill in the Granite Mountain-Speculator mine. I can walk out my front door and still see the remains of these shafts in the distance. So, as far as mines go, what happened in Butte or in Alabama took place in an era when lots of miners died underground.
Even today, with deep shafts and great danger mostly in the past, miners who died underground still account for a large chunk of America’s violent death toll. Other groups have died violently, servicemen at war abroad, traffic accident and gun shot victims, Native Americans in the “winning of the west,” and miners. And American miners were killed and injured in mines where conditions and safety laws lagged for behind Europe and South Africa.
But conditions were not the same everywhere. Down there in Dixieland, in modern day Bush Country, we find a very grim picture.
In Alabama as we will see, things were quite different then up here in Montana. And mining is a reason why our Montana past is radically different from the hard-core red states where slave mining was openly practiced decades after the end of the Civil War.
As compared with our old Montana “blue state” heritage, miners were a lot worse off down there, in Dixie, in today’s Bushland.
For you see, even way back in 1911, Alabama was a big time “red” state. The reddest of the red as we shall see.
Which means that in 1911 there would be no liberal or IWW whining or sniveling about workers wages, rights and working conditions. And there would be no radical or socialist talk of unions. Even to talk about, let alone try and organize a miner’s union in the Dixieland Workers Paradise was a crime. And it could (and did) get you lynched or flogged. Even child labor was considered a blessing down there and the ruling elite living in luxury were openly thankful to Jesus for God’s gift of free labor. (Could this be where we will find the roots of “Compassionate Conservatism ?”)
So if you looked at underground working conditions in old Alabama and then compared these conditions with America’s liberal working-class hotbeds of unionism, you would find places like old Butte where the Western Federation of Miners and the Butte Miner’s Union were a force for mine wages, safety and conditions. As for Dixieland, no threatening labor movement ever existed, let along got off the ground.
Now somebody familiar with Alabama history might say in rebuttal – “You see at this Alabama coal mine where all these miners were killed, it turns out they were not real employees.”
And I would have to agree.
It turns out the doomed miners at Banner were “rentals,” or leased prisoners. They were convicts rented out to the Pratt Consolidated Coal Company by the state of Alabama,
So no, the miners used here were not real employees. Instead, they were part of a bloody and brutal Dixieland racket, a business that was considered a notorious evil in a red-state region noted for notorious evils.
Along with Bibles, bloodhounds and chains, fried chicken and child labor, flogging and mint juleps, convict leasing was common in Dixieland’s red states. And in America, when we find loud bible-banging, and in those places where the name of Jesus is used most frequently, we always find the very worst of working conditions. And written by law.
* * *
It was late one evenin’ I was standin’ at the mine
Foreman said my daddy had gone down his last, last time.
Ev’ry day I’ve waited, sad and worried as can be
Waitin’ for my daddy, thinkin’ he’d come back to me
MINING CAMP BLUES
From the 1890’s well into the 1950’s, visitors to the American South often observed long lines of chained Negroes marching along or working on Southern roads and highways.
And chained Negroes were to be seen especially in Alabama where the system was most rampant. For here we have the ideal business friendly law, a heavenly model for God fearing Southern Christians.
Of Alabama’s 67 counties, 51 leased their convicts to companies who then built for what passed as prisons, sparingly fed and clothed the convicts, and then supplied the guards, dogs, chains and whips.
This law, in effect, made Alabama,s convict rehabilitation program outright slavery and it lasted longer then anywhere else in Dixie, from 1876 to 1928. In some years at least 10% of state revenue of Alabama was derived from the convict lease program, there being no taxing of wealth in these early red states.
And no taxes on those who benefited from these vile conditions meant little or no money spent on public education or health. Ironically, it would be FDR and the liberal New Deal that would bring Dixieland conditions above those of the third world.
As for those slave miners killed at Littleton, Alabama in 1911, deep in the Banner coal mine? Well, who were they?
As it turns out there doesn’t seem to be but a few records with the names of the dead miners anywhere in Alabama. But this is Bush Country and modern southerners, journalists and historians would rather examine other subjects. Like some noble aspect or tiresome detail of the Civil War. They like that one.
There are exceptions, but all in all, the southern propagandist, journalist and historian has shown little energy in writing about what happened to blacks, children, working- class people and unions after the Civil War ended. Today, some southern whites still think Martin Luther King. Jr. had no legitimate complaints and was really a Communist.
But no matter what Martin said, it turns out these miners were all of one color. And they weren’t white folks down in the mines.
But just because they did not keep a lot of records, we can’t say for sure that it was embarrassing or anything like that. Maybe it was just because the life of a convict miner meant so little – why even write it down. Isn’t that Compassionate Conservatism at its best?
Which means that in 1902 and 1903, (And mining historians have found only this period for which a complete prisoner ledger survives) ( in Jefferson County, Birmingham, Alabama) in that county, 3,000 misdemeanor cases ended in conviction which meant sentencing to the coal mines for most of those jailed.
And what were they charged with, what did they do to be sent off as galley slaves as in old Rome?
Of records that exist the most frequent charge is “not given.” Other charges listed are vagrancy, gambling, “abusive and obscene language, ” fornication, adultery, freight-train hopping and many labeled “missed payment.”
* * *
“MISSING THE PAYMENT”
With the profits lucrative and no employee problems, mining slavery was quite extensive in Alabama. At another Birmingham mine in 1899 (Sloss-Sheffield Colaburg Prison Mine) a county health officer found, from the records, 1,926 convicts underground. In anybody’s language, nearly two thousand miners underground means a very large operation.
The health officer found hundreds of these miners had been charged with vagrancy, gambling, talking too loud, in the wrong part of town, and other minor offenses. In many cases, no specific charges were recorded What the convict slaves were guilty of was “missing the payment.”
What happened was the unfortunate Negro was arrested for a minor infraction and then fined $10.Unable to pay, he was sent to the mine for thirty days. In addition, 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, if any, 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,” wrote Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Thomas Parke.He further questioned 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.”
Of course the mining company had an explanation. : “The Negro dies faster,” Sloss-Sheffield’s president wrote in a letter to local officials a month later. At another Sloss-Sheffield mine, named Flat Top, a Alabama 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. But there were no violations of the law.
So, as mentioned, convict mine labor, backed up by the whip and the lash, lasted longer under law in Alabama (1928), then anywhere else in the world. Then there were red-state benefits for Alabama miners. Such as poor medical treatment, scant food and frequent floggings.
Noted on a typical page from a 1918 Alabama state report on causes of death among leased convicts in mines include: “Shot by Foreman, Asphyxia from Explosion, Tuberculosis, Burned by Gas Explosion, Pneumonia, Gangrenous Appendicitis, Blown to Bits, Paralysis and Fall of Ground.”
And so you want to be a red-state? Well, there it is, deep in the heart of Bush country where you will find no liberal
whining or sniveling about workers wages.
And you will find no tradition of civil rights or concerns about working conditions, wages and overtime.
Part 1 of 2…
JACKIE CORR lives in Butte, Montana. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org