The Bricks We Stand On
On March 30, 1908, Green Cottenham was arrested by the sheriff of Shelby County, Alabama, and charged with “vagrancy.”1 Cottenham had committed no true crime. Vagrancy, the offense of a person not being able to prove at a given moment that he or she is employed, was a new and flimsy concoction dredged up from legal obscurity at the end of the nineteenth century by the state legislatures of Alabama and other southern states. It was capriciously enforced by local sheriffs and constables, adjudicated by mayors and notaries public, recorded haphazardly or not at all in court records, and, most tellingly in a time of massive unemployment among all southern men, was reserved almost exclusively for black men. Cottenham’s offense was blackness.
After three days behind bars, twenty-two-year-old Cottenham was found guilty in a swift appearance before the county judge and immediately sentenced to a thirty-day term of hard labor. Unable to pay the array of fees assessed on every prisoner—fees to the sheriff, the deputy, the court clerk, the witnesses—Cottenham’s sentence was extended to nearly a year of hard labor.
The next day, Cottenham, the youngest of nine children born to former slaves in an adjoining county, was sold. Under a standing arrangement between the county and a vast subsidiary of the industrial titan of the North—U.S. Steel Corporation—the sheriff turned the young man over to the company for the duration of his sentence. In return, the subsidiary, Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Company, gave the county $12 a month to pay off Cottenham’s fine and fees. What the company’s managers did with Cottenham, and thousands of other black men they purchased from sheriffs across Alabama, was entirely up to them.
A few hours later, the company plunged Cottenham into the darkness of a mine called Slope No. 12—one shaft in a vast subterranean labyrinth on the edge of Birmingham known as the Pratt Mines. There, he was chained inside a long wooden barrack at night and required to spend nearly every waking hour digging and loading coal. His required daily “task” was to remove eight tons of coal from the mine. Cottenham was subject to the whip for failure to dig the requisite amount, at risk of physical torture for disobedience, and vulnerable to the sexual predations of other miners— many of whom already had passed years or decades in their own chthonian confinement. The lightless catacombs of black rock, packed with hundreds of desperate men slick with sweat and coated in pulverized coal, must have exceeded any vision of hell a boy born in the countryside of Alabama—even a child of slaves—could have ever imagined.
Waves of disease ripped through the population. In the month before Cottenham arrived at the prison mine, pneumonia and tuberculosis sickened dozens. Within his first four weeks, six died. Before the year was over, almost sixty men forced into Slope 12 were dead of disease, accidents, or homicide.
Most of the broken bodies, along with hundreds of others before and after, were dumped into shallow graves scattered among the refuse of the mine.
Others were incinerated in nearby ovens used to blast millions of tons of coal brought to the surface into coke—the carbon-rich fuel essential to U.S.
Steel’s production of iron. Forty-five years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freeing American slaves, Green Cottenham and more than a thousand other black men toiled under the lash at Slope 12.
Imprisoned in what was then the most advanced city of the South, guarded by whipping bosses employed by the most iconic example of the modern corporation emerging in the gilded North, they were slaves in all but name.
Instead of thousands of true thieves and thugs drawn into the system over decades, the records demonstrate the capture and imprisonment of thousands of random indigent citizens, almost always under the thinnest chimera of probable cause or judicial process. The total number of workers caught in this net had to have totaled more than a hundred thousand and perhaps more than twice that figure. Instead of evidence showing black crime waves, the original records of county jails indicated thousands of arrests for inconsequential charges or for violations of laws specifically written to intimidate blacks—changing employers without permission, vagrancy, riding freight cars without a ticket, engaging in sexual activity— or loud talk—with white women. Repeatedly, the timing and scale of surges in arrests appeared more attuned to rises and dips in the need for cheap labor than any demonstrable acts of crime. Hundreds of forced labor camps came to exist, scattered throughout the South—operated by state and county governments, large corporations, small-time entrepreneurs, and provincial farmers. These bulging slave centers became a primary weapon of suppression of black aspirations. Where mob violence or the Ku Klux Klan terrorized black citizens periodically, the return of forced labor as a fixture in black life ground pervasively into the daily lives of far more African Americans. And the record is replete with episodes in which public leaders faced a true choice between a path toward complete racial repression or some degree of modest civil equality, and emphatically chose the former. These were not unavoidable events, driven by invisible forces of tradition and history.
About the Author
Doug A. Blackmon
Douglas A. Blackmon is the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, and co-executive producer of the acclaimed PBS documentary of the same name. His is also a contributing editor at The Washington Post and chair and host of Forum, a public affairs program produced by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and aired on more than 100 PBS affiliates across the U.S.
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