Hard Time: From Alabama’s Past, Capitalism and Racism In a Cruel Partnership
July 16, 2001
Till 1928, Companies ‘Leased’
Convicts, Most of Them
Black and Many Doomed
Sent to the Mines for ‘Gaming’
The Wall Street Journal
By Douglas A. Blackmon
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.
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. This is a condition inexcusable, not to say shameful."
At the Pratt Mines complex where Mr. Cottenham later died, 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. The men worked standing in pools of putrid water. Gas from the miners’ headlamps and smoke from blasts of dynamite and gun powder choked the mine.
The convict board’s death registers show that in the final decade of the 19th century, large numbers of men died when diarrhea and dysentery periodically swept through the Pratt Mines. Citing inadequate food, beatings of miners and unsanitary conditions, state inspectors periodically issued reports criticizing the mine’s operators, initially Pratt Coal & Coke Co. and later Tennessee Coal, which acquired Pratt Coal in the late 1800s. An 1889 report by Alabama legislators reported an "immense amount of whipping" of inmates at Pratt and other prison mines. An 1890 report from the convict inspectors board described "more sickness" at the Pratt Mines "than any other place."
Men were priced depending on their health and their ability to dig coal. Under state rules adopted in 1901, 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 Tennessee Coal $18.50 a month in 1897, according to a prison board financial report. A dead hand cost $9. Twenty years later, the monthly rates had risen to $93.12 per month for the strongest workers and $63.12 for the weakest.
As revenue from the lease system rose, companies took over nearly all the penal functions of the state. The Alabama legislature enacted elaborate statutes in the late 1800s regulating convict leases. The rules required companies to pay a fine of $150 a head for escapees. Company guards were empowered to shoot prisoners attempting to flee and, well into the 20th century, to strip disobedient convicts naked and whip them. State regulations mandated that a company "decently" inter any corpse not claimed by the prisoner’s family at a mine cemetery.
"The demand for labor and fees has become so great that most of them now go to the mines where many of them are unfit for such labor; consequently it is not long before they pass from this earth," wrote Shirley Bragg, president of the Board of Inspectors of Convicts, in a September 1906 report to Alabama’s governor. "Is it not the duty of the State to see that proper treatment is accorded these poor defenseless creatures, many of whom ought never have been arrested and tried at all?"
This is the world U.S. Steel entered in 1907 when it bought Tennessee Coal. It was a big deal, engineered by Wall Street banker J. Pierpont Morgan and requiring the personal approval of President Theodore Roosevelt. Tennessee Coal was a huge enterprise that had used slaves to operate its mines in Tennessee during the Civil War, according to a 1966 doctoral thesis on the company written by Justin Fuller, an Alabama historian.
U.S. Steel Chairman Elbert H. Gary was widely regarded at the time as a leader in progressive labor practices and business ethics. A former county judge after whom the steel city of Gary, Ind., was named, Mr. Gary told the author of a 1925 biography that he ordered an immediate end to the use of convicts as soon as he learned of the practice. "Think of that!" Mr. Gary says in "The Story of Steel," by Ida Tarbell. "I, an Abolitionist from childhood, at the head of a concern working negroes in a chain gang. … I won’t stand for it."
Mr. Gary moved quickly to assert control over Tennessee Coal, installing his own president of the unit. In testimony during a 1913 investigation into alleged corruption in Alabama’s convict-leasing bureaucracy, U.S. Steel executives, who weren’t the subject of the investigation, said Mr. Gary had directed them to abandon convict leasing "as soon as possible." "Judge Gary said whether the hire of convicts was a good thing or a bad thing that he didn’t care to be connected with the penal system of the State of Alabama," Walker Percy, then division counsel for Tennessee Coal, testified.
Still, according to state records and an internal company memo provided by U.S. Steel, the company continued to use more than 700 convicts already in the custody of Tennessee Coal under state and county contracts that weren’t scheduled to expire for four more years. The company also entered into unspecified new convict-labor contracts after 1907, according to the company memo, written in 1913.
It isn’t clear — and U.S. Steel today says it doesn’t know — why the chairman’s order to stop using forced labor in Alabama wasn’t carried out promptly. Newspaper accounts and state records from the time indicate that Alabama officials were aware that Tennessee Coal was considering abandoning the practice, beginning immediately after the merger with U.S. Steel. In testimony from the 1913 inquiry, company executives cited the costs and logistics of recruiting and building housing for free miners as impediments to ending the use of convicts.
Whatever the reason, J.L. Walthall, the Shelby County sheriff who arrested Mr. Cottenham, and other law-enforcement officials continued regularly to ship convicts to the Pratt Mines. On Nov. 2, 1907, Sheriff Walthall received $373.50 from fees related to 65 cases, according to a county ledger. Adjusted for inflation, that figure would equal about $7,000 today.
Wave of Pneumonia
The following February, a wave of pneumonia and tuberculosis killed nine miners at the Pratt Mines. When Mr. Cottenham arrived from the Shelby County jail in April, Sheriff Walthall had already shipped more than 60 convicts to the Pratt Mines in the previous 12 months, according to his records, now stored in a county building a few blocks from the old stone courthouse in Columbiana. In March, six more convicts died of tuberculosis, including Mr. Roberson, the Shelby County man convicted of "assault with a stick."
Mr. Cottenham, the youngest of nine children born to a widowed former slave named Mary Cottenham, died Aug. 15, after a 13-day illness, according to his death certificate. Nine others were killed at the mine on Nov. 16. The cause listed in convict-board records was "asphyxiation." A newspaper report at the time said 50 black convicts had set fire to the mine and attempted to escape during the ensuing chaos. Flames and collapsing coal trapped scores of convicts as the fire incinerated timbers holding up the roof of the mine. Those who died were "roasted and suffocated," the paper reported.
By the end of the year — the first full year of U.S. Steel control — 58 convicts had died in the Pratt Mines.
Mortality rates gradually declined at the U.S. Steel operations as the company improved conditions. U.S. Steel continued to run a recently constructed, more sanitary prison for its No. 12 mine, where only convicts worked. State inspectors rated one U.S. Steel prison the "best in the state." In 1911, the number of deaths fell to 18.
But despite Judge Gary’s pronouncements, nothing in the records indicates that U.S. Steel took any direct action to end its involvement in convict leasing. In the middle of 1911, for reasons that aren’t specified in extant documents, Alabama officials began cutting the number of men convicted of state crimes that it supplied to U.S. Steel. Based on testimony in the 1913 investigation and a series of letters and memos transcribed into the record of that inquiry, U.S. Steel resisted giving up the prisoners under its control in the mines.
In a Nov. 24, 1911, letter to the convict board that was copied to Alabama Gov. Braxton Comer, George C. Crawford, president of Tennessee Coal, said the company’s past treatment of convicts "reflects credit upon the humanity and intelligence" of those in charge of the prisoners. The company planned to end its use of convicts eventually, he wrote, but couldn’t yet do so "without detriment to our operations." Mr. Crawford added that U.S. Steel’s "chief inducement for the hiring of convicts was the certainty of a supply of coal for our manufacturing operations in the contingency of labor troubles."
In June, when the number of convicts under lease from the state fell below the 400 men Alabama was obligated to provide at any one time, Tennessee Coal Vice President F.H. Crockard wrote convict bureau President James Oakley to complain, "asking him for 30 or 40 more men," according to testimony during the 1913 inquiry. When the number of state prisoners at the company’s disposal fell below 300 later that summer, the company’s general mine superintendent, E.H. Coxe, paid a personal visit to Mr. Oakley to demand more convicts, according to the records.
As the end of Tennessee Coal’s convict lease with the state approached in 1911, the company told Alabama officials that it wanted to begin negotiations to extend the contract for at least another year. The state responded that it intended to lease all the convicts to another mining company, ostensibly because it believed the other company would pay more for the prisoners.
"I wish to enter a very vigorous protest against this action, as it is manifestly unfair to us to take the men from us," wrote Mr. Coxe in a Sept. 25, 1911, letter to the official in charge of convicts. "We are paying the State a great big price for these convicts, and it is certainly a hardship on us to deplete our organization."
State officials were unswayed. On Jan. 1, 1912, state convicts held at the Pratt Mines were marched out under guard and turned over to overseers at Pratt Consolidated, an unrelated mining company, and immediately sent into that company’s Banner mine. There, nine months earlier, a giant explosion and fire had killed nearly 130 convicts, all but a dozen of whom were black, according to the state’s death records for that year.
The end of U.S. Steel’s convict leases with the state in effect marked the beginning of the end of the company’s involvement in the system. The records show that at least until late 1912, the company was using some county convicts. But after that year, no prisoners appear to have been leased by U.S. Steel. The Pratt Mines stayed open, worked by free miners.
Convict leasing, however, persisted. By 1910, as many as 5,000 state and county prisoners were under lease in Alabama at any given time. Thousands of African-American men sentenced to terms of less than a year were being cycled through the system. The threat of arrest and forced labor had become a fixture of black life in many rural areas of Alabama.
In Barbour County, that threat took the form of brothers William M. and Robert B. Teal. In 1911, when term-limit law forced William to give up his job as sheriff, Robert was elected to the job, and William became chief deputy. "The brothers just swapped places," according to the local newspaper.
Based on jail records the brothers kept, the Teals typically arrested fewer than 20 people a month. Then suddenly, every few months, dozens of minor offenders were rounded up over a few days, charged with vagrancy, alcohol violations or other minor offenses. Nearly all were sentenced to hard labor and shipped to a mine within 10 days.
One day in the summer of 1912, Edwin Collins was being held in the county jail on the charge of eavesdropping. Another black man, Josia Marcia, was in for allegedly having sexual relations with a white woman. Louis Denham was jailed for vagrancy. Housed with them were Ad Rumph, Henry Demas, Jackson Daniels and Peter Ford, four African-American men accused in the murder of a sharecropper named George Blue.
Whatever evidence was presented against the various defendants has been lost, along with any record of their trials or whether the men had access to attorneys. By fall, though, all had been convicted and sentenced to varying terms of hard labor. Each of the accused murderers received between 20 years and life. Mr. Collins, the eavesdropper, received six months of hard labor; Mr. Denham, the vagrant, got five months. No sentence was recorded for Mr. Marcia.
The African-American men in the Barbour County jail bore all the outward signs of grinding poverty. Will Miller, charged with a separate murder, was logged into the state’s Descriptive Record as having "one good tooth on top," "shot through top of right shoulder," "badly burnt on back left leg." Mr. Demas, 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds, bore scars across his frame — the most prominent a six-inch gash stretching from above his left eye down the side of his face.
Messrs. Collins and Denham apparently survived their terms; convict-board death records don’t mention them. Mr. Miller died the following April in a Pratt Consolidated mine, "killed by convict," according to convict-board records. In November 1916, Mr. Rumph died of tuberculosis in a state prison hospital. Mr. Demas died the following month of pneumonia, at Pratt Consolidated’s Banner mine. Mr. Daniels was killed July 27, 1917, while attempting to escape from the Sloss-Sheffield mine at Flat Top.
By the 1920s, state officials, under growing humanitarian and union pressures, were moving to end the worst abuses of the convict-leasing system, eventually taking more direct control of the supervision and punishment of convicts, though the convicts continued to work for companies. Despite the state’s attempted reforms, monthly memos written by Glenn Andrews, a state medical inspector, record scores of lashings for offenses such as cursing, failure to dig the daily quota of coal and "disobedience." In one entry, two black inmates, Ernest Hallman and R.B. Green, received five lashes each on March 12, 1925, for "disobedience." Others were put in chains and given up to a dozen lashes for "not working."
Reforms were often cursory, such as requiring that men be clothed during their lashings. The fee system remained in force. "Our jails are money-making machines," wrote state prison inspector W.H. Oates, in a 1922 report.
In 1924, a white convict named James Knox died shortly after he was leased to Sloss-Sheffield to work in the mines. The cause of death stated on his death certificate was suicide. Later, a series of newspaper reports alleged that a coroner had determined that Mr. Knox died of heart failure while being tortured by guards, who held him upside down in a barrel of water. The resulting public outrage finally pushed state officials to ban the use of leased convict labor entirely in 1928, roughly six decades after it began.
Tallying the total number of convicts leased to companies in Alabama during the 60 years the system prevailed is impossible. Record-keeping deteriorated in the system’s last decade, as much larger numbers of men were arrested. State officials took a complete headcount of prisoners only once every four years, meaning tens of thousands of prisoners entered and left the forced-labor system without ever being added to the totals.
Records of the headcounts, compiled in the convict board’s periodic reports, show that at least 40,000 state prisoners were leased to private enterprises, most of them between 1900 and 1922. The relatively few records the convict board kept on the county system show that more than 20,000 additional prisoners were leased from local jails between 1890 and 1914. In the years that followed, the number of arrests by sheriffs ballooned — averaging 30,000 a year in 1924, 1925 and 1926 — though state-prison-inspector records don’t indicate how many of those prisoners were leased to companies. In the end, the total number of those sent into the mines over the 60-year span of the system probably far exceeded 100,000.
Tallying the Dead
The number of convicts who died while in the custody of private companies is more difficult to determine. The convict-board records show nearly 4,000 fatalities in the years leading up to 1918. Complete death records weren’t maintained after that. Based on the numbers that do exist, annual mortality rates among the prisoners ranged from 3% to more than 25%.
The convict board’s records show that Alabama’s forced-labor system generated nearly $17 million for the state government alone — or between $225 million and $285 million in today’s dollars — in the first two decades of the century. The total amount collected by counties isn’t known. A Birmingham newspaper reported in 1908 that U.S. Steel’s unit in Alabama paid Jefferson County about $60,000 ($1.1 million in today’s dollars) for county convicts in that year, under a four-year contract between the company and local officials.
Sloss-Sheffield continued leasing convicts until at least 1926. In 1952, the company was merged into U.S. Pipe & Foundry, another Birmingham industrial group, which was in turn acquired in 1969 by Jim Walter Corp., a Tampa, Fla., industrial company. Now called Walter Industries, the company is best-known as a manufacturer of inexpensive prefabricated homes.
"Obviously, this was a dark chapter for U.S. business," says Kyle Parks, a spokesman for Walter Industries. "Certainly no company today could even conceive of this kind of practice."
Pratt Consolidated used convict labor until the abolition of the system. By then, the company had merged with Alabama By-Products Corp. The combined entity merged 60 years later with what is now Drummond Coal Co., a privately held coal and real-estate company based in Jasper, Ala., with mining operations in Alabama and South America. "I don’t know how we could be tied back to something that happened in the early part of the century," says Drummond spokesman Mike Tracy. "Drummond wasn’t even founded then."
U.S. Steel executives say that whatever happened at the company’s Alabama mines long ago, it would be impossible to appropriately assign responsibility for any corporation’s actions in so remote an era. "Is it fair in fact to punish people who are living today, who have certain assets they might have inherited from others, or corporate assets that have been passed on?" says Richard F. Lerach, U.S. Steel’s assistant general counsel. "You can get to a situation where there is such a passage of time that it simply doesn’t make sense and is not fair."
The company says it knows almost nothing about the "U.S. Steel cemetery" near where Willie Clark, the retired miner, grew up. U.S. Steel still owns the burial ground, and it obtained a cemetery property-tax exemption on the site in 1997. But officials say they are unable to locate records of burials there or of the company prison that once stood nearby. The only reference to the graveyard in surviving corporate documents, they say, is a map of the property marked with the notation "Negro Cemetery." Company officials theorize that the graveyard was an informal burial area used by African-American families living nearby, with no formal connection to U.S. Steel.
"Are there convicts on that site? Possibly, quite possibly," says Mr. Ferrall, the company spokesman. "But I am unable to tell you that there are."
Over the decades, Birmingham spread to surround the site: low-rent apartments on one side, shabby storefronts on another, an industrial site, a city park. In 1994, industrial archaeologist Jack Bergstresser stumbled across the cemetery while conducting a survey for the federal government to map the remains of nearby coke ovens, mine shafts and railroad lines.
Mr. Clark says that as a boy, he and other youngsters played among the unmarked graves, picking blackberries from the thorny vines that grew wild between the plots. Burials were rare by then. The older graves had begun to collapse, he says, exposing jumbles of human bones.
Though in his ninth decade, Mr. Clark, more than 6 feet tall, can still walk to the site from his home nearby and point out where the old mine shafts reached the surface and where dozens of company houses once stood.
"What can you do about it now?" he says, stepping gingerly through the trees and undergrowth. "But the company … ought to clean that land up, or turn it back over to the city or somebody else who can make some use of it, take care of it."
Uncle Martin’s Tale: He Was Sent To Prison at 33 and Never Returned
ABBEVILLE, Ala. — After 82 years, the legacy of convict leasing still lingers in the fragments of family stories Pearline Danzey remembers hearing about a great uncle named Martin.
"My granddaddy used to talk about him. He went off to prison and died there," Ms. Danzey says, sitting in the cramped house she shares with cats and relatives. "They was real sad about it."
This is Henry County, a place where cotton has been grown for most of two centuries and where Ms. Danzey’s family traces its history back to 1832 and the slave, Frank, brought to the county by a local white farmer named John Danzey.
Uncle Martin was remembered in the family mostly as a man who spelled his last name without an "e," as did one line of white Danzys who lived nearby. Ms. Danzey — Pearl to her relatives — says she no longer remembers her Uncle Martin’s alleged crime.
But in years past, she has told her granddaughter, Melissa Danzey, that Mr. Danzy and another local man were arrested after a brawl among men gambling outside a rural church. By the end of the fight, one man was dead. It isn’t clear whether the elder Ms. Danzey’s recollection has failed or, as was the case in many black families in Alabama, the stigma of imprisonment makes her uncomfortable discussing the subject. One thing is certain: After his arrest, Uncle Martin never came back.
State and Henry County records show that three years before Ms. Danzey’s birth in 1918, Martin, then a 33-year-old sharecropper and a husband of nine years, was arrested with another local black man in connection with a third man’s death. There are no records of the precise charge, the evidence against Mr. Danzy or the trial. But on Oct. 21, 1915, he was sentenced to a term of 25 years at hard labor, according to the sheriff’s register of prisoners. The man arrested with him, Bud L. Clark, was sentenced to 20 years.
Mr. Danzy was promptly "leased" by the state to Henderson Land & Lumber Co., a company long since defunct that put Mr. Danzy to work in a turpentine-harvesting camp near Tuscaloosa. In such camps, men worked from dawn to dusk in remote, often-malarial swamps, collecting the sap of trees to be processed into turpentine.
Mr. Clark lasted just over two months at labor before pneumonia killed him. Mr. Danzy contracted pneumonia as well, state records show. Five months after his conviction, he was dead, too.
On a cool evening, Ms. Danzey presides over a visiting parade of nieces, nephews and children. She sits in a worn vinyl recliner in the living room, telling stories of lynchings, night riders and her childhood on a share-crop farm. Across the room, her grandfather — one of Martin Danzy’s older brothers — squints from a faded photograph above the television set.
"To kill a colored person then, it wasn’t nothing," she says. "We was slaves too in a way."