Thursday, April 21, 2016

Old Alabama Stuff (12): "Let's Get Rid of Alabama's Shame"

In 1928 Alabama became the last state to abolish the convict lease system of prison labor. Since 1875 the state and county prison systems had leased inmates to private firms for all sorts of work, most often on farms and in lumber mills and especially in the coal mines around Birmingham. U.S Steel and many other companies benefited.  

Thousands of prisoners were taken immediately after conviction, often on vague charges such as "vagrancy", to their private employers to work out their sentences. Many died before being released; over ninety percent were African-American. Governments made easy profits, and the employers had cheap labor requiring very little care. In his 2008 book, Douglas A. Blackmon labelled this system Slavery By Another Name

The system was so egregious that opposition from within the state eventually developed. This 13-page pamphlet is a good example of civic efforts to bring attention to the collusion of state and private sectors in exploiting such labor. The title page and a portion of the other pages are below with some further comments.  

The Hillman Hotel, constructed in 1901, was demolished in 1967 to make way for parking. 

The Statewide Campaign Committee included some prominent people in the state. Mrs. Priestley Toulmin was married to a man who managed coal mines in the Birmingham area; presumably he approved of his wife's work here. Irving M. Engel, First Vice-Chairman, was a prominent member of the Birmingham Jewish Community and known for his opposition to convict lease. I have not yet located background information on the other members. 

The Statewide Campaign Committee used some big names in the state to make their case in the pamphlet. Julia S. Tutwiler was one of the best known women in Alabama at this time; her causes included education for women and prison reform. This section notes the Legislature's condemnation of the system in 1915 and 1919, but in 1923 the system created by that body still existed.  

When this pamphlet was published, William W. Brandon was just beginning his term as Alabama's 37th governor. During that term he continued the road building and dock construction in Mobile of previous Governor Thomas Kilby, pushed for stronger child labor laws and created the Alabama Forestry Commission. 

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