Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Miner's Insurrections / Convict Labor

edited by Fran Ansley and Brenda Bell, for "No More Moanin': Voices of Southern Struggle" special issue of "Southern Exposure" (1974), pgs. 144 to 147.
Among the most dramatic events in the history of the Southern Appalachian coal fields were the East Tennessee miners' insurrections of the 1890's, still known as "the wars" by many people around the coal camps of the area. In a series of massive armed confrontations, the coal miners of Tennessee rose up against the state convict leasing system to defend their jobs which the coal companies were trying to fill with convict laborers. As with so many of the significant battles of the South's working class, the story of this rebellion is little known to younger people in the area today, although there are several songs which have survived the years, and scholarly information about it is stored away in city libraries. We will not be able to tell the full story of the miners' insurrection here, but we would like to share some pieces of a "history-in-progress."
The convict lease system first began in Tennessee in 1866, as part of a wave of such legislation which swept through the South and Midwest after the Civil War.1 A Nashville furniture company built workshops on the grounds of the penitentiary, fed and clothed the men, and paid 43 cents a head per day to the state. One year later, the prisoners burned the workshops to the ground in protest over the treatment they were receiving. From that time to this, prisoners have waged battles to win decent working conditions and fairer wages. Meanwhile the labor movement has often agitated for an end to convict labor, but usually on the grounds of unfair competition rather than of justice for convicts. For example, the Mechanics and Manufacturers Association of Tennessee began agitating against convict leasing very early, saying it was unfair to labor. And in fact, the bulk of convicts were shortly switched to the coal and iron mines and to farms in order to avoid competition with the mechanical trades. When the Tennessee legislature abolished the convict lease system in 1896, they didn't stop working the prisoners, they simply bought a piece of land and set up a state-owned coal mine at Brushy Mountain where convicts continued to mine coal until the mid-1950's. (Despite this fact the Nov. 1, 1938, UMW Journal ran an article entitled "Historical Rebellion Brought End to Convict Miners in Tennessee." The rebellion eventually brought an end to convict leasing, but not to convict miners.) Of course it was no easy victory getting convict labor out of the hands of private companies. By the time of the miners' insurrections all of Tennessee's convicts were leased by the Tennessee Coal Iron & Railroad Co. (TCI), a New York-based corporation. They leased about 1600 men from the state for $101,000 per year. [That comes out to about $63 per year per man.] Part of these men they worked in their own mines in Grundy County; part of them they sub-leased to other companies in that area and north of there in Anderson County around Coal Creek and Briceville. TCI already had a monopoly on coal in the North Alabama fields (where they also used convict labor). They were a highly successful company, becoming a subsidiary of US Steel in 1907.4 It was the convict lease system which built TCI's fortune.
Besides the outright super-profits TCI made off its convicts, they were also able to use the convicts as a club against free miners. A TCI official told the New York Times: "One of the chief reasons which induced the company to take up the system was the chance it offered for overcoming strikes. For some years after we began the convict lease system, we proved that we were right in calculating that the free miners would be loath to enter upon strikes, when they saw that the company was amply provided with convict labor."
So it is clear why TCI fought so hard to prevent the end of the convict leasing system. The state, though, had quite an interest in the system as well. Between the years 1870 and 1890, Tennessee made a total net profit of $771,000 from its convict leasing system. This was only $176,000 short of repaying the state for all expenditures on all its penal institutions since the first penitentiary had been built in 1829 under Governor Sam Houston. So, of course, they kept working the prisoners and selling their products even after they were forced to stop leasing them to private industry. Then in the 30's, federal legislation was passed making it illegal for any prison-made goods to be sold in the free market. 
But the states, including Tennessee, still work their convicts and still pay them scandalous wages; it's just that they have them manufacture goods directly for the state. Prisoners, however, are still fighting. Another issue raised by the insurrection is that of racism. The state prison system began to take on its modern character immediately after the close of the Civil War, when the percentage of blacks in the prisons began to rise astronomically month by month from the tiny percentage they had comprised in the days when plantations took care of their own. (Then as now, the majority of prisoners, black and white, were convicted of crimes against property. Dombrowski says that over half of all convicts in Tennessee at the time of the rebellion were imprisoned for larceny.) Blacks made up two thirds of the convict miners in East Tennessee. Evidence of what role racism played in forming the attitudes of East Tennessee miners toward the convicts is scant. One woman told Dombrowski that "free niggers" had been forcibly driven from the Tracy City area some years before, but that there were free blacks who worked at the coke ovens at the time of the rebellion. Another man related that years later when they finally succeeded in forming a union, "We took the niggers into the union and gave them a union of their own." (There is no evidence that free blacks were similarly run out of the Anderson County area.) On the other hand, many comments in the interviews show that among rank-and-file miners and their families there was substantial sympathy for the convicts, black and white. Archie Green quotes "an early observer" as saying, "Whites and Negroes are standing shoulder to shoulder." He also reports that a black man was shot by militia, and several thousand fellow-workers and neighbors attended his funeral. It seems likely that the ambiguity of the evidence reflects a mixed situation and an ambivalence on the part of the miners toward blacks which was similar to their ambivalence towards convicts as a whole. What would be interesting would be more knowledge of what the Knights of Labor and the UMW (both involved in the insurrection) said and did about racism. Also, of course, first hand testimony from blacks themselves would be invaluable. What does seem clear is that in the course of their fight against the convict leasing system, the miners were forced by the logic of the situation to ignore more and more the distinctions between themselves (as law-abiding, predominantly white citizens) and the convicts (as law-breaking, predominantly black criminals). And it was to the extent that they ignored these distinctions, in a massive and popularly-supported way, that they succeeded in winning their demands. 

Chronology of Convict Labor Wars 
First convict miners brought to Tracy City and Sewanee. 

First strike of miners at Coal Creek. 187/ First convicts brought to Coal Creek. 

The Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company (TCI) signed a five year contract for all Tennessee convicts. 

Law guaranteeing miners the right to elect a checkweighman passed in Tennessee. 

TCI signed a second six-year contract. 

United Mind Workers of America founded. 

April, 1891
The Tennessee Coal Mining Company at Briceville fired their men's checkweighman and demanded that they sign an "ironclad" agreement promising never to join a union. When the men refused, the company locked them out. 

July 4, 1891
The company announced it had signed a contract with TCI for convicts to work the Briceville mine. (There had been some convicts at Coal Creek before, but never at Briceville.)

July 14, 1891
First Insurrection. Three hundred armed miners and citizens marched on the Briceville stockade, walked the convicts to Coal Creek, and put them on a train for Knoxville. They sent a telegram to the governor explaining their action and appealing for his help in ridding the state of the convict lease system, not only at Briceville, but in all of East Tennessee. 

July 16, 1891
Governor arrived with the convicts and with state militia to install and protect them. He addressed a mass meeting, urged law and order. 

July 17, 1891
Lots of public support for miners appears, including from the militia units. 

July 20, 1891
Second Insurrection. Miners poured into Anderson County from all over, marched quietly and with discipline to the Briceville stockade. Two thousand armed men lined the surrounding ridges. Sent convicts again to Coal Creek and then Knoxville. Then marched on the Knoxville Iron Company mine at Coal Creek, sent those convicts off too. Not a shot fired. Women gave out sandwiches to miners and soldiers as they marched that night; governor mobilized all fourteen companies of Tennessee militia. 

July 24, 1891
After negotiation, governor says the convicts must return. But he will call special session of legislature to consider taking action on convict lease law.

August, 1891
Legislature met, and rather than repealing the law, reinforced it by increasing the governor's "emergency powers," making it a crime to lead a protest group or to interfere with the work of a convict. Miners and their committee tried various tactics in the courts. Failed.

October 28, 1891
Miners' committee resigned, saying they had done all they could.

October 31, 1891
Third Insurrection. Meetings held in mines at Briceville and Coal Creek in the dark for secrecy. That night 1500 men marched on the stockades, the leader disguised in a 'kerchief. They set the convicts free and burned the stockade at Briceville. At Coal Creek they spared the stockade because the warden's wife was sick, but burned everything else, and released the pri-soners. Citizens helped convicts escape by giving them food and clothes.

November 1, 1891
Men marched for first time to Oliver Springs where convicts were also being worked. They released them and burned the stockade there. Governor offered cash rewards for leaders and participants. For a month or so, things were quiet. Miners met with companies, agreed on terms, and went to work.

January, 1892
Convicts returned to Coal Creek with a company of militia, and a military occupation was established. They built a fort and set up Gatling guns. The Tennessee Coal Mining Company at Briceville refused to take convicts back, despite pressure from TCI. The company at Oliver Springs also tried to refuse, but TCI bought them out and returned the convicts.

Spring, 1892
At Coal Creek, Tracy City and Oliver Springs, work is slack for free miners, but convicts work full time. Briceville had no convicts but discriminated against strikers and men in the Knights of Labor.

July, 1892
Tracy City miners, who had suffered under the convict system the longest, but had not yet rebelled, were cut to half time work.

August, 1892
Fourth Insurrection. A committee at Tracy City got keys to stockade at gun-point and put convicts on train to Nashville. Intercepted a trainload of guards sent to Inman (where TCI also had a mine) and disarmed them. Unrest in Coal Creek at this news. People there already upset by the arrogant and high-handed soldiers. A black man had been shot, and another young man lynched. Unsuccessful attack on stockade at Oliver Springs. Governor ordered more troops; called for volunteers, too, but the response was slow. For Coal Creek's final showdown, miners poured in and put Fort Anderson under siege. Soldiers and prominent citizen-type volunteers had many setbacks in the strange terrain. But finally enough soldiers got through that the miners knew they were beaten. Ten day reign of terror began, with 300 arrested. Militia stayed to occupy town. Men in Briceville forced to sign "iron-clad" agreement.

April, 1893
Fifth Insurrection. At Tracy City, 50-100 men staged unsuccessful attack on stockade. Troops were sent in to hunt for leaders. Eventually most went back to work, but had to sign disclaimer of any involvement in release of convicts.

Despite appearance of miners' defeat, when the TCI contract expired, it was not renewed and convict leasing in Tennessee was abolished by the legislature (twenty years before it was ended in neighboring Alabama). Same legislature buys land and sets up state-run convict mine near Petros, Tennessee, as alternative. 

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