April 8th, 1911
Mine Explosion near Birmingham, Alabama, Kills 128 State Prisoners
By 1910, the State of Alabama had become the sixth largest coal producer in the United States. Between 1875 and 1900, Alabama’s coal production grew from 67,000 tons to 8.4 million tons. This growth was driven in large part by the expansion of convict leasing in the state; in Birmingham, the center of the state’s coal production, more than 25 percent of miners were leased convicts. In addition, more than 50 percent of all miners in the state had learned to mine while working as convicts.
State officials quickly learned how to use the convict leasing system to disproportionately exploit black people. In an average year, 97 percent of Alabama’s county convicts were black. When coal companies’ labor needs increased, local police swept small-town streets for vagrants, gamblers, drunks, and thieves, targeting hundreds of black Alabamians for arrest. These citizens were then tried and convicted, sentenced to sixty- or ninety-days hard labor plus court costs, and handed over to the mines. Employers frequently held and worked convicts well beyond their scheduled release dates since local officials had no incentive to intervene and prisoners lacked the resources and power to demand enforcement.
Conditions in the mines were deplorable. Convicts were often chained together in ankle-deep water, working 12- to 16-hour shifts with no breaks, and surviving on fistfuls of spoiled meat and cornbread stuffed into the rags they wore for uniforms. Describing the experience, a black former convict laborer recalled that the prisoners had slept in their chains, covered with “filth and vermin,” and the powder cans used as slop jars frequently overflowed and ran over into their beds.
Prisoner safety was not a priority for the mines’ owners and operators. In 1911, the Banner Mine near Birmingham exploded, killing 128 convicts leased to the Pratt Consolidated Coal Company. A local newspaper listed the crimes of the victims next to their names: vagrancy, weapons violations, bootlegging, and gambling. A rural newspaper observed, “Several negroes from this section . . . were caught in the Banner mine explosion. That is a pretty tight penalty to pay for selling booze.”