Diamonds in the Rough

Feb 10, 2015

Title: Diamonds in the Rough
Author: James Sanders Day
Publisher: The University of Alabama Press
Pages: 300
Price: $49.95 (Cloth)

The Frontispiece for “Diamonds in the Rough” is a Geological Survey map of the coalfields of Alabama. We are endowed with five: “Plateau” in the north, “Coosa,” east-central, “Warrior” in the west and a scattered lignite belt across the south. Finally, tucked between Warrior and Coosa, 67 miles long, in Bibb, Jefferson, St. Clair and Shelby Counties, with the town of Blocton at its center, is the Cahaba Field, the subject of Day’s study.

James Sanders Day, an historian and administrator at the University of Montevallo, has made a meticulous study of this field—both its industrial and human history.

The first third of the book tells the story of the search for coal, from early development of mines, with primitive efforts beginning well before the Civil War, up to the mid-twentieth century. A number of still-familiar names tried their hand through booms and busts, including entrepreneurs Pratt, Aldrich, Sloss, Tichenor, DeBardeleben and Alabama’s premier mining engineer, Joseph Squire. There were a lot of problems to overcome.

Slave labor was unreliable. Slaves, it seems, lacked zeal, often got sick and sometimes tried to escape. Valuable time was lost chasing them down. Joseph Squire complained of the slaves’ “carelessness” and “lying." Sometimes they let the mules run away. Apparently, they lacked team spirit. The coal had too much dirt in it and was difficult, being heavy, to get to market. During the WAR the Confederate government wanted coal but had poor cash flow.

In this section and later one learns a good deal about mining: seams, shafts, slopes, long wall, short wall; and kinds of coal: nut coal, lump, slack, and run-of-mine.

Subsequent chapters are less technical, more sociological.

The company town, for example was a complicated place. The company provided the store, church, schoolhouse, meeting hall, bowling alley, theatre, soda fountain, dancehall, baseball field, tavern and, finally, the graveyard. In short, everything.

Sharecroppers flocked to the mines; life for them there was much better. By 1925 two-thirds of miners lived in company towns. More diverse than one might think, the towns had good-sized minorities of blacks as well as European, especially Italian, miners. During WWI, however, many European miners went home to fight and after WWI many African-American miners went north to work and escape Jim Crow.

More-enlightened owners provided some health care, even pensions. Worker contentment, “one big happy family," made a stable work force.

This system worked fine unless a miner showed interest in a union, then he was fired and his family was evicted. When strikes did occur the owners were ruthless, calling in scabs, Pinkerton thugs and the Alabama National Guard, armed with machine guns. The gloves came off. Sometimes there were pitched battles.

Another tool to combat unionism was leased convict labor. Prisoners from county jails serving 14 or 28 days but unable to pay the required fines, which might total 50 dollars including “fees charged by the sheriff, the jurors, and the judge,” could find themselves in the mines for up to 8 months, working off their debt at the “standard rate of 30 cents per day.” This system tended to corrupt law enforcement, encouraging arrests for minor infractions, as “Sheriffs, deputies and court officials also often subsidized their meager incomes with their portions of the fees.” Conditions were abominable, called “worse than slavery” because convicts were expendable. No one had a financial interest in their lives or safety. Day quotes Ronald Lewis’ “Black Coal Miners in America” (1987): “80 to 90 percent of all convict miners were black.” The death rate was ten times the rate in Pennsylvania or Ohio. Fifty-one of the sixty-seven Alabama counties leased convicts to the mines. But the state profited mightily. In 1919, for example, convict leases accounted for 19% of the state budget.

Alabama ended convict leasing last of all the states, in 1927.

Day’s research is wide and he gives generous credit to previous histories of the industry and the area, especially Charles Adams’s “Blocton: The History of an Alabama Coal Mining Town.”

Though this book is about coal mining, it also chronicles the shifting population and volatile economy of the once-thriving Cahaba area.

This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”