Monday, January 21, 2013

MLK Day in Helena

Trash Pickup
Don't forget that there will be no trash picked up on Monday in Helena because  of MLK day. It will be picked up with with Tuesday's.

Miss PHS
Congrats to Helena's Own Savanna Windham who won Miss PHS. If you wanted to see more results of the Miss PHS pageant  from Saturday then click of the post: MISS PHS RESULTS

Work Release
Since it is Martin Luther King Day, I thought I should share some of Helena's history that related to the struggle for Civil Rights.  Almost all this story comes from Wikipedia and the Alabama Archives so all of this should be in quotes. I tried to piece everything together with a focus of how this story played out in Helena. If someone is more familiar with this history, I would love to hear from you.

In 1846, the State of Alabama started a program where they leased prisoners to businesses for a price . I saw one article which said it was around 30 cents a day.  Now the 13th amendment which prohibited slavery, allowed involuntary servitude when used “as punishment for crime…”. So criminals who were convicted could be sentenced to hard labor which usually lasted around 90 days but if they were paying off a debt then it could be extended out for longer. At the time, "95 percent of county prisoners and 90 percent of state prisoners were African American".

In the 1870’s the Eureka Mines became the central Alabama’s most important source of coal due to its quality. To make the mining company even more profitable, leading Alabama industrialist, Daniel Pratt, hired JW Comer to operate a separate set of mines in Eureka which would only use convict labor.

The Comer Eureka Mines
In 1877 JW Comer leased 58 convicts which increased 86 in 1880. It didn’t hurt that JW Comer’s brother was the Governor of Alabama, so there was a real financial incentive to keep the convict leasing program.  The conditions were harsh. "Whipping was the accepted norm for punishment. Contractors whipped prisoners for insubordination and trying to escape, but they also used whipping to enforce labor discipline".

“Ezekial Archey, a prisoner leased to Eureka mine, wrote that the convicts lived in a stockade 'filled with filth and vermin and prisoners were shackled hand and foot for the night'. He wrote to the  Roosevelt Administration about JW Comer methods, 'I have seen men come to him with their shirts a solid scab on their backs and he would let the hide grow on and take it off again. I have seen him hit men 100 to 160 times with a ten prong strop and then say thay was not whipped. He would go off after an escaped man come one day with him and dig his grave the same day."


Several States had similar programs. By 1883, about 10 percent of Alabama's total revenue was derived from convict leasing. In 1898, nearly 73 percent of total revenue came from this same source (Wow, that is alot). Death rates among leased convicts were approximately 10 times higher than the death rates of prisoners in non-lease states.

The End in Helena
There was opposition in the Helena community to the convict mines. Some were outraged by the inhumane treatment and others opposed it because it took the jobs away from people struggle to make a living wage. When convict labor began to be added to paid labor, a riot, and then a strike occurred.  Miners involved testified about the events in Helena in 1883 before the US Senate Committee on Labor Relations. The growing opposition eventually ended the practice of involuntary labor in Helena. Sadly between 1878 and 1880, twenty-five bonded convicts died in the Comer-backed Eureka mines.

Though it ended in Helena, the practice Convict Leasing continued in Alabama until 1928...

1 comment:

Roger D. Arnold said...

Thanks for this informative post. I was wondering if you could share the original source for these photographs? Are they from an archive somewhere?