"It is a very rare thing that a negro escapes."
Warren Reese refused to believe the white South was irredeemably lost. He insisted, despite the mushrooming resistance to his work, that justice still could be served in Alabama.
Judge Jones remained embarrassed and distressed at the mistrial in the case of Fletcher Turner. He had been convinced that twelve white men in Montgomery could put aside racial animosity long enough to see the obvious guilt of a man such as Turner—even if the jurors did so only to preserve the honor of their home state. At the conclusion of the brief trial of Robert Franklin during the week after Turner's guilty plea, Jones once again signaled to the jury the defendant's guilt as he assailed Alabama's system of lower courts. "The counsel of defendant spoke of the negro as a ‘so-called citizen,’ " Jones told the court incredulously. "A man is a citizen whether he can vote or not, and nobody loves a Government that would not protect him." He decried Alabama's provincial sheriffs and judges who "have reestablished slavery for debt in this state."1
Much to the relief of Jones and Reese, the jury agreed. Franklin was convicted of a single count of peonage. Finally, a southern jury had been willing to honestly adjudge the actions of a white man, finding obvious involuntary servitude to be what it truly was: slavery.
Reese was privately adamant that his office would soon bring another volley of slavery charges from elsewhere in the state. But Jones was ready to declare victory. The enormous public pressure in Montgomery to end the probe was wearing on him. Jones declared publicly that the "peonage ring was nearly all broken up." Alabama had been taught its lesson, Judge Jones hoped, and further consternation was unnecessary. Franklin, the constable who had so brazenly seized John Davis, was ordered to pay $1,000. Word spread quickly among the attorneys representing other defendants that the court would deal just as leniently with those awaiting trial.
Within a few days, John Pace's son-in-law, Anderson Hardy, and guard James H. Todd pleaded guilty to five counts of peonage. Judge Jones fined each man $1,000. They were taken back to the Dadeville city jail, to remain there until the penalty was paid.2 But both men ignored the fines and were soon set free. Before the summer term of court was over, another half dozen men pleaded guilty and received from Jones symbolic fines. When court reconvened in the fall of 1903, the rest of the defendants did the same. Every major figure admitted guilt. That was enough for Jones.
Anxious to show that Tallapoosa County was no longer a center of antebellum criminality and repair its reputation, a local grand jury was impaneled in Dadeville to examine questions of slavery and peonage in early August. Two weeks later, in a final report, the panel of local men concluded that John Pace had been responsible for virtually all of the peonage in the area. It remonstrated Pace for having "kept East Wilson, a negro woman who is serving a twelve months sentence for larceny at his farm, out of the way, so that the Sheriff could not serve on her a subpoena to appear before this Grand Jury….
"We suspect that he has kept other witnesses out of the way so that they could not be served," the report continued. "It is our opinion, that John W Pace and his convict farm are more responsible, by far, than all others in our county for the abuse of ignorant and helpless people, which is the crime known as peonage in the Federal Court. This evil is practiced by very few in our County, to the detriment of all, should be discontinued in our County forever."3
Meanwhile, local residents were rallying around the Cosby family. George and Burancas had begun their sentences in the Atlanta federal prison. A growing number of whites complained that it was unfair for the two men to be imprisoned when every other participant in the slaving scheme received symbolic punishment. More than three thousand names were affixed to a petition seeking a pardon from President Roosevelt. Soon, even Judge Jones supported the Cosby plea for clemency,4 5 directly urging the president to free the two men. On September 16, 1903, he did so. Almost as if the testimony of kidnappings, murders, whippings, and enslavement had never been heard, the Cosbys returned to their Red Ridge Road farm.
John Pace, the leader of the slavery ring, quietly restarted his trade in black labor. As 1903 closed, the Alabama Board of Inspectors of Convicts— the state entity charged with overseeing the state's penal systems—was chagrined to discover that the county commissioners of Tallapoosa County had renewed Pace's contract to lease all county convicts.
As much as Judge Jones—and the more brazen apologists for slavery across the South—had hoped the Alabama cases represented the end of the affair, difficult realities continued to intrude. The fall of 1903 brought new indictments in Louisiana for holding slaves, but residents were so outraged that the marshal investigating the cases had to flee the state for his safety. Newspapers across the North published accounts of additional involuntary servitude in Louisiana, Texas, Tennessee, and Mississippi.6
The U.S. attorney in Mobile, Alabama, who had initiated his own inquiries into slavery in the southern part of the state, reported "credible reports" of peonage across his territory and in multiple counties. But investigating the allegations and questioning terrified witnesses was proving difficult. "Many of them are unwilling to communicate anything …unless assured that it would be confidential," wrote M. D. Wickersham to his superiors at the Department of Justice. "Persons manifested such terror when requested to disclose what they knew that it is doubtful if they can be persuaded to give any valuable testimony either in the grand jury room or before the court."7
As in so many other places, the federal marshals in the field discovered that the official systems of leasing black convicts to private companies and individuals had become indistinguishable from the casual slavery flourishing on private farms. If the former was legal, few southerners—white or black—understood why the latter would not be. "So many illiterate persons have confounded the harsh, and at many times cruel, execution of the convict laws of the state with the practice of peonage that it has been very difficult to make them understand the line that distinguishes the one from the other, " Wickersham wrote.
In late November, a grand jury in Macon began hearing testimony that Georgia state representative Edward McRee, his brothers Frank and William, two former sheriffs, and other members of some of the most powerful families in south Georgia were operating a vast slave-driven enterprise at their 22,000-acre Kinderlou plantation near the Florida state line.
The McRee brothers’ farm was a plantation and industrial center that dwarfed that of John Pace—operating on a scale no antebellum slave owner could have comprehended. Edward McRee became a powerful elected official serving in the state legislature. By 1900, the four siblings who inherited the enterprise from their empire-building father, a noted Confederate officer named George McRee, each lived in a lavish mansion within a square mile of the center of the plantation. Between them a bustling village— called Kinderlou in honor of the Aunt Lou who raised the four brothers from childhood after the death of their mother—thrived with farm laborers, tradesmen, and several small stores. Consuming the bulk of an entire county, the farm—basking in the subtropical warmth of the Gulf Coast— included thousands of acres of lushly fertile sandy loam under till at any given time. On a private spur of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad thrust into the center of the plantation, dozens of boxcars waited at all times for the hundreds of thousands of bushels of tomatoes, watermelons, cantaloupes, corn, tobacco, and cotton. The McRees owned their own cotton gins, compresses to make bales, and warehouses to store enormous quantities of lint. A five-horsepower steam engine ground the plantation's sugarcane to make syrup. Five eighty-foot-long barns were built to cure tobacco. Cuban workers were imported to work the plantation's cigar factory.
Thousands more acres of dense pine and hardwood fed a ceaselessly turning sawmill, planing mill, and dry kiln. A factory on the plantation produced thousands of pallets, wooden crates, and baskets for shipping agricultural produce. Deep in the forests, McRee turpentine camps collected rosin for their naval stores distillery. Three to four trains stopped daily, beginning with one at 3:30 A.M. to pick up dozens of three-foot-high barrels of milk produced in the Kinderlou dairy8
The backbone of the plantation was small armies of farmhands and hundreds of mules, who were awakened by the first bell at 4 A.M. each day and remained in the fields or factories until dark. From "can't see to can't see," as the laborers called it.
Initially, the McRees hired only free black labor, but beginning in the 1890s, they routinely leased a hundred or more convicts from the state of Georgia to perform the grueling work of clearing lands, removing stumps, ditching fields, and constructing roads. Other prisoners hoed, plowed, and weeded the crops. Over fifteen years, thousands of men and women were forced to the plantation and held in stockades under the watch of armed guards. After the turn of the century, the brothers began to arrange for more forced laborers through the sheriffs of nearby counties—fueling what eventually grew into a sprawling traffic in humans across the southwestern section of Georgia.
"So I was carried back to the Captain's," said a black laborer in 1904, telling of his imprisonment on what was almost certainly the McRee plantation. "That night he made me strip off my clothing down to my waist, had me tied to a tree in his backyard, ordered his foreman to gave me thirty lashes with a buggy whip across my bare back, and stood by until it was done."
The worker vividly described to a passing journalist how the farm descended from a place of free employment in the late nineteenth century to one of abject slavery by the first years of the twentieth century. The unidentified man was born in the last years before the Civil War, and then hired out at age ten to the father of the McRee brothers, a man he knew simply as "Captain." While a teenager, the black man attempted to leave Kinderlou and work at another plantation. Before sundown on the day of his departure, one of the McRees and "some kind of law officer" tracked him down. The new employer apologized to McRee for hiring the young worker, saying he would never have done so if he had known "this nigger was bound out to you."
Soon afterward, one of the Captain's sons, likely Edward McRee, took over the farm and convinced the free laborers to put their mark on what was ostensibly a contract to work on the plantation for up to ten years, in exchange for pay, a cabin, and some supplies. Then McRee began building a stockade, with a long hallway down the center and rows of crude stalls— each with two bunk beds and mattresses—on each side. "One bright day in April …about forty able-bodied negroes, bound in iron chains, and some of them handcuffed were brought," the laborer recounted. Word came that any African American, whether free or convict, who attempted to leave the farm would be tracked down with hounds and forced back. The contracts they had signed contained the same language that John Pace forced men to accept, allowing the McRees to hold the workers against their will and beat them if they were disobedient. "We had sold ourselves into slavery—and what could we do about it?" the black man asked. "The white folks had all the courts, all the guns, all the hounds, all the railroads, all the telegraph wires, all the newspapers, all the money, and nearly all the land."
When his labor contract finally expired after a decade, the laborer was told he was free to leave Kinderlou, so long as he could pay his accumulated debt at the plantation commissary of $165. Unable to do so, the man was compelled to sign a new contract promising to work on the farm until the debt was paid, but now as a convict. He and several others were moved from their crude cabin into the filthy stockades. The men slept each night in the same clothes they wore in the fields, on rotting mattresses infested with pests. Many were chained to their beds. Food was crude and minimal. Punishment for the disobedient was to be strapped onto a log lying on their backs, while a guard spanked their bare feet with a plank of wood. When the slave was freed, if he could not return to work on his blistered feet, he was strapped to the log again, this time facedown, and lashed with a leather whip. Women prisoners were held across a barrel and whipped on their bare bottoms.9
As the Alabama peonage prosecutions were getting under way in Montgomery, newspapers in Georgia published accusations of extreme cruelty at Kinderlou. Embarrassed by the publicity, state prison officials withdrew their convicts still held on the McRee farm. The assistant U.S. attorney in Macon asked the Department of Justice to send him the detective who had cracked the case against John Pace. Agent Henry Dickey arrived by train and began inquiring how Kinderlou plantation came to hold dozens of African Americans against their will. He soon discovered that the McRees had arrangements with sheriffs and other officers in at least six Georgia counties to seize blacks and sell them into labor—all outside the regular processes of the criminal courts. When the McRees learned a federal investigation was under way, they hastily freed all of the remaining workers being held involuntarily on Kinderlou. At least forty fled immediately10
James Robinson, the fourteen-year-old boy whose sister, Carrie Kinsey had written President Roosevelt begging for his intercession after James was captured and sold, was likely one of those allowed to flee in the summer of 1903. Kinderlou was the farm where Robinson was being held "in chanes" when Kinsey wrote the White House, though officials at the Department of Justice never connected that her plea related to a farm then under investigation by their agents.11
In November 1903, a grand jury handed up a sweeping indictment against Edward McRee and his two brothers. The men were charged with thirteen specific counts of holding African American men and women. Several of those enslaved had never been charged or tried in any fashion. Several public officials were indicted for conspiring to buy and sell blacks arrested on trivial or fabricated charges in nearby Ware County and then turning them over to the McRees.
A day later, Edward McRee and his brothers appeared in a Savannah courtroom. McRee assured Judge Speer that while his family had held many African Americans in the four decades since slavery's abolition, they never intended to enslave anyone or break the law. "Though we are probably technically guilty we did not know it," McRee told the court. "This custom has been [in] existence ever since the war…. We never knew that we were doing anything wrong."
He insisted that no black workers were ever beaten or brutalized—in part because no worker had ever refused to perform their assigned duties. Hounds were never used to track runaways because no one had ever wished to leave, he claimed.12
Whatever had happened at Kinderlou, Judge Speer was of like mind with his counterpart in Montgomery. He was certain that symbolic punishments like the ones he handed down to smaller-scale farmers earlier that summer—designed to demonstrate the illegality of slavery but not inflame the anger of local whites—were the best remedy. The McRees were allowed to plead guilty and accept a token fine of $1,000.
Sheriff Thomas J. McClellan and another man who helped in the capture and sale of African Americans to Kinderlou fought the charges against them, arguing as the Turners had in Alabama that no law specifically made slavery a federal crime. A member of the U.S. Congress submitted a legal brief in support of their arguments. Prominent state officials sat at the defendants’ table during a hearing on the challenge to their charges. Across Georgia, operators of lumber camps—where thousands of other men were being held under similarly dubious circumstances—watched the proceedings closely. After reviewing the arguments, Judge Speer cited the words of U.S. Supreme Court justice Samuel Miller in the Slaughter-House Cases, a landmark decision in 1873 establishing the distinction between federal and state civil rights. "Undoubtedly, while negro slavery alone was in the mind of the Congress which passed the 13th Article, it forbids any other kind of slavery, now or hereafter."13
Speer overruled the defendants’ challenges to the case. But once again, in return for a guilty plea, the judge agreed to impose a symbolic fine of $500. In the end, the only person jailed in connection with nearly a half century of post-Civil War slavery on the McRee plantation was a black man named George P. Hart. For his role in selling a teenage girl to Frank McRee for $25, Hart spent thirty days in jail.14
Back in Alabama, Warren Reese urged the Roosevelt administration to mount an even more vigorous attack on slaveholders. His office reported to Attorney General Knox in November that Julius Sternfeld, the special assistant U.S. attorney assigned to the slavery investigations, was pursuing more than forty cases in Coffee, Geneva, Covington, Barbour, Dale, Pike, Houston, and Crenshaw counties—all in the heavily black plantation areas of southern Alabama. "The conditions in some of these counties are deplorable, negroes are taken out at night time, stripped and whipped in a most fiendish manner until the blood comes from them," Sternfeld wrote to Washington. "Negro farm hands and mill workers have been unmercifully whipped, two negro churches destroyed by fire, the house of one negro being shot into and a negro woman's house was riddled with shot, and while fleeing with her baby in her arms she and the baby were shot."
He vowed to fulfill "the desire of President Roosevelt and the Honorable Attorney General to eradicate peonage and involuntary servitude …and the real emancipation of hundreds of poor, helpless creatures."15
Complaints of slavery streamed continually into the Department of Justice offices in Washington, into the White House, and into federal law enforcement offices across Alabama and the South. Most were allegations made by the rare quietly outraged attorney or local Republican-appointed postmaster who, as representatives of the party of Lincoln, still felt some lingering political obligation to African Americans or still harbored hopes that blacks could again become critical voters for the GOP. The rare firsthand accounts of blacks held in slavery, many of them plaintive pleas furtively scratched out in nearly indecipherable hands, were themselves testaments to the utter isolation and economic desperation of millions of rural blacks.
In November 1903, Rev. L. R. Farmer, pastor of a black Baptist church in Morganton, North Carolina, a verdant small town in the rolling foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, was on the verge of despair. Farmer sent a dolorous letter to the Department of Justice. His daughter had been stolen by white men and was being held in slavery on a farm in Georgia.
"i have a little girl that has been kidnapped from me …and i cant get her out," Farmer wrote. "i want ask you is it law for people to whip (col) people and keep them and not allow them to leave without a pass."16
Farmer had exhausted every remedy available to a black man trapped in the isolation of the turn-of-the-century American South. He had contacted local authorities about his daughter's abduction, even going so far as to attempt to serve on her captors a writ of habeas corpus. All his efforts were ignored.
"The people in Ga wont do any thing with him and if the negroes tell any thing they will beat them to death and they are afraid to testifie against" the man holding his daughter and many others, Farmer wrote. If any African Americans did talk of what was happening, whites would "cary them write back and beat them to death," he wrote. "some of them has beened killed trying to get away from their and i got a little girl there," Farmer implored. A postscript on the back of his letter was a telling indication of the desperation and shattered confidence he shared with millions of blacks. Farmer pleaded for a swift answer from the government. He enclosed a stamp for the return answer.
On November 20, after the letter's arrival at the new headquarters of the Department of Justice, an aide to the attorney general assigned a file number to Farmer's letter, 3098-1902. The following day, a terse, typewritten response was mailed on behalf of the attorney general. It concisely acknowledged receipt of the letter and then issued a directive to Rev. Farmer:
If you wish this Department to take any action to have your daughter released, and the guilty parties prosecuted, you should furnish me with the names of the parties holding your daughter in bondage, the particular place, and the names of witnesses by whom the facts can be proved.
No reply from Farmer to the attorney general was filed. No further action was recorded by the Department of Justice.17
The tone of communications between officials in Washington and federal prosecutors around the South was beginning to drift. Investigators and U.S. attorneys such as Reese believed that as they uncovered more and more instances of ongoing slavery and reported these horrors back to Washington, top federal officials would grow proportionally more alarmed— allocating more urgency and resources to defeat them. In fact, President Roosevelt and his administration were growing weary of what increasingly appeared to be a moral crusade without a clearly attainable resolution—a quagmire of unintended consequences. At first imperceptibly, then more clearly, as the allegations of slavery grew more voluminous, caution and inertia overtook the White House in equal proportions.
The violence of the white South grew yet more indignant. In December 1903, as federal agents prowled adjoining areas of the Alabama countryside, a backwater town in Wilcox County, called Pine Apple, was the scene of a singularly remarkable episode of racial carnage.
Deep in Alabama's Black Belt region, Pine Apple embodied the new paradigm of the rural, post-Reconstruction cotton economy.
Situated on a critical railroad connecting to Selma and the key Gulf Coast port of Pensacola, Florida, Pine Apple boasted a handsome collection of genteel homes and an impressive array of enterprises centered on the train station and its wide-planked loading docks. An imposing bank building was the center of commerce for the area's landed white gentry, whose children attended a distinguished private school called Moore Academy. Its founder and first principal in the 1880s, John Trotwood Moore, went on to modest literary renown in the South. Scattered around the bank stood a red livery stable, a few dry goods stores with wide windows facing the muddy streets, hitching rails tied with mules, and a water trough served by a pump. Outside the stores, an assortment of horse- and mule-drawn gigs, wagons, and canvas-topped buggies stood at the wait. Near the station, warehouses, a cotton gin, and a compress were surrounded by bales upon bales of the just completed harvest. Smoke belched from the gin as the teeth of its machinery threshed through the last cotton of the season, separating fiber and seed. In the compress, thousands of wagons of white lint were pressed into bales for shipment. Between the big houses and the town's center, wood-frame cottages were wedged onto newly delineated lots. Along the pitted roads fanning out into the denuded countryside, small clusters of log cabins, rough hewn from nearby forest and chinked with sticky red clay, housed black families bound to the land owned by whites.
Dozens of plantations radiated across the flat landscape from the Louisville & Nashville Railway line cutting due south on a perpendicular through Pine Apple and across the Black Belt. More than 35,000 people— the great majority of them black farm laborers at work on land owned by whites—lived here. Unprecedented numbers of white families made wealthy by the turn-of-the-century cotton boom had emerged as a new class of manor-born aristocrats—consolidating land, intermarrying, and vying for prestige in the resurgent southern planter elite. Their towns were strung along the railroad lines through plantation country like antique pearls of white-columned antebellum nostalgia. The harvest season had been a euphoric one, the most bountiful in five years, exceeding 11 million bales of cotton in the South.18 Across Pine Apple wisps of white fiber—the detritus of the massive harvest—clung to tree branches, windowsills, and clumps of grass.
No family in Pine Apple was more prominent among the nouveaux riches than the Meltons. As the end of 1903 approached, the family anxiously prepared for a crowning wedding—the union of the most glamorous young couple in the adjoining counties and of two great new families. Lovely Leila Melton, the twenty-two-year-old daughter of William and Clara Melton, was set to marry Claud Swink, a year her senior and a promising young planter in Dallas County. The Melton clan had long been governed by three brothers—William, Evander, and John—whose expansive families controlled thousands of acres of property near Pine Apple. Swink was the only child of a similarly successful cotton barony, large and prosperous enough that the settlement at the crossroads nearest the family plantation had come to be known as Swinkville.
The union of the two young people was momentous as well as a distraction for family members still grieving the death of the family patriarch, Leila's father, William Melton. More than four years after he succumbed on July 4, 1900, the legacy of the fifty-four-year-old plantation master still loomed over Pine Apple, his brothers, Clara, and his eleven grown children. Even in death, he would be present for Leila's wedding, gazing out from an alabaster monument on a pedestal above his grave on the hilltop across the road from the church.
Melton intended to be remembered in precise detail. His statuary captured in crisp relief the distinct planter's regalia: a neat fedora on his brow and a long overcoat reaching past his knees, a trim bow tie above the vest, a heavy watch chain across a protruding midriff, an intricately decorated walking stick in his right hand, a bulging Masonic ring on his left—totemic emblems of the wealth and power he had extended over the family's cotton empire.
Leila's wedding also was similarly designed as an expression of the family's extraordinary position in southern life. The ceremony could not have been more removed from the spare affair in which the ex-slaves of the Cot-tingham plantation set Henry and Mary on their way a generation earlier. As the December 29 date approached, the sanctuary of Pine Apple's Friendship Baptist Church was decorated in an opulent display of wealth. Arches of smilax and pink and white chrysanthemums were erected before the altar. Above the center arch, a stuffed dove held loops of white tulle. Along the aisle, pillars held a candle for each year of the bride's age.
Leila's mother busily completed the stitching and embroidery on a stunning gown of white peau de cygne silk and duchess lace ordered from France. The bride's second-eldest brother, Henry, was to give her away in an elaborate ceremony of eighteen attendants, including male and female cousins, two nieces as flower girls, nephews as ring bearers, and Leila's brother nearest in age, Tom, as the best man. Unbeknownst to her daughter —or the groom-to-be—Clara Melton planned to give the couple an extraordinary gift: $1,250 in gold with which to begin their life together.19
The lavish plans belied the cold brutality on which the wealth of the Melton clan rested. However burnished was the Meltons’ new patina of sophistication, the family was infamous in the area for brutal subjection of black workers and intimidation of neighbors, whether white or black. The three Melton brothers for years had relied on the local constable to help violently coerce blacks to work on their farms. Another white farmer, J. R. Adams, incensed at the Meltons’ contumacious terrorization of local African Americans, including his own workers, wrote the attorney general to urge that the family be investigated for involuntary servitude.20
"In all probability there is no other section of state in which the crime of peonage is so common as here," Adams wrote. "The Meltons and their connections are the worst offenders. They have held negroes in peonage for years. It is a very rare thing that a negro escapes from there…It is next to impossible for a negro who has ‘contracted’ with one of this gang to ever get away."
Adams said two years earlier one of Melton's men killed a black worker who attempted to escape from the farm. "A poor little negro girl who is kept at [the constable's] house occasionally runs away and begs other negroes to let her stay with them to keep [him] from beating her," Adams continued. "The negroes are so intimidated that they refuse to shelter her…. It is very hard to get evidence out of the negroes, for this gang keeps it impressed upon them that they will be killed if they give evidence."21 The local U.S. magistrate near Pine Apple agreed, writing the U.S. attorney that among the fearful black population near the town, there was virtually no possibility of convincing witnesses to testify22
Late in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, just four days before the wedding ceremony, Evander Melton, the bride's seventeen-year-old cousin and a likely groomsman in the wedding, appeared in an alleyway near the Pine Apple train station. Evander, the second son of John and namesake of his imposing uncle, was a fat and pugnacious boy known in town simply as "Pig." The group of young black men throwing craps in the alleyway must have known nothing good could come when Pig Melton, drunk and belligerent, pushed his way into the game.
They had few options. Meltons did as they wished among black people. Besides, the young blacks were caught up in the jovial ebullience of the Christmas season—which for southern African Americans represented far more than a religious holiday. Christmas marked the end of the long and difficult cotton harvest—a straining process that in some years extended from September all the way to yuletide—and the only payday of the year for most southern blacks. After the final cotton was in, tenants and sharecroppers—all those blacks who had some illusion of independence—came to the white planter on whose land they lived and asked for "settlement." Apparently, landowners tallied the cost of seed, supplies, rent, and every other purchase taken on interest from their plantation stores since the previous Christmas, subtracted the total from the value of each family's share of the cotton they grew, and then paid out the difference in cash.
The reality was endemic fraud. Landowners, acutely aware that any worker fully clear of his debts might then attempt to relocate to a friendlier or more generous white property holder, routinely exaggerated costs and interest so that virtually no sharecroppers could ever fully extinguish their obligations. Instead, African Americans typically left the transaction with a small cash "bonus" or loan to use for a few weeks of merriment before work for the new cotton season would begin again.
The young black men in Pine Apple were quickly burning through their Christmas windfall—consuming liquor and trading what little cash they retained with the dice bouncing across the chilly soil.
Soon, the dice turned against the Melton teenager. He grew angry and loud. His losses mounting, a quarrel ensued. Unexpectedly, a pistol shot crackled in the crowd, from an unknown gun. More shots may have been fired in response. Whatever the case, Melton fell to the ground, bleeding profusely. In the pandemonium that followed, the black gamblers fled the scene—rushing to reach the sanctuary of cabins deep in the forests or scrambling madly to escape the county before nightfall. Arthur Stuart—a thirty-one-year-old black farmworker whose wife, two-year-old son, and infant daughter waited for him on rented land at the edge of town—wasn't fast enough.
No one knew who fired the shot that hit young Melton—who was taken to his family's house for a doctor to attend the wound. But Stuart was black and nearby. He was instantly identified as an accomplice. That he was still in the town at all when the sheriff came was the strongest evidence of his innocence. Any black man aware that he was within miles of a shooting of a Melton would have fled for his life.
There was little doubt what would happen next. Word spread on Christmas Eve that Pig Melton was recuperating at home and would survive his injury. Yet the Meltons vowed a lesson was still to be taught. Late on Christmas night, after the day's church services in praise of the birth of Jesus, family dinners, and singing of carols had been finished, a small group of white men led by fifty-one-year-old Evander M. Melton assembled at the center of Pine Apple. At 4 A.M., the mob easily broke into the jail—the constable was assisting them—and beat Stuart senseless in his cell. In short order, the men doused his body with kerosene and set it afire.
Hoots and cheers arose from the unpaved street outside as the lynchers rushed out the doors of the jail. But soon more than Stuart was burning. Flames quickly filled the first floor of the building. Orange and red swells pushed through the windows and flashed up the sides of the jail. Then briefly the scene was silent except for the loud roar of fire and the groans of the building as its skeleton collapsed into an embering heap.
The murder of Arthur Stuart and even the destruction of the jail would have been an almost routine affair except for what followed. A sudden gust of wind whipped through the town. A shower of burning embers—thousands of missiles of fire—poured into the sky and then scattered across Pine Apple. The wispy blanket of cotton dusting the town ignited unpredictably. A burst of flames appeared on the porch roof of the farm feed store adjacent to the jail. The roof of cedar shake shingles was a mass of fire within minutes. Whipped by the gusting winds, the flames leapt next to a wagon repair shop, the inferno now rippling across the sky like a zephyr turned red and gold. It blew onto the town bank, the post office, and then beyond to houses and eight stores clustered at the center of town. Most devastating, the flames reached the great mounds of cotton bales stored in and around the warehouses of the gin and compress—turning the cubes of burlap-wrapped white cotton into roaring blocks of fire. Within minutes of Stuart's last cries in his cell, the entire commercial district of Pine Apple was a mass of raging heat and blaze.23 Where just hours before the sounds of "Joy to the World" sung from the square-note hymnals of the Baptist church had wafted down the muddy streets, now only the crackling of coals and flames and the glow of an ashen town penetrated the night.
Blacks in Pine Apple—and across the country—couldn't help but savor the apocalyptic consequences of the white mob's rampage. After three hundred years of Christian teaching that it was some curse or providential intent that placed Africans in slavery and the purgatory that followed it, the fire could only be seen as the Almighty's sign that it was the white man earning his vengeance now. The flames were "reinforced by God's disapprobation," one black preacher said. Booker T. Washington wrote to a northern ally: "The white people are now in quite a state of indignation…. One wonders if the same indignation would have been shown if the property of the white people had not been burned."24
Whatever anger surged from other whites whose homes and businesses had been destroyed, the Meltons still had a wedding to complete. Four days after the conflagration, the Baptist church, far enough from town to be spared from the fire, was filled for Leila's nuptials.
The Meltons were never prosecuted, either for the murder of Arthur Stuart or for the enslavement of so many black workers who created their wealth. No peonage cases were ever brought in the area. Adams, the white informant, was so fearful for his life that he burned all letters from the U.S. attorney investigating the incident. The perpetrators of the lynching escaped punishment. Local African Americans did take bitter solace in a final turn that seemed to affirm God's contempt for what the white family had done: three weeks after the wedding, on January 26, young Pig Melton, fevered from an infection of his wound, died. He was interred a few steps from his Uncle William's precipice—near, but just outside, his imposing elder's stony line of sight.
Every day that passed after the immolation of Arthur Stuart without response by the federal government was further ratification that the African Americans of the South had been returned to the white men who sought to control them. Almost exactly a year later, as if a demonstration that no one should interpret the catastrophe as evidence of any change in the state of black-white relations in the town, two more black men from Pine Apple, brothers Edward and William Plowly, were accused of murdering a white man and then hanged by a mob.
Indeed, where federal investigators initially stirred near panic among slaveholding farmers when they first arrived in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, the impotence of the investigations was becoming richly obvious. Even when men were brought to trial for the most egregious offenses, they hardly risked conviction. Even if found guilty, they were in no real jeopardy of meaningful penalties. Just as the federal Freedmen's Bureau agents sent into remote southern towns had learned immediately after the Civil War, the new representatives of northern justice brought more risk upon themselves than to any person still holding slaves.
Indeed it was open season on Secret Service investigators. A government auditor sent to check the books of Reese's office in February 1904 found that two deputy marshals employed in the investigation had been hiding out at their homes in rural Alabama when they were supposed to have been pursuing slavery cases in the most hostile areas of the state, Lowndes and Dallas counties—the Swink family home territory. "The reason for this was that the persons living in said counties had sent word to the District Attorney and his assistants to the effect that, if they had regard for their personal safety, they would not attempt to prosecute the peonage people in said counties," wrote the examiner.25
Reese insisted the inquiries must proceed. He wrote to Washington a month later urgently asking for additional help from Secret Service agents to protect witnesses who testified against five whites in Pike County. The holders of slaves fought back violently, he said, burning the sawmill of one white landowner willing to speak against the defendants, setting black churches afire, and intimidating large numbers of African American workers who were fleeing the area. "The lumber mills were shut down and the farming interests paralyzed," Reese wrote.26 Department of Justice officials waited nearly two weeks to reply, and then indicated that no agents were available at the time.
Reese continued to draw indictments from grand juries in the Black Belt, but often with little result. Charges against one Alex D. Stephens in early 1904 alleged that Stephens sold a black worker named William Brown to a white man in Coffee County named Samuel W Tyson in July 1902.27Attorneys in the state by now knew the drill for responding to such actions. Tyson pleaded guilty and was then pardoned. Charges against Stephens and two others involved in related seizures and sales of black slaves were dismissed.
Even as the federal investigations seemed to weaken from the interior, external opposition to the campaign against slavery mounted. A mass meeting of sawmill and turpentine camp owners in Tifton, Georgia, convened in April 1904 to plot strategy and collect funds for a legal defense of the involuntary servitude used by virtually every member of the group. "Every turpentine operator and saw mill man, as well as every one employing labor in this section, feels that they are affected," wrote a newspaperman who attended the meeting.28
Nearly a year had passed since John Pace—the primary target of Reese's initial investigation—pleaded guilty to holding debt slaves. His sentence of fifty-five years—with five to serve—remained suspended. There had been no activity in his appeal of the constitutionality of the statute under which he pleaded guilty, and Pace had made no effort to obtain a presidential pardon for his crimes like the one the Cosbys had obtained. He remained free on a $5,000 bond signed by his partner in the slaving enterprise, Fletcher Turner, and his banker, William Gray29
By now, even Reese had begun to doubt whether the laws on the U.S. books were actually sufficient to prohibit the holding of slaves. In legal filings, Pace's lawyers freely conceded that the farmer admitted "unlawfully and knowingly holding a person forcibly and against his will and requiring such person to labor." But this did not technically fit the definition of peonage, they argued, saying the arcane statute could only be prosecuted in locations where a formal system of peonage had once existed—as in New Mexico.
Reese believed they might be legally correct. "I very much fear," he wrote to Washington, that Pace's conviction would be overturned on that argument.30 Since there was no other U.S. law making it a crime to hold slaves, Pace would forever go free.
Attorney General Knox resigned in June 1904 to accept an appointment to the U.S. Senate. His successor, William Moody, a former congressman from Massachusetts and then secretary of the navy, pressed for the existing cases of involuntary servitude violations to be fully pursued. But it was obvious that Reese's enthusiasm for a sweeping assault on new slavery did not arouse him.
In December of 1904, Attorney General Moody made one last major federal gesture in the campaign against peonage, personally arguing to the U.S. Supreme Court that the conviction of Samuel M. Clyatt for having two black men seized and enslaved more than three years earlier should be upheld. Clyatt's slow-moving appeal—using the same argument as Pace and his fellow defendants that the anti-peonage statute couldn't be applied, had finally reached the highest court in the land. Three months later, the court surprised Reese and other government lawyers across the country. Clyatt won a new trial on minute technical grounds. But the court upheld the validity of the anti-peonage statute.31
The practical import of the ruling was to sustain the fundamental illegality of involuntary servitude and of the federal judicial system's one limited weapon for attacking it. But at the same time, the opinion by Justice David Brewer also affirmed that the South's growing practice of using hyper-technical interpretations of U.S. law to thwart the rights of black men on a wide range of issues—from segregated schools and housing to voter registration and government aid for the poor—would be abided by the federal courts.
Days later, in Savannah, Georgia, Judge Speer, emboldened by the section of the Supreme Court ruling declaring peonage abhorrent, ordered from his bench that Georgia's vast system of charging African Americans in the lower courts of towns and sentencing them to hard-labor chain gangs was illegal. Speer ordered the freedom of Henry Jamison, a black man arrested on a charge of drunk and disorderly conduct and then sentenced to spend 210 days chained into a work crew repairing roads in Macon. The judge found that local courts had no power to order such penalties for petty and largely undefined crimes such as vagrancy, drunkenness, or throwing trash in the street. "Enforced labor on a local chain-gang, imposed for an offense not amounting to crime, is involuntary servitude and peonage, in the light of the decision of the United States Supreme Court, no matter what the state law or the municipal ordinances on the subject may be," Speer wrote. "Let but this crime continue, we will all be slaves. We will be slaves to our prejudices, slaves in that like slaves we tolerate the violation of the constitution and the law which we are sworn to support; slaves because we slavishly fail or refuse to perform a lofty civic duty"32
Speer's ruling rippled across the southern landscape. Here was a legal rationale far more sweeping than anything previously articulated by any jurist involved in the involuntary servitude cases. Under the logic of Judge Speer, thousands—perhaps tens of thousands—of African Americans being held against their will to work off fines levied for trivial, alleged misdemeanors should be freed.
Back in Montgomery, Reese recognized the import of the decision instantly. Just a few weeks earlier, he had convinced another grand jury to hand up sixteen additional indictments on peonage charges against men in another section of Alabama. But Reese could see the ineffectual nature of the scattershot prosecutions. There were clearly thousands of African Americans being coerced into labor, and contrary to Judge Jones's original hopes, convictions in a few high-profile cases weren't causing other whites to abandon the practice. Reese knew a broader and more sustained attack was the only hope. In Speer's ruling, Reese saw a basis for challenging the root of the South's forced labor blight—the system of selling convicts followed by the state of Alabama, nearly all of its counties, and at least a half dozen other southern states.
Then came an astounding revelation, a discovery that must have been the most dispiriting setback yet in the two years since Reese made his vow to root out slavery for President Roosevelt. The U.S. attorney learned that John Pace, his original nemesis in Tallapoosa County, continued to hold African Americans in involuntary servitude. "There are two boys ages fifteen and sixteen respectively who are now illegally restrained of their liberty on the farm," Reese wrote to his superiors. The teenagers were almost certainly Luke and Henry Tinsley one of the pairs of brothers James M. Kennedy had enumerated on the Pace farm during the census five years earlier.
Like many other blacks overlooked by investigators and grand jurors during the probe of Pace's operation, the Tinsleys were never discovered during the federal inquiry. Now Reese learned the children had been illegally held by Pace since 1897—eight years earlier—and were still working off a court bond paid on behalf of their mother. Reese doubted whether he could bring a peonage charge based on the sketchy facts surrounding the pair. He knew without doubt it would be useless to seek charges against Pace in a local court. Based on Judge Speer's ruling, the vehicle for freeing the boys would be to seek a writ of habeas corpus—forcing Pace to demonstrate his authority to hold the two boys against their will. The maneuver wouldn't stop with Pace, Reese believed. "There are, in my judgment, hundreds of negroes that can be freed this way, if I be given this authority," he wrote to his superiors.
Attorney General Moody was unmoved. Undoubtedly, the administration was not going to authorize Reese to begin challenging hundreds or thousands of whites about the status of their black workers. "If you have good reason to believe that Pace is holding minors to involuntary servitude, without the consent of the parents …you should have warrant issued," came the reply. "The habeas corpus proceedings should not be instituted."33A few days later, Pace, having heard that Reese was preparing another prosecution, released the two boys to their mother.34
But Tallapoosa County was quickly reverting to its former ways. A woman who signed her name only as Susanna wrote Judge Jones in mid-1905, describing another slaving operation already under way a few miles from Pace's farm on the Tallapoosa River. "I whish to enform you that theare is one J. D. Hugens and son holden Negroes here in peonage at thear terpen tine Still 10 miles South of Dadeville…. Please send your detective heare at once."35 No one was sent.
Reese was convinced that his prosecutions had proved the perverse nexus of debt slavery and the organized convict leasing system that flourished around him. He made one last thrust to destroy it. Writing to Attorney General Moody in March 1905, Reese pleaded again for permission to file habeas corpus petitions on behalf of thousands of Alabama convicts then forced to work in mines owned by Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co., other companies, and on private farms like John Pace's.
"I am perfectly willing for one to shoulder this responsibility and commence these proceedings …though in doing this I appreciate fully what this means," Reese wrote. "I am willing to jeopardize …my relationship with all the nine congressmen and the two Senators from this District, the local Bar, the Bench and the people of the city of Montgomery, where I was born and raised," the attorney continued.
"I desire to know … in case I commence this crusade, so to speak, that I will have not only your support, but in time to come if these very men who have always supported me politically should turn upon me, because I have instituted these prosecutions and done my duty, that you will protect me from such attacks."36
Reese knew that white leaders across Alabama were conspiring to have him replaced when his term as U.S. attorney expired at the end of 1905. He wrote Booker T. Washington a few weeks earlier asking the black leader to send a discreet letter to President Roosevelt endorsing Reese's work.37
Attorney General Moody would have none of it. He ordered that the young district attorney take no action until the Supreme Court ruled on an appeal of Judge Speer's decision striking down Georgia's misdemeanor convict system.38
As Reese was pressing to use the federal courts to free the thousands of slaves held in Alabama mines—and set a precedent that might have freed ten thousand or more in other states—the writer Thomas Dixon released in 1905 the follow-up to his spectacular novel The Leopard's Spots.The new book, an even more overt paean to the Ku Klux Klan violence that swept away black political participation in the 1860s and 1870s, was titled The Clansman. It sold in vast quantities in 1905 at the price of $1.50 and became perhaps the first true blockbuster in modern U.S. publishing. Its success— commercially and as revisionist history—was so complete that, in an irony of immeasurable proportion, newspaper announcements for the volume featured a letter from Abraham Lincoln's son Robert praising it as "a work that cannot be laid down."39
The author quickly fashioned the storylines of his two racist novels into a stage play to tour the United States. The production featured a cast of exquisitely attractive young white actresses, white actors in blackface playing lecherous emancipated slaves hungry to assault white women and cowering and buffoonish black elected officials, gallant former Confederate officers, and a fully outfitted contingent of white-robed Klansmen who rode across the stage mounted on horseback. The show opened in Norfolk, Virginia, in August 1905 at the Academy of Music, and an epic, record-breaking run of performances followed in theater halls across the South, Midwest, and Northeast.
It played to packed crowds everywhere, drawing in a period of ten months "more people …than any other attraction … in the theatrical history of United States theater," wrote one newspaper critic.40 Not surprisingly, a new generation of southern white leaders absorbed its account of Reconstruction and the fury of its white actors as absolute fact. Audiences roared approval almost everywhere else too—including standing-room-only audiences in New York City. In Atlanta, the city's most prominent debutantes held "box" parties for their friends in the expensive reserved seats of the Grand Opera House when the play arrived in the city. Mrs. Dixon, the author's wife, was feted by the finest ladies of Atlanta.41
After the first performance on a chilly late October night, Dixon addressed an adoring crowd—revealing from the stage that his father had been a Ku Klux Klan member when the night riders waged a campaign of violence on black political leaders during Reconstruction. Georgia governor Joseph M. Terrell watched approvingly from a special box. Later that night, Dixon was honored at a lush private dinner at the Aragon Hotel hosted by the Kappa Alpha Order, a fraternal order founded at the University of Virginia in tribute to the life of Robert E. Lee. Raising their glasses in a series of toasts to the guest of honor and his long membership in the fraternity were many of the most prestigious white men of the city—the leadership elite who would govern and sculpt the South's leading city for the next fifty years—including Hugh Dorsey a young attorney who a decade later inflated evidence to prosecute Jewish businessman Leo Frank for the rape and killing of a young woman that he did not commit.42 After his conviction, Frank was murdered in an infamous lynching by an anti-Semitic mob, led by the city's leading political and business leaders. Elevated by his role in the Frank case, Dorsey went on to become governor of Georgia.
Scattered voices of concern were raised against the brazenly inflammatory racial rhetoric of the production, and in some cities gangs of white men—adrenaline raised by the play's stirring call to defend their delicate women from the lusts of black brutes—subsequently attacked random African Americans in their cities. A committee of northern activists attempted to encourage protests when the production arrived in new cities with specially printed postcards showing a scene from the play and urging a boycott.43Most notably, Dixon's own brother, the Reverend A. C. Dixon, called the stage play "rotten and slimy"44 Here and there moderate leaders complained that the production painted an exaggerated portrait of black and white antagonisms. The pastor of the Baptist Tabernacle in Atlanta decried the performance as a "disgrace to southern manhood and womanhood" and the heroic portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan as fraudulent.45
In an interview before one performance in the South, Dixon said that "the North" was beginning to see the urgency in repressing African Americans. "It is only within the past 12 months that I have seen big buck negroes parading up and down Broadway with white girls hanging on their arms." When some members of an audience hissed the show in Columbia, South Carolina, Dixon mounted the stage to defend himself against critics. Stirring the crowd to his side, he declared: "God ordained the southern white man to teach the lessons of Aryan supremacy"46