"I don't owe you anything."
The last thing John Davis should have been doing in the second week of September 1901 was a long hike across the parched fields of cotton stretching endlessly along the Central of Georgia Railway line running from the Georgia state line to the notorious town of Goodwater. Millions of crisp brown cotton bolls, fat and cracking at the seams with bulging white fiber, waited in the fields and river flatlands of central Alabama calling out to be picked. The task would take weeks and demand the labor of virtually every available man, woman, and child for hundreds of miles.1
Davis needed to be in his own patch of cotton—the lifeline of his tiny farm near Nixburg, a wisp of a town twenty miles south of Goodwater. For him to maintain any glimmer of independence in the South's terrifying racial regime, Davis had to produce his single bale of cotton—the limit of the physical capacities of one farmer and a mule and just enough to pay a share to the owner of the land he farmed and supply his family with enough food and warmth to pass the cold months soon to set in.
But as he struggled to reach the tight bend in the rails more than ten miles from his farm, where freight trains were forced to slow and itinerant travelers knew there was a chance to leap aboard empty freight cars, John knew he needed just as badly to see his wife, Nora. She was ill—so sick it had become impossible for him to care for her and the young couple's two children—especially at the very time of the season when he, like hundreds of thousands of men working small farms across the South, had no choice but to remain in his fields from dawn to dusk.
John and Nora had been married for only three years. At twenty-five, she was two years older. She came to the marriage with two children born when Nora was little more than a child herself. John treated the youngsters as his own. The husband and wife had come of age just miles apart on the outskirts of the rough-edged railroad town of Goodwater and married there in 1898. Eleven-year-old Albert certainly was already John's most important helpmate in the fields. At harvest time, he would have also needed ten-year-old Alice and Nora picking the rows.2 Sending them all to Nora's parents’ house meant John would have to pull every boll himself. But it must have seemed the only way.
John stayed behind working furiously to bring in the crop. But Nora remained desperately ill. Her husband had to see her now. So Davis made his way on September 10, 1901, to the big railroad curve outside Alexander City and waited with the other men wandering the rails for the No. 1 train. The fall sun was just beginning to falter as the train eased out of the little mill town at 5:31 P.M. each day. Half an hour later, he would be on the outskirts of Goodwater.
As the train ambled forward, Davis must have felt a contradictory set of worry and relief as panoramas of cotton fields flashed by in a gentle blur on each side of the tracks, bobbing across the low foothills at the southernmost base of the Appalachian range. He would have to hurry to see Nora and the children, and still return to Nixburg in time to save his cotton. He prayed he was not going to Goodwater to bury his wife. He had to know he might not make it home before his fields were ruined.
Still, the dust-choked freight car rattling across the landscape was in its own way a respite from the torturous tasks of the harvest. Gathering a season's cotton was excruciating work. Davis, like nearly every black man and woman in Alabama, had spent most of his waking life pawing through such fields. The passing crop rows soon would be choked with laborers: strapping young men coursing through the rows with swift, nimble expertise; young mothers with babies towed atop long sacks of cotton dragging behind them; nearly feeble old men and women—African Americans whose lives were grounded immutably in the seasonal rhythm of growing, tending, and picking cotton for other men.
The eldest in the fields were slavery's children—the toddlers and adolescents and near adults of the emancipation time—who had experienced the full exuberance of freedom and citizenship and then the terror of its savage and violent withdrawal. Now they moved slowly behind their young people, picking with thin leathery fingers whatever fiber had been missed by the others, while the toddling children of this sour new era of oppression scrambled alongside, heaving their own sacks. Albert and Alice would absorb for themselves the same unchanging equinoxal cycle of cotton growing and cotton picking, but in their lives—at least until old age—it would never be sweetened or leavened by even the flash of freedom that the children of slavery days had briefly known three decades earlier.
On the plants, blanketing the fields and rising in the most fertile places as much as six feet high, supple green buds that had swollen beneath small graceful flowers were by now turning hard and brittle. Split open and dried dark brown, the outer skin of each pod was sharp to the touch. As the strongest field hands moved down the furrows, pulling the cotton and passing it into their sacks, fingers and palms began to crack and bleed from the pricks and slices of thousands of bolls. Depending on the weather and condition of the cotton, harvest season might well begin in September and drag past Christmas, long after the cotton stalks had frozen and died.
With every passing week in that span and each downpour of rain, the crop grew less saleable and more vulnerable to swings in the prices offered by the ginners who consolidated the local harvests for sale to cotton brokers in Montgomery or Columbus, Georgia. At critical junctures in the picking season, poor weather or lack of sufficient laborers could destroy an entire year's crop. For the white men who owned cotton land in 1901, mobilizing every available black worker—man, woman, and child—into the fields at picking time was the single most crucial challenge of the entire season. Even the most progressive and generous white men in America, whether in the South or the North, almost universally agreed that blacks were preter-naturally skilled at this particular task, and naturally and spiritually ordained to perform it. That it might be wrong to coerce or compel African Americans to work the fields when the crop was in danger rarely occurred to any white man.
White farmers needed similar numbers of black workers in the early weeks of the following spring, when seed was being planted and bright new shoots of cotton had to be carefully tended, each furrow regularly hoed to keep weeds from smothering the fragile seedlings. Once the cotton was up, and stretching toward the sky, and all through the hot months of summer, there could be fewer hands. Nearly all the women and children were idled during the humid months. So long as rain and sun came in the correct proportions, the cotton would stretch higher and fuller. In some years, it grew as tall as a man's shoulders, thick and impenetrable, straining with the weight of blossoms. After the cotton was picked in the fall, there was once again little work to be done. African Americans faced the long, hungry "lay by" of winter.
This conundrum of farm labor management—the need to satisfy radically spiking demands for labor and the absolute peril of failing to do so—had been the most compelling impetus for slavery in the nineteenth century. There were many other reasons that slavery survived in the Deep South too, some economic and some cultural. But in the end, it was the particular nature of cotton production, requiring absolute access to armies of laborers for brief periods at crucial points in the calendar, which made slavery a superbly successful economic mechanism. By holding laborers captive, plantation men could dragoon every worker, regardless of age or strength, at those urgent junctures and marshal them into highly efficient gangs of field workers—all without worry that they might ever drift away in search of better circumstances during the lean months in between.
In the nearly four decades since emancipation of the slaves, white farmers in the South had evolved only negligibly in their abilities to manage enterprises with free labor. Concepts of industrial labor practices—such as set working weeks and fixed hourly wages—remained foreign to most late-nineteenth-century southerners. They were mystified and offended by the demands of former slaves—encouraged by agents from the federal government in the immediate wake of emancipation—that they be paid regular, set amounts and receive guarantees of certain working conditions through a written contract with white farmers. Even sharecropping—in which black farmers lived on and worked small parcels of land in return for keeping a portion of their harvest—and straightforward renting of farm land to African Americans required a form of business acumen and honest dealings that few southern whites were capable of fulfilling in their relations with blacks. White landowners in the South almost universally believed that management of their farms could be successful only if, in one way or another, "their Negroes" could be tied to the land. Coercion and restraint remained the bedrock of success in the cotton economy—and the cornerstone of all wealth generated from it.
To establish a serflike status for blacks, whites relied on a bitterly repressive new social code. Few would hire a black worker who did not have the express approval of his or her former white employer to change jobs. Off the farms, only the most menial work could be awarded to African Americans—a convention that both blacks and whites violated only at risk of their own physical harm. Black public behavior beyond the "bumbling Negro" caricature acceptable to whites—whether in attitude, dress, or visible aspirations—also invited economic ostracism by whites, at best, and physical injury at worst. The possibility of mob violence against any African American who blatantly rejected the unwritten code lingered in the background of black life, a relatively infrequent but omnipresent threat.
Just as ubiquitously undergirding the new conventions of black and white relations—and overshadowing every aspect of the lives of young black men—was "the Lease," as most southerners generically called the new system for seizing and selling African Americans. In addition to the black men compelled into slave mines and lumber camps, thousands of white landowners and local businesses in the countryside and in provincial towns like Goodwater, Nixburg, and nearby Columbiana regularly purchased black men from local sheriffs and judges who participated in or turned a blind eye to the process.
There was also no longer any possibility that blacks might obstruct the new trade in forced labor through political participation. As of 1901, nearly every African American had been effectively stripped of all elective rights in Alabama and virtually every southern state. After passage of a new state constitution in 1901, Alabama allowed the registration only of voters who could read or write and were regularly employed, or who owned property valued at $300 or more—a measure clearly aimed at complete elimination of blacks from voting. In Mississippi, only those who were able to pay a poll tax of up to $3 and who could, according to the voting registrar's personal assessment, read or understand any clause in the U.S. Constitution could register. Louisiana permitted only those who could read and write or owned at least $300 worth of property. (However, any person who could vote on January 1, 1867, or his descendants, was allowed to continue voting regardless of reading skills. This literal "grandfather clause" guaranteed continued voting rights for illiterate and impoverished whites.)
South Carolina required literacy or property ownership. North Carolina charged a $2 poll tax and required the ability to read. Virginia, after 1904, allowed to vote only those who had paid their annual $1 poll tax in each of the three years prior to an election and who could fill out a registration form without assistance. Veterans from either the armies of the Union or the Confederacy were exempted of the requirements—though few of the thousands of African Americans who fought in the Union army were acknowledged as veterans.
During the same legislative gathering at which the new Alabama constitution was drafted, a delegate from Chambers County named James Thomas Heflin came to prominence. Over the next thirty years, he would be the state's most influential figure, serving as a U.S. senator and an early master of the rhetoric of white supremacy that would be emulated across the South by men such as Theodore Bilbo in Mississippi, Strom Thurmond in South Carolina, and Bull Connor and George Wallace in Alabama. During debate over how completely blacks should be blocked from the vote, Heflin argued that there should be no possibility of African Americans casting ballots, regardless of their individual intelligence or wealth. Standing in the elegant legislative chambers of the state capitol in Montgomery—a building that forty years earlier had served as the first seat of government of the Confederacy—he boomed: "I believe as truly as I believe that I am standing here that God Almighty intended the negro to be the servant of the white man." Anticipating eventual war between the races, Heflin continued: "I do not believe it is incumbent upon us to lift him up and educate him on an equal footing that he may be armed and equipped when the combat comes."3
When debate turned briefly to whether the whipping of prisoners leased to coal mines and lumber camps should be prohibited, a representative from Sumter County summed up the position of the constitutional convention:
"Everybody knows that the great bulk of convicts in the state are Negroes," he said. "Everybody knows the character of a Negro and knows that there is no punishment in the world that can take the place of the lash with him. He must be controlled that way"4The laws remained unchanged.
As Central of Georgia No. 1, carrying John Davis on a car close to the rear, approached the final wide curve of the tracks on the outskirts of Goodwater on that Tuesday in September 1901, the conductor blew his whistle and slowed dramatically as the engine eased past Sterling Lumber Company. For almost thirty years, this had been the point of disembarkation for the scores of impoverished men—mostly black and a few white—who used the freight trains of the South routinely to move from town to town and job to job. The railroad bed was itself the handwork of forced laborers, as was the case for nearly all southern rails built before the Civil War or in the first decades after. Goodwater was a place of rich opportunity for men seeking menial work. It had grown into a flourishing commercial center as the hub of the cotton economy in the verdant plain of farmland that rippled between the Coosa and the Tallapoosa rivers—which plunged on parallel currents, eighty miles apart, out of the Appalachians and into the Black Belt of south Alabama. As the picking season progressed each fall, farmers pulled their cotton in long trains of mule-powered wagons from outlying settlements to the gin and rail station at Goodwater. From there, the compressed bales of lint were shipped by train southeast through a succession of other Alabama towns to Columbus, Georgia, sixty miles away. River barges took them down the Chattahoochee River to ports on the Gulf of Mexico at Pensacola and Apalachicola, Florida.
For the paying passengers on the line, Goodwater was a welcome respite from the dusty rails. The town had been the final stop on the line in the railroad's first years of operation, feeding a flourishing local economy of hotels, restaurants, and carriage rentals to continue the journey to the new city of Birmingham. Goodwater's Pope House hotel was a nineteenth-century culinary landmark. The nearby Palace Hotel and Argo Saloon were famous as outposts of comfort and vice. After the rails were extended the remaining distance to Birmingham in the 1880s, nearly every train on the line continued to stop at Goodwater to rest passengers and load cotton, coal, and water for the steam engine.
After the final whistle before the train neared Sterling Lumber, John Davis and the other informal travelers deftly hopped off. It would soon be dusk, and Davis began making his way by foot toward the home of Nora's parents. As he arrived at the first cluster of houses near the Goodwater train station, within earshot of the Pope House and its dinnertime banter drifting in the late-day quiet, a white man suddenly appeared in the road ahead.
"Nigger, have you got any money?" he shouted.5
The man was Robert N. Franklin, one of the town's appointed constables and keeper of a dry goods store perched at the top of the muddy dirt street that led through Goodwater's commercial district. Davis certainly would have known who Franklin was. Short-necked and rotund, Franklin and the store he ran had been fixtures in Goodwater for at least a decade. There were no black-owned enterprises in Goodwater, and Davis's parents would have traded regularly at the store owned by Franklin. The very overalls that Davis wore that day almost certainly came from Franklin's store or one of the other white-owned mercantile shops facing Main Street.
That mattered little at the moment Franklin appeared from the shadows. The question he belligerently posed was a simple but perilous provocation. However Davis answered was fraught with jeopardy. Under the new racial statutes and conventions of the South, demanding whether an itinerant black man had money was tantamount to asking him to prove his right to freedom, or his right even to live. A black man traveling alone in Alabama could be arrested and charged with vagrancy on almost any pretense. To have no money in hand demonstrated his guilt without question and, worse, was seen as absolute proof of his worthlessness. Almost every possible consequence of admitting indigence or joblessness—much less of having ridden for free on a freight train—was terrible.
Yet given the vulnerability of every black man among whites—even more so a white with some measure of official authority and community respect—to reveal that he possessed cash exposed him to more grave risk. Vulgar whites like Franklin could rob or harm a black man with impunity, against which he had no recourse. Contrarily to accept the risk of a vagrancy charge and lie to a local official might be the beginnings of even more serious trouble. Davis had only to glance around as the light faded that evening to be reminded of his vulnerability. The road ahead ran from the edge of town, alongside the tracks, rising slowly up a long hill. It passed the open gallery of the Pope House and its two stories of painted wooden clapboards—all off limits to African Americans. Railroad Street continued first past the crude one-room brick lockhouse that passed for the town jail, and then the enormous Goodwater train depot, and finally to a crest where Franklin's store looked over the settlement. At the train station, as a score or more of white passengers disembarked, local black men hustled to unload baggage and fill the freight cars with freshly ginned bales of cotton. All but a few came from farms owned by white men but worked by black men.
A partly blind African American man clad in threadbare overalls, called "Bad Eye" Bradley, furiously refilled the steam engine's boilers with water and its fuel car with coal. He was one of the few black men in the town with a job paying regular wages. Across the street from Franklin's store, Davis could have seen the plate glass windows on the front of the saloon and the balustrade of the second-floor balcony of the Palace Hotel—both destinations of relative luxury that no black man would ever dare enter as a customer. Tethered out front were the one-horse carriages and open-bed wagons that only the rarest African American owned.
Out of sight from Davis, except for their cluttered rear entrances, stood a succession of new brick buildings extending south from Franklin's store for several hundred yards. Among them were businesses operated by the mayor, Dave M. White, and his close friend, justice of the peace Jesse L. London, as well as the vacant lot where construction of the new town hall was to begin in a few months. Only to the north, across the railroad tracks, among a ramshackle collection of shotgun houses and unpainted bungalows where most of the town's black population lived, was there a place of refuge for an African American man. Davis had prayed to reach it before Franklin appeared in the street. Now it was too late.
With his single hostile query—"Nigger, have you got any money?"— Franklin distilled the smothering layers of legal and economic jeopardy that defined black life in the twentieth-century South. Davis was pinned.
"No, I have not got any money," the black man stammered. Then, gambling on what Franklin was up to, he corrected himself. "I have some, but not for you."
"When are you going to pay me the money you owe me?" Franklin pressed.
"I don't owe you anything," Davis said.
The two men stood facing each other in silence for a moment. Then Franklin went on his way, but Davis knew the incident wasn't over. He crossed the iron rails and made his way to the home of Nora's parents as quickly as he could. For a few hours, there was a quiet reunion of the farmer, his children, and the stricken wife and mother.
But later that evening, the constable showed up again. He called for Davis to come outside.
"I want that money, or I will arrest you," Franklin shouted.
"You will have to arrest me. I do not owe you anything," Davis said, clinging to the hope that a higher authority would see through Franklin's ruse.
Galled by the black man's resistance, Franklin left again. But soon another local constable arrived, Francis M. Pruitt, a burly mass of man who sported a bushy western mustache and a wide-brimmed black hat. He said he held a warrant for Davis's arrest.
"Let me see it," the black man said.
"Come up town and I will let you see it," Pruitt rejoined.
There was little else Davis could do. Earlier in the day, he might have escaped by catching another railroad car and fleeing the county as quickly as possible. But the chance for that was passed now. Docile cooperation was Davis's only reasonable recourse, his only chance of seeing Nora again, of ever returning to his fields. It was still conceivable that he could weather this scrape with no harm, that a reasonable voice would come to his aid. If necessary, he would simply submit to whatever the white men demanded. It was a dance every black man in the South was being forced to learn. To resist only invited far worse.
Davis trudged to the center of town with Pruitt, who locked him in the calaboose near the train station, not far from where his encounter with Franklin had begun. Four other African Americans seized by Franklin and Pruitt in the previous forty-eight hours were already there. Davis never saw the ostensible warrant for his arrest, and would have been unable to read it if he had. Later Jesse London, the justice of the peace, would testify that Pruitt himself had sworn out a warrant claiming Davis "obtained goods under false pretenses" from him—rather than Franklin—and that Davis willingly pleaded guilty to the charge.6 London claimed he ordered Davis to pay a fine and the costs of his arrest and trial, though no one involved could later recall what the amount of the sentence had been.
The next morning, Pruitt retrieved Davis and the others from the calaboose and hustled them onto the train platform to board the No. 3 train from Birmingham at 9:55 A.M.—one of two daily runs rattling from Alabama's booming new industrial center, down through the prosperous provincial towns of Sylacauga, Goodwater, Dadeville, and beyond to either Montgomery, the state capital, or the river port at Columbus.
"We are going to carry you over to Mr. Pace's," Pruitt informed Davis.
"I don't know Pace's," Davis replied.
"We know," the white man answered.7
John Davis had been snared in the web. In the section of Alabama where Davis traveled that fall, at least two dozen local white men were actively involved in a circuit of traffic in human labor orbiting a seventy-five-mile stretch of the Central of Georgia rail line, with the town of Goodwater as its epicenter.
Pruitt and Franklin were the most regular procurers of stout-backed black workers for men of means in the surrounding towns and counties who needed a steady stream of compliant hands. Nearly every sheriff and town marshal in southern Alabama made his primary living in some variation of this trade in human labor—some through formal contracts between the counties or towns and the big mining companies and timber and turpentine operations. Others limited themselves to the less organized, clandestine capture and sale of black men along the railroads or back roads—such as John Davis. Pruitt and Franklin and many others operated with a measure of official police power given by local governments. Even more men—typically brutish plantation guards or the young adult sons of large landowners—acted as "special constables" or temporary deputies appointed to serve arrest warrants concocted to justify the capture of a particular black man.
To give the arrests an imprimatur of judicial propriety, Franklin, Pruitt, and others relied on the judges of what were called Alabama's "inferior" courts. In these lower courts, town mayors, justices of the peace, notaries public, and county magistrates had authority to convene trials and convict defendants of misdemeanor offenses. A relic from the frontier era, every Alabama town or rural community had such local judges appointed by the governor or locally elected. Most were store owners or large landowners— men of limited substance but in the context of their world the most substantial men of the community. In the town of Goodwater, the amateur judiciary consisted of Mayor White and Jesse London. Once appointed justice of the peace by one governor, such men retained their powers almost in perpetuity either by routine reappointment from successive governors or so long as local citizens accepted their continuation in unofficial "ex officio" capacities. By the turn of the century Alabama had thousands of such judges scattered through every community and at almost every major crossing of roads, so many that no one in the state capital even maintained a comprehensive list of who they were.
Mayor White's dry goods store was a few doors down Main Street from Robert Franklin's. London, whose mercantile business was nearly adjacent to the mayor's, was almost as young as White's oldest children, and he was married to a cousin of White's wife. The two wives, both reputed to be marvelous cooks, at times managed the Pope House hotel near the train station.8
Mayor White, the son of a blind farmer, had grown up without education under difficult circumstances in the countryside of another rural Alabama county. To his death in 1935, his tastes never deviated from the poor people's fare of squirrel, opossum, and chitterlings. Yet in spite of those origins, White moved to Goodwater intent on lifting himself from the coarse life of frontier Alabama through sheer labor and willpower. He had no patience for games or those he considered loafers. "By the eternal, if you need exercise, get a hoe and do something constructive with it," White liked to tell children. Over time, he acquired farms and a livery stable in addition to the store. With success, he took on the air of a benevolent businessman, donning a daily uniform of a pinstripe shirt, gray suit, black bow tie, and a black hat. At Christmastime, he secretly passed out food and paid for medical care for poor whites in the town. He was active during the turmoil of Alabama's late-nineteenth-century political battles, eventually winning election to the Alabama Senate and the Executive Committee of the state Democratic Party9
But the emergence of a place like Goodwater, or a man such as White, into the first degrees of twentieth-century sophistication was not entirely what it seemed. Long into middle age, White would fight any man he believed insulted him. He impressed his children with his gallon-by-gallon consumption of moonshine whiskey, and ability to chain-smoke cigars. On one occasion, he survived a gunshot wound received during a political argument at a rally in Dadeville. He was an early proponent of the defiant "states’ rights" agenda that would consume southern Democrats, and in the next generation fuel segregationists like Strom Thurmond and in the following generation George Wallace. He made bitter enemies in politics and business, and believed there were "parasites" threatening the society that whites like him had wrested from the tailings of the previous century. He was contemptuous of the notion that African Americans deserved the full citizenship of the Fifteenth Amendment.
Yet it was this man—uneducated and crude—who held power in Good-water, conducting rudimentary trials on the boardwalk in front of his store, maintaining a clumsy "city court" docket of warrants and verdicts behind his counter, and extending his legal authority in support of the county's busy slaving network. Under White's acquiescence, his friend Jesse London summarily found John Davis guilty of a misdemeanor—despite the fact that Franklin and Pruitt couldn't agree on what charge they were claiming to bring against him.
In adjoining Tallapoosa County, the man most relied on to sentence free men to hard labor was a justice of the peace named James M. Kennedy, a civic jack-of-all-trades who extracted a steady income from a collection of overlapping, periodic public appointments. He had been an election inspector for the area in 1892, and not infrequently was made a special temporary deputy sheriff to serve warrants in civil and criminal cases. Most important, Kennedy was named by Governor William Oates in 1894 a justice of the peace and notary public for the remote section of Tallapoosa County where he lived—though a decade later he was no longer certain by which governor or in which year his tenure as a judge had begun.
Few of the part-time judges such as White and London had any legal or academic qualifications beyond better than average handwriting. Even that skill was not often apparent. There were no clear guidelines for the proper operation of the inferior courts or clear case law defining their parameters and jurisdiction. Like so much of the legal and administrative systems of regions only decades removed from wilderness status, the lower courts of Alabama were policed mainly by citizens’ innate sense of justice. The power of these ill-defined casual judges, particularly over illiterate and impoverished citizens, was immense.
Above men like Kennedy, White, and Franklin, at the top of the pyramid of players in the rural forced labor networks, were large landowners, entrepreneurs, and minor industrialists—just as they had been in the years before the Civil War. In Coosa and Tallapoosa counties, the trade in African Americans relied on three powerful families, all of whom in turn at least periodically employed or conducted business with most of the other men involved in the buying and selling of black men.
The two most prominent buyers, John W Pace and James Fletcher Turner, together held a contract to "lease" every prisoner sentenced to hard labor by the two counties. Turner and sometimes Pace also leased from the city of Dadeville all prisoners who had been convicted under the town ordinances.10 Sometimes in conjunction with each other, sometimes operating independently, Pace and Turner actively purchased African Americans through every official and unofficial means available. Both operated farms with hundreds of acres under till, large sawmills, and mining or quarrying. In 1900, Pace paid $2,600 to expand his holdings to include a five-hundred-acre plantation near his main farm.11 He ran the farm from a large and comfortable country home—where he had become well known in the county for his lavish hospitality—and maintained a second residence in town, less than a block from the Dadeville square.
Turner, known to acquaintances as Fletch, owned a large farm four miles outside the town limits, in a place called Eagle Creek, a booming sawmill at a settlement called Camp Creek, and a major stake in a limestone quarry at Calcis opened by his father and managed by his younger brother Eliza. Even measured against the wide scope of human horror being perpetrated in the slavery operations of Pace and Turner at their farms and sawmills, the quarry near the newly founded town of Calcis stood alone as a place of notably perverse abuse.
Situated thirty-five miles northeast of Goodwater, the quarry was halfway up the rail line to Birmingham. Inside its compound, workers heaped huge quantities of shattered limestone into two thirty-foot-high cylindrical kilns, which superheated the rock with blasts of burning coal piled into a lower chamber. Under intense heat, the limestone turned to quicklime, a highly caustic powder that when moist turned instantly into a burning, potentially explosive acid.
Eliza Turner was a man of questionable mental stability—claiming later in life that he had invented the radio, the X-ray, and the Teletype, only to have been robbed in each case by Guglielmo Marconi and others.12Laborers who survived the Calcis quarry told frightening stories of tubercular men and sexually abused women quarantined to a sick house hidden deep in the adjoining woods. Equally horrifying were the fates of workers who accidentally came into contact with quicklime unintentionally mixed with water. The few who lived left the quarry with terrible, disfiguring acid scars.
Despite the dangers in making quicklime, the substance was a critical component in the blasting of iron ore into steel and fetched lucrative prices from the iron companies expanding at breakneck speed in Birmingham. By the time the Turners’ five-year-old quarry and kiln was operating at full capacity in 1903, its sole customer was Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co.—the company fast becoming the most powerful commercial interest in the state and the keeper of more than a thousand forced laborers at its Pratt Mines.
The Turner quarry hired skilled free laborers to run the locomotive that dragged tons of limestone up from the quarry pit and coopers who made barrels to ship the powder. But for the back-jarring task of wielding picks and sledgehammers in the bottom of the pit, and the unremitting task of piling thousands of tons of stone into the stone kilns, the Turners relied on Franklin, Pruitt, and the others to supply dozens of slave laborers crowded into a crude log and stone "pen" at the edge of the quarry.
Turner himself lived in a spacious farmhouse at the Eagle Creek farm with his extended family, including a volatile eighteen-year-old son, Allen, who took charge whenever his father was away.
Not far from Pace's farm were George D. and William D. Cosby, two middle-aged brothers with large landholdings who frequently repurchased black workers from Pace and Turner. The Cosbys, along with W.D.'s twenty-seven-year-old son, Burancas, worked the black men and women they acquired on their own farms and also engaged in a sideline of reselling workers to smaller-scale farmers nearby.
Between the fall of 1901, when John Davis was arrested in Goodwater, and the spring of 1903, the three families—Pace, Turner, and Cosby— bought at least eighty African American men and women. Like the hundreds of undocumented forced workers tallied in the Sloss-Sheffield mine in 1895, none of those captured near Goodwater ever appeared among the thousands of "official" convict laborers sold by the state of Alabama and its counties. The true total seized by the three families was almost certainly far higher.13
A day after his arrest, John Davis still didn't know what charge he had been convicted of, or how much money Robert Franklin falsely claimed he owed. After a one-hour rail ride to Dadeville and then a ten-mile trip by horse and wagon to a five-hundred-acre farm at the meeting of the Tallapoosa River and Big Sandy Creek, Davis faced the hoary form of John W. Pace.
Pace was a towering figure. He loomed over most men, more than six feet tall and weighing at least 275 pounds. Despite his fortune, he still routinely appeared in town in a collarless, homespun shirt, homemade shoes, and a broad-brimmed black hat—his face was flush from a life of work outdoors. By 1900, he showed signs of gout and walked awkwardly—which he explained as the result of severe frostbite to his feet in the past.14
Davis was pulled from the wagon and forced to stand before the old farmer. Pace, further confusing the contradictory bogus charges, proclaimed that the black man owed Pruitt $40 for goods purchased at a store in Goodwater. Now he claimed Davis also owed Franklin $35 for fines and costs from his conviction.15 Davis had two choices, Pace said: to pay $75 immediately or agree to be taken under his control.
Davis had no choice. He had no money at all. Pace promptly produced a two-page handwritten contract on which Davis, who could not read or write his name, scrawled an "X." The contract signed, Pace paid Pruitt and Franklin $75. The coerced contract was a sham, and illegal on its face. Court decisions already in force made it clear that even if Davis had been legitimately convicted of a crime, he could not legally be held on the conviction once his fine had been paid—as Franklin and Pruitt claimed they had done.
Regardless, Davis knew only that he had marked a document that he was told obligated him to work at any task Pace demanded for ten months, to repay the $75 Pace had "advanced" him to pay the fines. Most significantly, Davis had unwittingly agreed to language that appeared in dozens of such contracts that Pace and others intimidated black laborers to sign.
Under the documents, the blacks Pace acquired "agree[d] to be locked up in the cell at night" and submit to "such treatment as other convicts."16The contracts further authorized "that should the said Pace advance me anything over and above what he had already furnished me, I agree to work for him under this contract until I have paid for same in full." The additional charges explicitly included any costs resulting from a laborer attempting to escape the farm. Most ominously, the documents allowed Pace to "hire me out to any person, firm or corporation in the state of Alabama—at such sum as he may be able to hire me at for a term sufficient to pay him all that I may owe him."17
For all practical purposes, Pace owned John Davis.
John Pace arrived in Tallapoosa County at the age of twenty-five in 1879, a time when settlement towns and farms were still being carved from unmarked forests. Most land was dense red clay, flecked with shards of igneous rock, layered upon the flanks of infertile ridgelines cutting asymmetrically to the north and east. Gold was mined there in the 1830s and the 1840s, and the flurry of early wealth established one aspiring country town, Dadeville. Almost ten miles from the deep Tallapoosa River, Dadeville had a railroad station, a few stores, and a livery stable. Setting it apart from other hard-edged outposts was a small medical institute—a source of southern physicians since before the Civil War.
By the 1880s, the rich mineral veins were tapped out. The allure of cotton had replaced the magnetic attraction of gold. Farmers and tradesmen like Pace were slipping in from Georgia and other parts of Alabama to begin a new, more orderly domestication of the land. Growing numbers of them worked in exasperation to clear the trees and scratch crops out of rocky fields on the low ridges. But along the Tallapoosa River lay a wide spine of rich alluvial soil running through the center of the county. On that bottomland plain, where a creek called Big Sandy emptied into the Tallapoosa, spread one great tableau of flat, fertile land. Pace set out to obtain all of it he could, and make his fortune there.
Pace had never been troubled by slavery, or any other manner of the white man's control of blacks in the odd postwar world. For that matter, hardly any man Pace had ever met objected. He had been only nine years old when his family's slaves were emancipated from their Georgia farm during the Civil War. One of them, a girl named Catherine, only a few years younger than he, never departed. She took the Pace family name and, despite freedom, grew to middle age as a servant in his Tallapoosa County home.
There were no illusions in this section of Alabama about the nature of relations between black men and white. No one laid claim to the stylized hoop-skirt vision of antebellum life embraced in the Old South fantasies that were becoming the vogue in the rest of the United States. Eastern Alabama had never been suited to vast plantations where paternalistic slave masters and contented black servants supposedly lived before the war. Black men and women in Tallapoosa County were there to be worked, worked hard like mules. Notwithstanding whatever the Thirteenth Amendment said about slavery, if white people wanted to buy "Negroes" like mules, sell them, trade them, or whip them, there was nothing wrong about that to Pace either.
Before the war, a slave owner named Gum Threat owned another Tallapoosa river plantation not far from where Pace established his first farm. He handled his slaves in the final years before emancipation with indifferent brutality. "Iffen they ever was a devil on this earth it was Gum Threat," recalled one of his former slaves a half century later. "He jest didn't have any regard for his slaves. He made ‘em work from daylight to dark and didn't give them any more food and clothes than they could possibly git along with. He beat them for everything they done and a lot they didn't."
After an escaped slave named Charles Posey was dragged back to Threat's plantation, the master stood above him on the edge of his front porch and kicked the man under the chin. "You could hear his neck pop. He fell to the ground and kicked around like he was dying," recalled the former slave who witnessed the punishment. "They brought him to and then Gum Threat stripped him to the waist and took him into an old building, stretched him out and fastened his feet and hands wide apart. Then he took a live coal of fire as big as your hand and laid it in the middle of his bare back. I remember seeing the scar there and it was about one-eighth of an inch deep."18
John Pace recognized the value of restoring forced black labor as soon as he arrived in Tallapoosa. Soon after the Civil War's end, the probate judge in Dadeville, who ran the county government, adopted the practice of parceling out arrested blacks to farmers who were willing to pay for them. Pace successfully ran for county sheriff and quickly absorbed how profitably black men could be rounded up and put to work in his own commercial interest, and what little glimmer of judicial process was necessary to hide slavery behind a guise of prisoners working off legal penalties for actual crimes.
By 1885, just six years after buying his first two hundred acres of Tal-lapoosa river bottom, Pace reached an agreement with the county judge to lease every prisoner sentenced to hard labor, as well as any unable to pay fines and court costs. As in almost every Alabama county, that amounted to nearly every black man arrested.
Fifty years after Gum Threat's assaults on his slaves, life was little changed for the new slaves of Tallapoosa County. Not far from Pace's spread, a man named B. S. Smith operated a large farm and timber operation on the banks of the Tallapoosa. He contracted directly with the state of Alabama to acquire several hundred men found guilty in state courts of felony offenses. In addition, Smith and his wife, Elizabeth, aggressively sought scores of other forced laborers from counties across Alabama. After the couple wrested the contract for Autauga County prisoners away from W. D. McCurdy in 1883, Mrs. Smith complained to the county sheriff that one worker had disappeared during the transfer from McCurdy's notoriously brutal Lowndes County farm to hers.19 By the mid-1880s, the Smith plantation degenerated into a miserable compound of rampant disease and death.
In 1886, a black prisoner named Alex Crews died at the Smith convict farm from complications of severe frostbite to his feet. A state physician visited on January 30, 1886, and reported back to the state Board of Inspectors of Convicts. "I found the clothing of the convicts very defective, being thin and worthless, insufficient for protection during the cold weather. Many of them had no shoes beyond a sole tied to their feet, there being no uppers and some with no protection for the feet except rags tied around them. I told Mr. Smith that the clothing and sanitary condition of the men were miserable and outrageous."20
A reporter for the Montgomery Daily Dispatch, a black newspaper in the state capital, wrote that one of its reporters had asked Crews on his deathbed whether there were other men on the Smith farm as ill as he. "Oh, yes, boss," Crews replied. "Some of them are a heap worse." The following month, the president of the Board of Inspectors of Convicts, Col. Reginald H. Daw-son, visited the farm and reported back to Governor Edward O’Neal that he found "seven convicts more or less frostbitten, and that one of them …will probably die."21 The state took no action.
Pace operated his slave farm little differently, extending his landholdings and his purchases of black men in tandem proportions. As his operations grew, he employed a growing number of white men to manage various enterprises and portions of the farm. In the spring of 1892, he hired the justice of the peace, James Kennedy, who had just married the younger sister of Pace's wife, Mollie. Pace had raised Mollie almost as a daughter, and Kennedy became in effect his first son-in-law. After a few months spent running a limestone quarry in the adjacent county, Kennedy settled into a house 150 yards from that of Pace and took over the older man's sawmill and its squads of black hands.
Six years later, Pace added Anderson Hardy to the payroll, a man just a few years his junior but the new husband of Pace's nineteen-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. He lived in a house adjacent to Pace's and acted as a foreman of the farm, guard, and, frequently, the designated whipping boss to lash noncompliant workers.
Pace had become a great landowner by the standards of the province and his era, with nearly a thousand acres of property under till at the Big Sandy Creek farm and ownership of several blocks, including a second home, in downtown Dadeville.22 Like many in Tallapoosa County, he also harbored visions that gold might once again be found in the area, and purchased a half interest in May 1894 in a labor-intensive mining venture at his end of the county23
Powered by the flow of the Big Sandy Creek, the Pace sawmill teemed with the black laborers he acquired from throughout Alabama, working under conditions and with technology little changed from the Bibb Steam Mill a half century earlier. Kennedy oversaw the operation with cold indifference, and soon began to branch into other duties desired by Pace.
Thin, ever clad in an inexpensive rumpled jacket, balding severely except for a few twisted locks at the crown of his forehead, his voice high-pitched and nasal, Kennedy struck an unattractive profile, a southern Icha-bod Crane, unaccustomed to and ill-equipped for power. Any of the men and boys imprisoned on the place, and most likely all of the women, could have knocked him to the ground. But armed with a buggy whip and his obscure appointment as a justice of the peace, and backed by the wealthy white men who paid him, Kennedy was transformed into a terrifying figure.
Using his status as justice of the peace to convict and sentence men for misdemeanor offenses, Kennedy became the on-site judge for Pace's forced labor business. When the Cosby family wanted to take control of a particular black man, one of the Cosbys would order an employee to swear out an affidavit accusing the African American of a crime—usually failure to pay for goods, breaking a contract to work for the entire planting season, or a charge as generic as "fighting." Often, the bogus warrants were signed by Jack Patillo, the young son of a related white family; J. Wilburn Haralson, another white employee of the farm; or one of several black workers who lived permanently under the control of the Cosbys.
Whatever the charge, the Cosbys seized the black man and took him and their affidavit to Pace's farm, where Kennedy would hold the semblance of a trial. These proceedings never lasted more than a few minutes, and rarely was any record of the charge or outcome preserved. There was never an acquittal, according to later statements by Kennedy. The defendant was always found guilty and ordered to pay a fine he could not produce, usually $5 plus the costs of the arrest and trial—a total of about $20. For a black laborer at the turn of the century in Alabama, $20 was a sum equal to at least three months’ work. The Cosbys, who had seized the black man to begin with, would claim to pay Kennedy the ostensible fine and fees, and force the prisoner to sign a labor contract agreeing to work a year or more under guard to pay them back.
The system worked almost flawlessly. Soon the Cosbys were acquiring so many black men and women that, within a few years, Kennedy said he could no longer recall most of their names and faces.24
The efficiency of having Kennedy convict any black man or woman desired by a white buyer was also obvious to Pace. There was no need to remit any portion of the fines to the county courts or to submit to even the superficial supervision that was sometimes demanded for the prisoners he purchased directly from the county jail. Most useful was that when a black man's term of labor neared an end, Pace, Turner, or the Cosbys could swear out a new warrant for another supposed crime. Kennedy would obligingly convict again, and sentence the worker to another six months or year of hard labor. Soon, the Cosbys arranged for William D. Cosby to be named a notary public as well. After that, in order to further the ruse of court oversight, the trials were divided between the two slave farms in a carefully structured theater.
"W. D. Cosby would try Pace's negroes. I would try Cosby's negroes," Kennedy later explained. "Whenever the time of a man working for J. W Pace or W. D. Cosby or G. D. Cosby was about out, they would send somebody before me, if one of Cosby's negroes, to have an affidavit against him on some trumped up charge; and, if working for Pace, somebody would go before W. D. Cosby and make an affidavit against him."25
Except for Pace, Turner, and the eldest Cosbys, nearly all of the men engaged in this labor-selling network were in their twenties or thirties. Most had recently begun their own families. Many were born during or just after the Civil War and had grown up steeped in the stories of the roles their fathers or grandfathers played during the conflict and the chaotic years that followed. They were not descendants of the white ruling class, but hard-scrabble country whites whose previous generation had fought to defend slavery but whose members had rarely owned slaves themselves. All came of age during the years when African Americans exercised their greatest level of freedom and political participation in the South. As children or teenagers they witnessed or heard the stories of the violent campaigns carried out by their fathers to reestablish white hegemony in the 1870s and 1880s.
These men emerged into adulthood just as the political parties of the South were finally articulating, without reservation, and with only scant criticism from elsewhere in the country, a rhetoric of complete white supremacy and total black political exclusion. They explicitly embraced as personal responsibility a duty to preserve the new racial regime. The rising young men of Goodwater and Dadeville also were motivated by their understanding that unlike the long-ago era of full-scale slavery—in which their fathers gained almost nothing from richer white men's ownership of slaves—the economic benefits of the new system of black forced labor were available to nearly every white man.
The buyers in the new system grasped that lesson better than any. It was they who had forged the new racial order of the South, through two decades of strife between whites and blacks and among whites who could not agree on how best to reassert their control over the region. Pace and Turner had been in the thick of that fight.
A decade before John Davis was delivered to Pace's farm, as the April primary election in the pivotal year of 1892 approached, Pace and Turner led opposing factions amid the tensions flaring in Tallapoosa and every county seat across the state. Borrowing from the leading newspaper in Birmingham, the local Tallapoosa Voice bellowed against the continued participation in elections by black voters in counties where African Americans made up a majority or large minority of the population. "The one issue before the white people of Alabama is to maintain the integrity of the white man's democratic party. This is the one thing to which the party organization should look. That is the one thing the voter should address himself to," said one editorial.26
Pace declared himself a backer of Reuben Kolb, along with the rest of the local Democratic leadership. The rallying call of the Kolb populists became the denunciation of any black participation in the primary election. Another newspaper allied with Pace's group, the Alliance Herald,mocked the reliance on black votes by the Bourbon coalition led by Governor Jones. "Oh yes; you are terribly concerned about white supremacy! While you are …pretending to be so much exorcised [sic] on the subject, your friends and allies in Sumter county are preparing to have negro votes carry that county for Jones. Negro votes in Marengo and negro votes in Sumter! No negro has voted for Kolb in this contest."27
Kolb carried the party primary in Tallapoosa County, but lost the statewide election. Infuriated by the wave of black voting—some of it fraudulent—that sealed Jones's nomination, the populists abandoned any pretense of sympathy to African American farmers. Kolb continued his bid for governor under the flag of a new third-party "Agrarian" alliance. To rally voters, his supporters adopted the most virulent white supremacist invective.
Quoting from a Republican newspaper in Washington, D.C., the Voice warned local whites of the "feast" that awaited them if full citizenship was allowed for blacks:
More than twenty negro Representatives from the South will render the Republican control of the future Congresses absolutely safe and sure. Heavy taxes should be laid upon the property of the whites to develop and extend the public school system of these States. Separate schools of the two races would be abolished, and the plan of bringing the youth of both colors into close and equal relation in school and churches given a fair trial…. The State laws against the intermarriage of the races should be repealed, and any discrimination against the blacks in the matter of learning trades or obtaining employment should be a criminal offence— while the colored man's rights to hold office should be sacredly protected and recognized.28
The irony that this description was exactly the vision of American life promised by the U.S. Constitution escaped nearly all southern whites. Against that backdrop of fury Tallapoosa County Democrats met in July 1892 to make official the county's support for Kolb, the populist candidate who had won the earlier primary. As the formalities were concluded, the county's most prominent Confederate veteran, Brig. Gen. Michael J. Bulger, a southern hero of Gettysburg, the war's most decisive battle, was asked to regale the crowd at the mass meeting in Dadeville. But ten minutes into Bulger's stemwinder on the heroism of the county's storied Civil War units, Fletch Turner and a rump committee of supporters for incumbent governor Jones barged in and seized the podium. Through a series of parliamentary maneuvers, Turner's group took charge of the county party organization and endorsed a new slate of party nominees—including the local superintendent of education substituted for Pace in the race for county sheriff.29
Jones carried the statewide election by a vote of 127,000 to 116,000, winning twenty-nine counties versus thirty-seven for Kolb. Despite Fletch Turner's party coup, Tallapoosa stayed in the Kolb camp. Jones retained the governorship.
Pace and Turner would not argue politics again. A century of complete white domination of the South was under way. The two men forged a commercial partnership grounded on the same white supremacist principles. On the issue of black men, they agreed completely. Pace and Turner became partners in the business of buying and selling African Americans. Together they signed a new contract with Tallapoosa County and with the probate judge of adjoining Coosa County to acquire all the prisoners of both jurisdictions. Their forced labor network began to thrive.
As the long spare frame of James Kennedy ambled from house to house down Red Ridge Road in the dusty southern end of Tallapoosa County in April 1900, the fields were teeming with black farmhands planting the cotton that would be harvested the following fall. In another of his remunerative government sidelines, Kennedy was the appointed federal census taker for the Red Ridge beat—the section of the county controlled by his employer and brother-in-law, John Pace. He spent his days that spring busily listing the 1,250 residents of every household in the district.30
On the approach to the Pace family compound, Kennedy's task became both more familiar and unsettlingly grim. After listing the members of his own family and the white farmers who adjoined the sawmill he managed, Kennedy arrived at the crude farm of Jessie Lisle, a forty-eight-year-old father who worked mostly as a guard over the blacks held at Pace's farm. Lisle rented a patch of property from Pace too and with an overgrown family scratched out a coarse life from a garden and a few pigs and chickens.
Next came the household of Anderson Hardy, the new son-in-law of Pace. The marriage was only two years past, but Elizabeth Hardy had already given birth to a child and seen it die. Sharing the house with the Hardys was Joseph G. Smith, another guard, renting a bed, and Mary Smith, a thirty-seven-year-old black women listed as a servant. Hardy kept four black men aged twenty-eight to thirty-two years locked in a cell nearby. Finally, there was the prisoner Maurice Cunningham, an illiterate ten-year-old black "water carrier," who spent his days sprinting from man to man on the farm with a simple wooden bucket of water and dipper made from a dried gourd.31
The last residence before reaching the big house where John Pace lived was the home of James H. Todd, a guard on the plantation who rented a room to Arther Berry, a forty-year-old overseer who acted as Pace's whipping boss.
When Kennedy arrived at the main house on the plantation, he listed the members of Pace's family in the same straightforward fashion as he had at almost every other home on Red Ridge Road. There was John, forty-six years old, his wife of twenty years, Mollie, and a sixteen-year-old son, Fulton—a studious boy who was already working as a teacher in the nearby school for white children. Also living in the home was Catherine, the black cook who had grown up from slavery times with John Pace.
Beyond the inner circle of the blood-related family members, converting the sordid particulars of the farm and its other inhabitants onto the clinical grids of a census bureau enumeration form wasn't simple. How, for instance, to categorize the rest of the Pace farm population's relationship to John Pace, the head of household? Or of the five African Americans held in the crude cell at Hardy's place? Kennedy could not call them slaves—slavery was abolished. The census bureau's old "Slave Schedules," listing unnamed human chattel by sex and age, hadn't been used since 1860. Yet for all practical purposes that was what these black workers were. Kennedy could not call them "boarders," as paid farmworkers living on a worksite were commonly called on government forms. That was the term used for Pace's various guards rooming with nearby white families. In his first pass through the paperwork, Kennedy simply skipped the column altogether.
Beneath the names of the Pace family members, Kennedy first listed the eleven men then on the property who had been delivered by the sheriffs or other authentic police officials of Tallapoosa or Coosa county, ostensibly for committing misdemeanors. Most were young, single, strong adults. All of them were black. Most could read and write at least a little. Henry McClain, twenty-two years old, Milledge Hunter, eighteen, Erwise Sherman, thirty, Harry Montgomery, twenty-one, Jim Miles, thirty-two, Eman-ual Tripp, a twenty-six-year-old Arkansas boy now very far from home. Familiarity exempted no black man from the fates of the Pace farm: Green Lockhart, aged twenty-four, was almost certainly a descendant of slaves formerly owned by a white family of the same name at the other end of Red Ridge.
Mixed in with the young men were other African Americans with larger lives and responsibilities waiting for them elsewhere. Isom Mosely and Alwest Hutchinson were both thirty-one years old and married. Mosely had three children somewhere. Willie Ferrell, twenty-nine, had ten youngsters at home. Henry Wilson, at fifty years old the dean of these men and the father of nine children, had owned a farm of his own at the time of his capture.
Each of them came under the labor and control of Pace through at least a semblance of a formal judicial process, though the legitimacy of all the misdemeanor arrests and convictions was doubtful. Kennedy listed those men as "convicts." But in addition, Pace was also holding seven other blacks. Augusta Wright, thirteen years old, was listed as a housemaid. Two sets of brothers were being worked in the fields: Archer Lewis, aged twelve, and Q. F. Lewis, just ten. Luke Tinsley was thirteen, and Henry Tinsley was ten. None had learned to read or write.
Pace had seized the Tinsley brothers as soon as they grew big enough to pick cotton—to begin paying off a debt he claimed was owed by their mother for a fine he paid on her behalf three years earlier, in 1897.32 Luke, already bulking into the young frame of a man, could swing a hoe as well as almost any other laborer. Henry, a small boy with smooth dark black skin and chocolate hair, skittered across the field to keep up with his brother and avoid the gruff shouts of the two adult African Americans overseeing the children in the fields. Both adults were former slaves, now almost certainly being held by force: P. Johnson, a forty-five-year-old man born in Virginia, and Josephine Dawson, a thirty-five-year-old wife and mother. On his second pass, Kennedy described the group being held against their will as "servants."
The largest fields of the Pace farm had long been cleared of forest and tamed into productive cotton. But on the boundaries, and in adjacent property he acquired in the 1890s, Pace's enterprises were a crude blade cutting into the raw of the land. His holdings included huge swaths of vestigial forest, still choked with the same massive timber that greeted the first frontier settlers. Removing the towering stands of oak, hickory, and pine, excavating and burning the tremendous root systems they left behind in the river's ancient alluvial deposits, releveling the ground, ditching to drain the new fields: these were the monumental tasks required to continue expanding Pace's small empire. The means and methods of turning the land to production were hardly changed from the times of Elisha Cottingham nearly a century earlier—axes and cross-saws, mules and slaves.
The economic incentives for Pace were twofold. Clearing the land expanded the range of his cotton production. But more immediately, there was a buzzing market for the lumber he could produce in clearing the giant trees of the property. Sawmills were busy in every section of Tallapoosa County, and Pace needed a constant flow of new laborers to perform the backbreaking tasks of clearing the "new ground" and keeping the sawmill in near-continuous operation.
When John Davis arrived at the Pace farm a year after the census enumeration, few of the African Americans recorded by James Kennedy had escaped. Some, like Davis, had been fraudulently snared as they traveled country roads and sold to Pace by ad hoc constables, for amounts ranging from $40 and $75. Others were arrested in towns and formally convicted in the county seat for allegedly violating some petty offense, most often vagrancy. For most, there was little or no record made of their alleged crimes, when their "sentences" would expire, or in some cases, even who they were. Davis was held with men called "Tallasee" and "Gypsy," whose identities and origins were never clear to him. No official records of their "arrests" were ever created.
Each was coerced into signing a contract like the one entered into by John Davis—agreeing to be held essentially as a slave for approximately a year, locked as "a convict" at night, chained during the day if Pace desired it, and obligated to continue working past the expiration of the contract for as long as Pace claimed was necessary to pay for medical or any other extra expenses over the term of the agreement—including the cost of recapture if the prisoner tried to escape. Occasionally, a friend or relative of a Pace prisoner would appear and purchase their freedom. In the case of highly productive laborers, Pace nearly always asserted a basis for keeping them far longer than the original term—often extending from two years up to ten.
The simplest method of adding additional time to a man's contract was to accuse him of another made-up charge. A typical ploy was to claim that a black worker had violated his or her contract by eating food they weren't entitled to, or rearresting them as they departed at the end of the contract on a claim that they were leaving with clothes that actually belonged to Pace. Another theatrical "trial" would be held before one of the various justices of the peace. If one of the other white men was interested in obtaining a particular African American, Pace routinely sold them for a premium over what he had originally paid. In those cases, Pace made a profit in addition to the value of the year or more labor received. The black worker was then compelled to sign a new contract with his buyer—usually agreeing to work another year or more to pay off his new "debt" to the white man.
To resist the system was more than foolhardy. Arther Berry, the man Pace most often relied on to discipline his laborers, was like most southern white men in his belief that black workers could only be fully productive if frequently subjected to physical punishment. Berry's tool of choice was a three-inch-wide leather strap. The whipping end was eighteen inches long, attached to a wooden handle. Berry or one of the other guards, ordered laborers to lower their pants and lie on the ground while being whipped with the strap on the buttocks, back, and legs. Those who resisted were held down at the hands and feet by other laborers, often stretched across a barrel or the stump of a tree. In the crude environment of the farm's timber-cutting operations, Berry would whip with any available object if his strap was not handy, cutting a switch from a tree or using a sapling the size of a broom handle.33 Other whipping bosses on the farm were his brother, Jesse Berry, and the thuggish guard James Todd.
One prisoner described in an affidavit how the obedience of laborers was enforced: "I was mistreated bad sometimes," said Joe Patterson, who became an object of particular cruelty. "Mr. Todd whips the hardest. Sometimes Mr. Todd would tie [a convict's] hands together and put them over the knee and put a stick in between the legs and whip him with a big buggy trace, pulled the clothes down so he would be naked. Sometimes he would hit over one hundred licks, sometimes fifty, or seventy-five times, sometimes thirty—never less than thirty…. The whipping would take place in the field or stockade, no doctor present and nobody to count the licks, or time it."34
In another bitter echo of antebellum years, any effort to escape the slave farm risked not just the laborer who attempted to flee but any black person he or she encountered. After a black man named Dave Scott ran away, Pace tracked him down with dogs and then arrested everyone on the property where he was taking refuge. Pace ordered that Scott's wife, four other family members, and two more blacks found nearby be brought back for "harboring" the runaway slave.
After being found guilty by James Kennedy, the half dozen workers were sold to George Cosby, who held them in a stockade surrounded by guard dogs and beat them regularly. When the sentence of one of the workers , Lum Johnson, was about to expire, he was rearrested and charged with stealing potatoes from another nearby white farmer, Bob Patillo. Cosby took him back to his farm, claiming he'd paid an $18 fine on his behalf. Johnson was forced to sign another labor contract and returned to the stockade.
Nearly all the black residents of Tallapoosa and the surrounding counties had heard stories about atrocities on the farms of Pace and other forced labor enterprises in the area. Everyone knew black men faced medieval-era punishments for any failure to work; black women faced the double jeopardy of being required to submit both to the cotton fields and kitchens, as well as the beds of the white men obtaining them.
A black neighbor near the farms named M. J. Scroggins said the Cos-bys starved their forced laborers and were violent. "They would feed the negroes on nothing but a little corn bread and syrup. Go barefooted in cold weather, women and men," Scroggins said. "The white people would be afraid to go by the Cosbys. Some people had gotten killed out there, and never could prove who did it. The Cosbys are pretty bad folks. If a strange negro walked along the road they would catch him up and put him on the chain gang." The Turner farm was particularly notorious for sadistic inflictions upon sexually defiant black women. At one point, an African American woman named Hazel Slaughter suddenly reappeared in Dadeville after a months-long disappearance. She showed other women in the community how her stomach was scarred and raw from an attack by dogs used to track her down after an attempted escape from the farm of Fletch Turner. In whispered tones, Slaughter said she had run away after watching Turner's teenage son, Allen, use a spade to beat to death another black prisoner, named Willie Ferrall. Bloodhounds were set on her track. They tore through the woods behind her as she fled, finally running her down miles from the farm. Before guards caught up on horseback and began dragging Slaughter back to service on the Turner farm, the dogs had torn the clothes from her body and ripped open her stomach.
The account was more than plausible. Stories circulated in the county months earlier that Allen Turner had killed a young black woman on the farm named Sarah Oliver. Another black woman, Cornelia Hammock, was arrested in Dadeville and charged with larceny on May 20, 1902, according to the rudimentary trial docket erratically maintained by the town's mayor. She pleaded innocent, but was immediately declared guilty by the mayor and fined a total of $16.40. Unable to pay the fine, Hammock was ordered to the farm of Fletch Turner to work until November 1903—a total of eighteen months. She survived only two days. No cause of death was recorded. Her death was never investigated.35
"It is the general talk of the colored people in and about Dadeville," swore a local black leader a year after the killing. The stories were "reported to colored people by other colored people who have been there that these practices are carried on there all the time…. Colored people believe it."36
Tallapoosa County had become the embodiment of the casual new slavery flourishing across the South. White southerners had clearly won the national debate over who would decide the future of the country's black population. As southerners had insisted for more than a decade, the nation's "Negro problem" would be dealt with using the southern, white man's solution. None of the ostensible allies of black citizenship would act meaningfully to stop it.
From the perspective of most white Americans, the new racial order had been affirmed formally and informally at the highest levels of society. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling four years earlier in Plessy v. Ferguson, sanctioning "separate but equal" public facilities for blacks and whites, sanctified the wave of new legislation and business practices requiring disparate treatment of blacks and whites. The ruling's effects went far beyond the courts and legislative chambers. The open willingness of the highest court to base its seminal ruling on claims that were so clearly false—that train cars designated for blacks were no different from those of whites—sent a profound message to all Americans. So long as whites performed at least the bare rituals of due process and cloaked their actions behind claims of equality, the crudest abuses of blacks and violations of their protections under law would rarely ever be challenged.
The neo-slavery of the new century relied on a simple but extraordinary ruse that the Supreme Court's ruling implicitly endorsed. Men such as Franklin, Pruitt, Kennedy, Berry, and Todd, in places like Goodwater and Tallapoosa County, could safely force a black man into servitude for months or years as long as they pretended that the legal rights of those black men had not been violated. The implications were as deeply absorbed by black people as were the rhythms of farming in the era of old slavery. This long era of false trials and arrests would taint the African American view of legal processes and guarantees for generations to come.
In the larger scheme of what was happening across the South, the capture of John Davis was a routine, inconsequential event. John Pace acquired a steady stream of mostly anonymous black men throughout the year leading to the seizure of Davis. Pace and his son-in-law Anderson Hardy bought Jack Melton in February 1901, using the pretext of a fake warrant signed by James Kennedy accusing Melton of the ubiquitous allegation of "violating a written contract." In April of that year, Elbert Carmichael was seized. Then came Ed Burroughs, on an allegation no one could later recollect. He was followed by Joe Hart and Otis Meyers. Just before Halloween—a month after Davis was kidnapped and sold—Pace bought Lewis Asberry for $48.
Through the winter and approaching spring planting of 1901, the seizures of black men continued steadily37 After the turn of the year came Joe Patterson, the defiant black man sold for $9.50 to Anderson Hardy, who in turn resold him to Pace. Patterson had been arrested in Goodwater and convicted by "Judge" Jesse London, the same storekeeper who "convicted" John Davis the previous fall.
On January 17, 1902, Franklin and Pruitt were back at the Pace farm offering a young boy named W. S. Thompson, convicted at Goodwater of carrying a concealed pistol. Pace paid $50 for him. The so-called witness to Thompson's signature on a contract agreeing to work for Pace for one year to pay off his fines was Lewis Asberry—the black man seized three months earlier. Ten months later, Pace sold Thompson back to his mother.38
Near the end of February, Turner wrote a check to John G. Dunbar, the Goodwater town marshal, against his account at Tallapoosa County Bank in the amount of $40. On the memo line, Turner scratched: "Cost of fines for 3 Negroes." In March, Robert Franklin delivered to Pace a black man named Hillery Brooks and traded him for $35.
The seizure of black men on the back roads of the South was no longer even a brazen act. Note Turke, a young black man from the Tallapoosa County hamlet of Notasulga, held a job as a free worker with Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad in Birmingham. After a visit home, he was walking down a dirt road outside Dadeville on the way to catch a train back to Birmingham on a harshly cold day in the middle of November 1902. Suddenly Burancas Cosby, the son of W. D. Cosby, appeared on the road and tackled Turke without provocation.39
"Where are you going?" Cosby shouted.
"To the depot," Turke replied.
"Do you want a job?"
"I already have one. I'm on my way to it."
"Where are you from?" Cosby asked.
Turke explained where he lived, who his family was, and even rattled off the names of white people he knew, all in a vain effort to demonstrate that he was a black man who deserved not to be molested or harmed. The result was only to convince Cosby that Turke was a worker worth having.
"You are a very good nigger. You better stop over with me," Cosby proclaimed, pointing to his house up the road. Cosby mounted his horse and continued on his way.
Turke knew better than to go to the white man's house. He hurried toward the train station, still miles away. Cosby, no doubt uncertain of whether he could manhandle Turke in a one-on-one struggle, stayed behind. But soon Cosby caught back up, this time accompanied by a boisterous crowd of other white men.
"Turn around and go back with me," Cosby shouted.
Turke could do little else.
Cosby took him to the farm of his uncle, George Cosby, and locked him inside a corncrib. The next morning, a black farmhand named Luke unlocked the door and took Turke before George Cosby.
"Hello, young man, what are you doing here?" the elder Cosby asked through the slats holding Turke and the bulging harvest of the farm's corn crop.
"I don't know. They have got me here. I don't know what for."
"What are you going to do about it?" Cosby said.
"I don't know. I am a stranger here. They stopped me and got me here. I cannot help myself," Turke said.
"Young man, didn't you know they would do things like that? There are grand rascals about here. Do you want me to go your bond?"
Turke was flabbergasted. "I have not done anything for you to go my bond."
Cosby, playing out the thin charade of a kind and reasonable white man, told Turke that he should plead guilty to whatever charge the white men claimed against him. "If they call on you, you plead guilty," Cosby said. "If you say you want me to go, I will get you out of this thing and work you."
"Plead guilty of what?" Turke asked. "I am guilty of one thing, that is going on the public road, and I thought that was free for everybody."
"You plead guilty and you will get off light," Cosby reassured him.
"I am in a strange county," Turke replied. "But if you will allow me a chance to write or telegraph home …"
"No, we don't want that at all, you go ahead and plead guilty—whenever they get their hands on you they are going to do what they like with you. You just plead guilty."
Turke finally told the older white man that he and his son would have to do whatever they chose—kill him or imprison him—but that he would not plead guilty to a crime dreamt up by others. "Kill me or do what you please," Turke said. "I propose to do what is right."
As dark fell, Burancas Cosby and the gang of white men returned and took Turke into the night. They dragged him outside a window at the home of another white man who was a justice of the peace. Turke never heard his name. Talking beneath the raised sash of the window, the justice astonishingly said he wouldn't play along with the ruse that night. "Men, I can't have anything to do with this thing," the justice said. "I have had a lot of those things before me, and I told you not to come before me any more with such things as that."
The mob took Turke back to the log crib. The next day, they returned, on horseback, buggies, and wagons, and took Turke to a small warehouse where another ostensible justice of the peace waited. He dutifully pronounced Turke guilty, though it wasn't clear of what crime, and fined him $15 plus unspecified costs.
Turke had already been robbed by one of the white men of the $5.41 and a pocketwatch he carried on the first day of his kidnapping. He had nothing with which to pay. George Cosby appeared and proclaimed he had paid the fine. He took the silent black man back to his farm and the corn-crib and its iron lock.
The system by which John Pace and Fletch Turner obtained black men for their farms, sawmills, and limestone quarry was more refined than the Cos-bys’ brutish tactics. The two men often spent their days on the square in downtown Dadeville, awaiting word via telegraph of their various enterprises and the frequent arrival of regular procurers of black labor, who arrived daily on the two train runs stopping at the town depot.
Robert Franklin and Francis Pruitt, the two men who seized John Davis, were the county's most important traders in black men. At forty-six years old, Franklin was the most atavistic of the half dozen constables and deputies who were routinely on the prowl for black men on behalf of Pace and Turner. In addition to his store, Franklin was commissioned as a night watchman, paid $30 a month by the town of Goodwater. He made easily as much again in the trafficking of black laborers.40
Pruitt, thirty-six years old, also worked as a night watchman in Good-water and operated a livery stable as a sideline. He received $42 a month to police the town and collected a $2-per-family annual tax for upkeep of the unpaved streets. Altogether, he eked out enough to maintain his widowed mother and wife, adult sister and brothers, and two toddling sons, in a compact wood frame house near the center of town.
The two men's ostensible police supervisor, Goodwater marshal John G. Dunbar, also regularly offered black men for sale, as did the town's other constable, Laray A. Grogan, who busily transported black forced laborers from Goodwater to the Turner lime quarry and kiln in the town of Calcis. Grogan, thirty years old, lived with his young wife and three children under age six next door to Mayor White.41
Early in April of 1902, Franklin and Pruitt got word that runaways had fled the Samples Lumber Company sawmill outside the nearby town of Hollands. Samples, like virtually all lumber cutting operations in southern Alabama, Georgia, and Florida at the time, was a spectacle of horrifying abuse. Young black men—and occasionally whites—were routinely lured to remote timber camps deep in the forests with promises of solid wages and good working conditions. As often as not, the camps became prisons, where men and boys were held against their will for months or years, fed and housed miserably, worked under brutal circumstances, and paid little or nothing. Hundreds of other black men were purchased from jails across the state. Since black men knew they enjoyed no protection from these abuses from local sheriffs or judges, they relied on word of mouth in African American neighborhoods or among other itinerant workers to identify which camps fulfilled their advertisements and white men who could "be trusted."
On April 2, Dock Crenshaw, a twenty-one-year-old black laborer from Roanoke, Alabama, agreed to take work at Samples. After one day, Crenshaw and several other young black men realized they had been grossly misled. Instead of $1 a day in wages, plus food and a place to stay, the men were being stockaded and fed prisoner's rations. Other workers told them they would never receive pay. Instead, they were being charged $2 a week for their food and shelter—a third of their supposed total wages.
Five young men, Crenshaw, Charles Williams, Pat Hill, Jim Coleman, and Ed Moody, decided to leave at the end of the workday and return home. This was a particularly galling act to the white men in charge of Samples Lumber and an overt challenge to local white authorities. The sight of five black men, most of them teenagers, strolling up a public road, having defied their white employer, justified a harsh response in the minds of almost every white in the region.
As Crenshaw and two others ambled under a bridge at the edge of the town of Goodwater that night, Franklin and a second white man from the town stepped out of the darkness and said the men were under arrest for "jumping" a board bill—or not paying for food provided to them at Samples.
The five workers were marched back to a general store in tiny Hollands where the town mayor convened what went for a misdemeanor trial. Crenshaw refused to plead guilty, but the others, pressured by the armed whites, agreed to confess. The men had eaten only once at the mill, but the mayor found that each had walked out on a $5 tab. All were given fines of about $6, plus unspecified "costs." Franklin told the justice of the peace not to tell the men the full amount they owed and that he would take care of it.
Franklin loaded the five into a wagon and carried them back to Good-water. After several hours locked in the same small jail near the railroad tracks where John Davis and so many others had been held, Franklin, now joined by Pruitt, ordered the black men onto the next train stopping in the town. When they rolled into the Dadeville station, a wagon was waiting to transport the men to Pace's farm on the Tallapoosa River. Pace gave $25 cash to Franklin and Pruitt, $12.50 for transporting the gang, and a check on the Tallapoosa County Bank for $100.
After several days detained by Pace, the farmer's resident magistrate, James Kennedy, read a contract out loud to the men. All Charley Williams could follow was that they would have to work there for at least seven months. They resigned themselves to their fate and began working under armed guard every day, plowing, hoeing, and ditching. At night, the men were locked in a crude cell.42
Williams knew he was in for a hard time, but he could hardly have imagined its details. A strapping, barrel-chested farmhand, he wasn't accustomed to the servile status Pace's farm demanded. He defied directions and challenged guards, and for that he was whipped nearly every day, usually with his pants pulled to his ankles and his back bared. The instruments of punishment used to beat him were leather plow lines, trouser belts, or saplings. "Anything happened to be in the boss man's hands," Williams testified later.43
The younger men in the group were terrified especially by what was happening. Within a month of arriving at Pace's farm, Pat Hill and Ed Moody, both seventeen years old, tried to run away. After traveling just four miles, they were captured by Pace's son-in-law, Anderson Hardy. Kennedy, the justice of the peace employed by Pace, staged another fake trial and convicted the pair of "breaking the contract" with Pace and sentenced them to six months of hard labor for the county. Conveniently, Pace was under contract with the Tallapoosa County judge to hold all local hard-labor convicts. So Hill and Moody returned immediately to the same chain gang, now with an additional term of six months to work and explicitly classified as criminal convicts.
There was another lesson to be learned, however, and one that Pace believed the other blacks being held on the farm needed to share in as well. The risks and futility of attempting to escape would be demonstrated for all of Pace's laborers. Hill was led nearly naked in front of a gang of black laborers working in a field, forced to bend at the waist and squat, his hands tied together behind his knees. The point of these beatings was manyfold: the most obvious was to create a specific disincentive to escape. Just as important was to show the power of whites not just to cause pain but to force a black man to bear profound humiliation, to be reduced to a state of pathetic powerlessness, to visibly see how quickly and effortlessly even the most simpleton whites could force a defiant black man to reveal emotional vulnerability and physical weakness. "My hands were fastened under my knees. I was bent over and whipped on the naked back," Hill testified stoically. "He told me to count, and I counted up to 15, and could not count any further. He whipped me about 25 licks."44