"I was whipped nearly every day."
In early May, a federal grand jury, the only province of the legal system in which African Americans could still participate in the South, was impaneled in Montgomery to take up the mounting evidence of slavery in Alabama. The jury of twenty-three, composed of twenty whites and three blacks, filed into the elegant federal post office and courthouse—with arched brick doorways and an imposing square tower at the corner of Dexter Avenue and Lawrence Street in downtown Montgomery. The foreman was Judah T. Moses, one of Montgomery's leading Jewish businessmen.1
Soon a steady stream of witnesses—mostly black men and women elated, bewildered, and a little shaken by the sudden interest by powerful whites in their welfare—made its way to the grand jury's chambers to tell of their entrapment back into slavery. The scene's most extraordinary paradox was that the U.S. commissioner—a federal magistrate with judicial powers one rank below Judge Jones—presiding over the testimony was a young John A. Elmore, son of one of the Confederacy's great legal architects and absolute defenders of antebellum slavery. Yet now, forty years after emancipation, he supervised an inquiry aimed at finally bringing an end to slavery in Alabama. Soon, the black members of the jury were guiding portions of the investigation with their own accounts of ongoing slavery2
The first witness to make a formal statement was a white man named Jim Hoffman—without whose corroboration much of the testimony from blacks might have been dismissed. A farmer from the settlement of Camp Hill, Hoffman testified on May 8 that he had spent weeks during the previous year attempting to determine why Jim Caldwell, the son of one of his black farmhands, had been arrested. But everywhere Hoffman or a local lawyer he hired turned, they discovered that Caldwell and another young black man seized at the same time had just been resold to a different farmer or had been accused of new or different crimes.
The mayor of Goodwater, Dave White, who had fined the two African Americans, claimed to Hoffman that he couldn't recall details of the case or what had happened to Caldwell. He told Hoffman it would be a mistake for his lawyer to stir up trouble. White said to give the lawyer a message: "You had better keep out of this town. If you do not we will get after you."3 The one practicing attorney in Goodwater told Hoffman that the town watchman, John Dunbar, had found a pistol on one of the men and a razor on the other. But Dunbar couldn't be found.
The next day, John Davis came before the jury and told of his harrowing capture by Robert Franklin. When word of the federal investigation spread across Alabama, the farmer who had purchased Davis from John Pace suddenly released him, along with other slaves. The white men hoped setting the workers free would prove they had never been held against their wills. Under questioning by Reese, Davis testified that afterward he was approached again by Franklin.
"He said, John?’ I said, ‘Sir?’ He says, ‘We want you for a witness …want you to sign a paper which won't be nothing, won't hurt you,’ " Davis testified. " ‘If you want to we will let you sign a little paper, do like we tell you and I will give you a pretty good suit of clothes.’ I told him I did not know anything about any court."
Davis said Mayor White then intervened: "Go ahead and sign it," White said. "It is nothing to hurt you."
Davis refused. But after several days of harassment, clearly aware of the risks he faced if he refused to sign the document—apparently an affidavit in which he said his arrest was proper—Davis put his "X" on the paper. The document was never produced at court. "To keep from being bothered with them, I just went on and signed the paper, " Davis said. "I did not know what the paper was for. I never read the paper. I cannot read nor write, and he did not even read it to me."4
Over the next week, federal agents presented a rush of testimony from others who had witnessed or participated in the seizure of Jim Caldwell and Herman "Joe" Patterson. It was transparent that, like John Davis and so many others, they had committed no crime. There was no gun. And carrying a razor—even if Patterson had done so—wasn't even a violation of Alabama law. The facts were that the pair passed innocently on foot through Goodwater just after dark on April 23, 1902, headed toward Birmingham to look for work. As the two approached a cotton gin on the edge of town, near the Pope House restaurant, they were confronted by the night watchman, Dunbar, and the bank clerk, J. L. Purifoy.
Dunbar told the grand jury he stopped the two because there had been burglaries in the area recently. "I discovered two slouchy negroes slipping towards town, and I suppose they were up to some devilment," he testified.5The watchmen approached the two young men and asked where they were going.
"To Birmingham," Caldwell said. "To work."
"You boys come on with me," Dunbar replied.6
The two white men shackled Caldwell's wrists and grabbed Patterson by the arms. They marched the two laborers to the lockup in Goodwater— the same place John Davis had been imprisoned. Purifoy claimed later that he had searched the two and found a razor on Patterson and a pistol in the clothing of Caldwell. The next morning, when the two men were brought before Mayor White, both were charged with carrying concealed weapons. The mayor's court docket showed that both men pleaded guilty to the charge, though Caldwell testified later he believed he had been accused of vagrancy and that neither entered a plea at all. Regardless, Mayor White declared the men guilty and fined each $10 plus court costs of $1.60.7
After the summary trial, Robert Franklin approached Dunbar and told him John Pace would be pleased to buy the men. The following day Dunbar asked Purifoy to accompany him to Dadeville with the two captured African Americans. Virgil Smith, a black laborer working for Purifoy at the time, warned his boss that Dunbar was in the business of selling African Americans. Purifoy was new to Goodwater, and uncertain of what his employee really meant. He had difficulty imagining that blacks were truly being bought and sold. "If they are selling Negroes," he told the black laborer, "I will go down there and see about it."
Dunbar, Purifoy, and the two black men rode to Dadeville in a horse-drawn hack. After arriving on Main Street in the town, John Pace and Fletcher Turner approached the wagon and told Caldwell and Patterson to get out. Purifoy stayed with the wagon, while Dunbar and Pace took the two black men to a nearby stable. A short while later, Turner drove away with the prisoners, still bound. Franklin had arrived in town separately to negotiate a price for the men. Pace handed over $24 in cash and scratched out a note to the president of Tallapoosa County Bank to give Franklin another $46 from his account.8
A little while later, Dunbar and Purifoy, back in the now empty wagon, rattled down a pitted dirt road toward Goodwater.
"What have you done with the negroes," Purifoy asked.
"Turner has got them," Dunbar replied.
Had Turner paid for the men? Purifoy questioned.
"No, nothing more than the fine and costs," Dunbar replied.
The next day, the two white men saw each other again, on the road in front of a wealthy local farmer's residence. Standing beneath the canopy of a landmark oak tree, Purifoy directly asked his friend, "John, what did you get for those negroes?"
"Nineteen dollars," Dunbar grudgingly replied.
Purifoy was alarmed that his friend had been party to the selling of men. The two continued talking for an hour. It was apparent to Purifoy that Dunbar was involved in an active traffic of African Americans.
"Do you think it's right?" Purifoy finally asked.
"Well, everybody else was doing it," Dunbar replied.9
The evidence of Patterson and Caldwell's capture quickly led investigators to the fate of three other black men rounded up in Goodwater a day later. This time, the night marshal rounded up Dave Johnson, Esau Williams, and Glennie Helms. All were charged with vagrancy. After a night locked in the town calaboose, they were brought before Mayor White, who refused to allow the black men to call any witnesses. White declared them guilty and fined each $6.60.10
None had the money to pay their fines, and the three were tied up and held until a train arrived, bound for Dadeville. After the short ride over, the young men were presented at the station to Fletch Turner, who said they could choose whether to work on his farm or Pace's. One of the most bitter incongruities of the slaving system as it persisted into the twentieth century was the participation of blacks in the holding of other African Americans— another debasement shared with antebellum slavery. Black gang leaders passed on the orders of white overseers; some blacks assisted in restraining and stripping men to be whipped by the bosses; and, as in the case of the young men seized in Goodwater that night, local black workers under the control of Pace and Turner played out a ruse to convince Johnson, Williams, and Helms to quietly go along with Turner, a man whose cruelty to blacks was widely known. "There was some colored people there told us we had better go with Mr. Turner, that we would be treated a heap better with Mr. Turner," Williams testified to the grand jurors.11
So the deal was completed, with just enough of a chimera that the transaction had been part of a legitimate legal process and that the black men in question had voluntarily submitted to their fates.
"Mr. Turner said he bought us all three for $50 …and we were to work for four months and a half a piece," testified Dave Johnson. "Mr. Dunbar sold us to him. I don't know for how much," Helms later told the grand jury. None signed contracts agreeing to the arrangement, though later such documents mysteriously appeared with "X" ‘s purporting to be those of the three black men. The gossamer facade of judicial process took only three days to weave. The trio had been arrested on a Thursday, tried, sentenced, and delivered to a new owner on Friday, and were at their forced labor by dawn's break on Saturday.12
At Turner's farm, the black laborers were put to work digging drainage, cutting wood, and cleaning up recently cleared new pasture—the most grueling sunrise-to-sunset tasks of a farm still being carved from forest. Dave Johnson was beaten on the first Saturday by Allen Turner, son of the man who had purchased the three. "I was whipped," Johnson said, "because I did not know how to ditch—laid me down flat on my stomach, one man on my head and another man to hold my legs, and whipped me across my back, my clothes were on. I was whipped with a piece of stick about as big as a broom handle. I got about 25 licks. I was whipped about every day."13
Helms received his first beating a day after Johnson's: "I was whipped about two days after I got there," Helms testified later. "Whipped me a long time, I could not tell how many licks. Sometimes I was whipped two or three times a day, sometimes took my clothes down and whipped me with a stick on the bare back."14Esau Williams said his first corporal punishment came a week after arriving at Turner's farm. Over the following four weeks, "I was whipped nearly every day…. Would drop our clothes and whip us with hickory sticks," Williams recounted.15 When guards were particularly sadistic, they attached an empty metal bullet cartridge to the end of the stick to gouge the skin with each swing of the branch.
After days of testimony by victims of the forced labor ring, the jury was greeted on May 11, 1903, by the hulking figure of John Pace. The strange weather of early spring had finally entered a long calm. Replanting was in full swing. Weeks of rain had abated, and the drying fields were teeming with workers putting in seed. Just a few weeks earlier, Pace and his son-in-law, Anderson Hardy, had been aggressively gathering more laborers, some hired as free men but most captured through the courts or their procurers scattered in the countryside.
Suddenly ordered to appear before the grand jury, Pace turned the operations over to Hardy and boarded a Central of Georgia morning train at the Dadeville depot where he had purchased hundreds of black men over the prior twenty years. The ride from Dadeville's simple train platform to the immense new red-brick Union Station in Montgomery took not much more than an hour. Completed just five years earlier, Union Station, receiving trains from six competing railroad lines, was the bustling hub of Alabama's economy—a veritable temple to the cotton-driven prosperity that the South was reestablishing for itself and that this federal investigation seemed intent on disrupting.
Well before noon, Pace was in the capital city. He walked two short blocks down Commerce Street to Dexter Street, almost certainly unaware of the irony of his passing the fountain in Court Square, where Montgomery's antebellum slave market had thrived for almost fifty years with the daily auctions of African Americans like Scip, the Cottingham slave, and the forebears of the men and women Pace held on his farm. Across the street was the federal court building. Almost exactly forty years after Lincoln's order freeing the slaves, Pace entered the grand doorway of the courthouse, the first man in Alabama to face the threat of criminal sanction for holding black slaves. Forty-two years later, the modern U.S. civil rights movement began at the same intersection when Rosa Parks boarded a bus at the Court Square stop and refused to give up her seat to a white man.16
In a wood-paneled private chamber inside the court building, Pace offered the grand jury a sanitized, yet nonetheless damning, version of his dealings with black laborers. It must have been unnerving for him to face a panel of "peers" that included black men, holding authority over his freedom and fate. Whatever his reaction to the African American faces gazing at him from the jury box, Pace described a plantation melodrama in which he acted not as oppressor but the rescuer of penniless blacks who preferred life on his farm to jail or a forced journey into the coal mines of Birmingham. Ignoring the first twenty years of his active trading in black laborers, Pace dated the beginnings of his dealings to April 1901, just two years earlier.
"The first man I got was Elbert Carmichael," Pace said, naming the victim in what he knew was the earliest case federal investigators had unearthed so far. Pace insisted that he asked for the proper paperwork proving that every black man sold to him was a legitimate convict serving a judge's sentence, but that he took the word of constables such as Robert Franklin and John Dunbar who sometimes said the documents had been lost. "They claimed they did not have time to make the papers out before they caught the train," Pace said of his arrangement in 1902 to acquire a young African American boy named W. S. Thompson.17
In the cases of Joe Patterson and Jim Caldwell, Pace testified that he "notified the white people that these boys" were under his control and that their freedom could be purchased by reimbursing the $70 he paid for them. A few days later, G. B. Walker, the attorney, arrived to obtain their release. Pace told the jury he was outraged to learn that the supposed court fees on the men had totaled only $22.50 and that they had been improperly placed on his farm. "I did not want to hold the negroes under those terms, and I demanded my money back," Pace testified.
As for John Davis, Pace said the black man freely admitted shirking a $40 bill at Robert Franklin's dry goods store. He said Davis volunteered to work off the debt and a $35 fine under guard at the convict farm. Pace claimed to have sent $4 to Davis's wife at one point during the year that he held him, but admitted that he recouped nearly all of his expenditures at the end of the twelve-month contract by selling Davis to another white farmer for $50. He offered no explanation for how he had the power to sell Davis, even after all his alleged debts were paid.
Pace explained that Joe Patterson was kept under guard an extra half year to pay a $25 doctor's bill for treatment after Patterson's fingers were cut while working on the farm. Yet more time was added, Pace explained, as penalty after Patterson attempted to escape and used another white landowner's boat to cross the Coosa River during his flight. The owner of the boat and Pace's foreman, Todd Berry, recaptured Patterson two days later, after trailing him with bloodhounds. Dragged back to the Pace farm, the justice of the peace, James Kennedy, held another sham trial and sentenced Patterson to an additional six months of labor. Pace said other charges could have been brought as well, but he chose not to. "I felt kindly towards the boy and I wanted the matter dropped," Pace said.18
The next day, Fletcher Turner arrived in Montgomery and made the same walk to the courthouse to appear before the panel of jurors. His account was even more blatantly self-serving. Turner agreed to take on Esau Williams, Dave Johnson, and Glennie Helms only as a favor to another black laborer who asked him to help the imprisoned three youngsters, he testified. There had never been any violence against anyone on his farm.
"They have three negroes down yonder," Turner quoted the other black laborer as saying. "And I know a brother of one of the boys, and the boy knows me, and wants me to come around and see if you want to make a trade with him."
When Turner arrived at the train station, he said he found the three black workers "tied in the buggy with a rope." Other white men, including John Pace, had gathered to inspect them, a common occurrence when word went out of black men for hire or purchase.
Turner said the three blacks looked worthless: "I wanted negroes but no such things as them cigarette dudes," he said, using a common epithet for independent black men. "I asked what is the cost of them negroes anyhow ? Where were they tried, and what did they try them for?" Deputy Dunbar answered that they could be had for $17.50 each.
Turner repeated to the jury his dialogue with the young black men in the buggy:
" ‘Hello nigger, how much is your cost?’ One of them commenced crying and said, ‘Boss, if you will take me I will work for you two years,’ " Turner claimed. "I said, ‘You are nothing but cigarette dudes and I would not have you.’ "
Turner described how he nonetheless began bargaining with Grogan, the marshal from Goodwater who had arrested the three. Grogan insisted that Turner would have to pay $53 and take all three men.
"I won't pay any such amount," Turner said he replied.
"What will you give?" Grogan said.
"Forty dollars," Turner answered.
"Make it forty-five," Grogan shot back.
"No," said Turner.
Finally, Grogan relented. "Give me the money."
Turner walked into a nearby business, asked for a blank check, and wrote it out to Dunbar for $40, against an account at the Tallapoosa County Bank.
Turner told the jury he was incensed when he later learned that each of the three blacks had only been fined $5 or $6 when arrested. Turner claimed he told the young men they could leave after four months of work instead of a year. He said the workers were "perfectly satisfied," though he admitted that Speedy Helms—the "best negro of the bunch"—tried to run away. He was recaptured and returned to the farm for a reward by a policeman in Opelika.19
Three days later, George Cosby took the stand. Like Pace and Turner, he told the grand jury he was flabbergasted by the allegations against him by various African Americans. Cosby said he'd had nothing to do with slavery, forced labor, or peonage. He said he'd been a consistent friend to blacks, paying their debts and providing work out of kindness and good intentions. His version of events was that he paid a $10 debt to Pace on behalf of "a darkey" named Elbert Carmichael in January or February 1901. Afterward, he "allowed" Carmichael to live on his farm.
Carmichael was "a mighty good negro, a might good hand … a preacher," Cosby said. He freely left the farm to return to his home in another county. Cosby couldn't remember helping arrest and hold on a bond a man named Jasper Kennedy. A black woman named Matt Smith "never worked a day for me in her life," Cosby said, reporting that after he paid a $3.45 fine for Smith, she disappeared to her father's. As for Lum Johnson, a black worker Cosby paid fines for on two occasions, "that negro is working for me now. He is free. I never whipped him." The same went for Will Gettings, "a free hand …working for $7 month." John Bentley, another black man on the farm, "came along the road the other day and I hired him," Cosby said. Bentley feared he was about to be accused of stealing some fence wire in another town, and wanted Cosby to shelter him. Cosby said he agreed to do so for $9 a month, but insisted that Bentley remained free at all times.
"Those three negroes are all that I have. I don't lock them up at night. I have no hounds, I keep a rabbit dog. I don't go armed about my place," Cosby said. "Those negroes are absolutely free."20
On the same day that Cosby testified, a federal marshal escorted into the courthouse James M. Kennedy, the jack-of-all-trades justice of the peace and sawmill manager who worked for John Pace. He told the jury that in the previous eight years he had tried some workers who ended up working for Pace, but Kennedy was evasive about exactly how many. The handwritten docket book, in which the records of the arrests and trials would have been maintained, had been lost a little more than a year earlier, Kennedy testified. His new docket book contained entries relating only to a dozen black workers—the exact same workers, remarkably, whom federal agents had interviewed in the previous few weeks.
Kennedy confidently worked through the cases of each African American, crisply pointing out how the proper procedures had been followed, appropriate charges alleged, and necessary affidavits signed in every instance. He was confident even about his handling of the case of Joe Patterson, who one week earlier told jurors the harrowing story of his attempted escape from Pace's farm after being repeatedly beaten. Patterson was tracked by dogs for miles, deep into the woods. Trapped on the bank of the Tallapoosa River, he jumped in a small boat tied nearby and paddled across the water. But Patterson was soon captured by a posse of "man-hunters" on horseback, yelping dogs, and guards from Pace's farm. Wet and exhausted, Patterson was beaten with fists, boots, and sticks. Then the white men dragged him before Kennedy for a new trial.
Those events were barely two months old when Kennedy testified. He told the jury in dispassionate detail that the proceedings against Patterson were handled entirely within the technicalities of Alabama law. Patterson was ordered to work out his original contract with Pace and an additional six months for attempting to break the first contract he was coerced into. When that year of labor was finished Patterson would be held for a third six-month period, Kennedy ruled, for "removing a boat from its moorings."
"Note," Kennedy reminded jurors, lifting an index finger into the air. "In none of these cases that I have spoken about did I ever receive one cent of costs, nor was I paid in any other way by Mr. Pace or anybody else for trying these cases."21
The testimony of the white men in the slavery ring was crisply consistent: all of the black men and women held to forced labor were properly convicted of crimes; they freely agreed to be leased as laborers; and they were never physically abused. But outside the courtroom, the men at the center of the investigation hardly behaved as if they were innocent. They began a campaign of witness tampering and intimidation.
Worried that he would be charged, Mayor White in Goodwater boarded a train in early May to Columbus, Georgia, to warn John G. Dun-bar, the marshal who had assisted in seizing so many black men, about the investigation. "White did not want to be indicted," Dunbar later testified.22
G. B. Walker, the lawyer who had helped bring attention to the slaving operations and set free Caldwell and Patterson, got an ominous letter from his cousin in Tallapoosa County. "Those people there were his fellow townsmen and his friends, and asked me not to stir up anything," Walker recalled the letter saying. "He said …for his sake not to do anything against these parties."23
Mat Davis—the brother of John Davis—was seized from a train, locked in the Goodwater jail, and threatened by the brother of Robert Franklin. The white man warned Davis's father that he would "shoot you as sure as hell" if the older man interfered. Released several days later, Mat began hiding in the woods at night.24
Despite the efforts to frighten the growing number of accusers, the accounts of kidnappings and violence were making an impression on the jury in Montgomery. Even Alabama newspaper editors, embarrassed by national reports about the investigation, excoriated the accused slave dealers. The ringleaders were growing nervous. Kennedy began to wonder if he should tell the truth.
After giving testimony on May 15, Kennedy, George Cosby, and one of the other guards from Pace's farm shared a wagon for a wet ride back to Tal-lapoosa County. A steady drizzle pelted the men as the mule strained to drag the hack down a pitted, red-mud road. Deep in the bush, the wagon broke down. The men were forced to walk through the cold springtime muck. Cosby was frantic at the delay. He said he needed "to be at home and get niggers out of the way so that no papers could be served on them from the United States court," Kennedy later testified. Cosby hired a horse at the first settlement the men reached and raced ahead. Kennedy and the guard trudged on in the rain, certain Cosby intended to murder witnesses.
A week later, the three men nervously sat down to a meal together. Cosby had lost his nerve and killed no one. But suddenly he reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a package of morphine. Kennedy tried to wrestle it away from him. "It will come to this," Cosby shouted. "I am going to be convicted, and before I will be convicted I will destroy myself. It is a heap better than to go to the penitentiary and disgrace my family"25
At the same time, Pace and Turner hastily began freeing forced laborers on their farms and at the quarry. Some disappeared entirely, their fates unknown. Other blacks were warned by the white men—or through other black employees—not to cooperate with the federal investigation. Indeed, of the dozens of black workers being held against their will when Kennedy conducted the 1900 census, almost none could be located by federal agents three years later.
On May 23, a few days after Kennedy wrestled the morphine away from Cosby, Secret Service Agent McAdams stepped off the first morning train to arrive in Goodwater. McAdams walked in the bright sunlight to Robert Franklin's mercantile store, pushed open the glass-plated door, and informed the constable that the grand jury had handed up an indictment for holding black workers in peonage. Franklin, and five others whom McAdams wouldn't identify, were named in the indictment. By nightfall, Franklin sat in a cell at the Montgomery County jail.
Kennedy's anxiety was growing. He had participated in dozens of bogus trials, though he had never reaped the financial rewards of Pace, Turner, and the Cosbys. He was certain the government—and perhaps his employers— would eventually try to pin the slave trade on him. Kennedy told one of the Secret Service agents in Tallapoosa County he was willing to testify again— this time telling the truth.
A week after Franklin's arrest, Kennedy went back to Montgomery and stunned the grand jury. He admitted trying scores of black laborers to force them to work for Pace, Turner, and Cosby. He could recall at least thirty cases in which he didn't make any record of the proceedings or report a verdict to the county judge, as he was required to do by law. It was clear from Kennedy's testimony that the traffic in African Americans hadn't been limited to men. The white landowners sought out nearly half a dozen black women as well, Kennedy said, with the clear implication that they were seized for sexual services. "There were many others, but I can't remember their names now," Kennedy said.
He claimed to have initially used his authority as a justice of the peace properly, but that eventually the white landowners he worked for demanded that he convict any black laborer they desired. "They would send one there and have an affidavit made," Kennedy said. The black man would be arrested, fined, and sent to whichever farmer had arranged the arrest.
"The agreement was there was no record to be kept," Kennedy testified. Nearly every case, he said, "was a trumped up affair."26
Other white men, fearful of the mounting evidence, began breaking their silence about the truth of the slave farms. Wilburn Haralson, a young farmer living near the Pace plantation, testified that the Cosbys compelled him to swear out false charges against several black men whose sentences to work for them were about to expire. "I was afraid not to do it, I was afraid of those folks," Haralson testified. "I was afraid they would get me in some scrape, swear some lie on me, and get me into it, and I had a wife and children."
A black woman named Mattie Turner was held on the farm indefinitely, falsely accused of prostitution, Haralson swore. The implication was clear that Turner was held for the sexual exploitation of the farm. He knew of at least one slave worker who had been murdered by a relative of the Cosbys. Haralson said few African Americans ever escaped. George and Burancas Cosby patrolled their farms with guns and used specially trained bloodhounds to track any who tried to take flight. "They had nigger dogs," he said. "There were two dogs at George Cosby's and two dogs at Burancas Cosby's house."27
On May 28, U.S. Deputy Marshal A. B. Colquitt hauled Francis M. Pruitt, the constable and livery stable keeper in Goodwater, to Montgomery to hear his indictment read aloud. A total of six indictments were handed up against Pruitt and two justices of the peace, outlining for the first time publicly how Pace's slaving network operated.28
The indictment charged Pruitt with "forcibly seizing the body of Ed Moody, a negro," in Coosa County and selling him on April 3, 1903, to Pace, who had held him against his will since then. At the courthouse on the day of his indictment, Pruitt claimed he had never seen Moody and didn't know Pace. Appointed to his position as a constable by former Alabama governor William Jelks, Pruitt stoutly defended his county, claiming that Coosa citizens are "as good as any in the State." The town of Goodwater was an "especially law-abiding community," he added. Without qualms, Pruitt told a newspaper reporter that as a constable he had "frequently" arrested African Americans who then were fined by a local magistrate and "paid out" by local white farmers. But he insisted this was entirely within the law. The Montgomery Advertiser reported that his claim had "an honest ring."
The following day, Pace returned to Montgomery. This time, he was accompanied from Dadeville by U.S. marshal A. B. Colquitt. The men arrived at Union Station at dusk and headed directly to the courtroom of Judge Jones. Pace was informed he had been named in eight indictments as the buyer of black men seized by local constables. Reese recounted key evidence gathered against Pace—maintaining that one Negro woman had been killed on his farm, that men and women had been forced to work nude for lack of clothing, and that the laborers were mercilessly beaten.
Pace brought with him to the courtroom a bond posted by William Gray, the Dadeville banker who at Pace's direction had paid out the cash used to purchase most of the enslaved black workers.29 When the bond turned out to be insufficient, Jones allowed Pace to travel back home with the marshal in tow to make new arrangements to avoid jail. Pace expressed his appreciation and retired to a Montgomery hotel to await the next morning's train to Tallapoosa County.
Outside the courthouse that night, Pace insisted to a newspaper reporter that he was innocent of any wrongdoing, even as he conceded without hesitation that he had purchased men from Coosa County officials and worked them on his farm. He said the African Americans were put into the prison maintained on his property, where they and the convicts were watched over by hired guards and hound dogs trained to track men.
He described buying John Davis from Robert Franklin for $70, but said Davis begged to be left at the farm. Pace said he explained to Davis that he would be held with the county convicts and treated the same. Davis readily agreed, and Pace drew up a contract under which he agreed to work sixteen months to pay off his fine.
Pace was unapologetic, but denied that he had acquired or held a large number of black laborers. He had purchased no more than five in the previous year, he said, all of them as favors to the black workers themselves. They were never treated brutally, and it was "always understood," he said, that the men would be freed if relatives or friends reimbursed him for the costs of bailing out and holding the laborers.30
Next to make the trip to Montgomery were George Cosby, his nephew Burancas, and James H. Todd, one of the strongmen used as an enforcer on the Pace farm. The men arrived in the state capital near daylight on June 10, having spent the night on a Western Railroad train stranded between Ope-lika and Montgomery. Accompanying them were Deputy Marshals Hiram Gibson and A. B. Colquitt, who had arrested them on Tuesday.
The defendants wouldn't talk to reporters on the day of their court appearance. Todd had been an overseer for Pace for more than fifteen years. Burancas Cosby, a twenty-three-year-old "wide in stock, build and ruddy face," worked for his uncle George. The younger Cosby claimed that at least two of the blacks named in the indictment were "unknown to him." By nightfall, all had returned to Dadeville by train.
As word of the arrests raced across Alabama and the rest of the country, an epic legal and political confrontation began to take shape. J. Thomas Heflin—the stirring white supremacist orator who proclaimed to the constitutional convention two years earlier that God put "negroes" on the earth to serve white men—was the Alabama secretary of state by 1903. Almost immediately, Heflin began circulating word that he would aid the indicted white men, perhaps even representing them in the courtroom. He would have none of the spineless apologia for new slavery that southern journalists and some politicians first offered. He embraced it as a return to the natural order of man.
A few southerners stepped forward to genuinely condemn the new slavery system—but very few. One was Joseph C. Manning, the postmaster of Alexander City in Tallapoosa County. A fiery populist, he had fought in the 1890s to hold on to a coalition of black and white voters in Alabama, and after the turn of the century railed against the growing national consensus that blacks should be excluded from all political activity—even within the Republican Party. "What has become of the ringing declaration of Abraham Lincoln that ‘The nation cannot endure half slave and half free,’ " he wrote to an Ohio newspaper.31 He denounced the de facto annulment of the Fifteenth Amendment and condemned Republican leaders for their crass willingness "to acquiesce in slavery for the south and stand for human liberty in the north."
Later, Manning wrote to the New York Evening Post, lashing out at the abuses of blacks he had witnessed and the men in his county alleged to have held slaves. "It is today under the law in Alabama, a crime for a farm laborer (black) to quit his employer. He may be denied his pay, he may be half fed, he may be beaten with a buggy trace but if he ‘fails to keep his contract’ then he is a criminal," Manning insisted. "There are black belt planters who do starve, mistreat, abuse and beat men, and force them to break their contract in order to get them arraigned before some demon in white skin, but with a heart as black as hell itself; and another year of servitude is attached by a chain more galling than that of chattel slavery to the ankle of the black man. The case of Patterson is only one in thousands, yes, in ten thousand….
"The Mayor of this town of Goodwater …would be complimented in his own estimation no higher than to have it written that any negro is no more worthy of human sympathy or political consideration than is any mule, and of less kind treatment than a good dog," Manning continued. "Here is the truth about the South that some men of the North would ‘let alone.’ Here is the South that should be permitted to adopt its own course in settling the race problem!"32
Goodwater Mayor Dave White fired back in defense of his town, claiming that no black man or woman had ever been abused in his court. "Unjust punishment of negroes is absolutely repulsive to me and that no negro is imposed on when it is in my power to prevent it," he wrote.
I defy any person to prove that any negro or white man has ever been convicted in my court that was not guilty or that didn't have a fair trial, or that received illegal or cruel punishment after they had been convicted. And I am certain that I can truthfully state no negro has ever been worked in slavery in the town of Goodwater since the day when slavery was abolished in the sixties. It is a fact that numerous negroes have been tried and convicted in Goodwater for stealing and have received a small fine and a light punishment, when a white man under the same circumstances would have been much more severely dealt with as a great allowance is always made for the negro owing to his standing in life.33
Editors of the state's most prominent daily, the Montgomery Advertiser, were apoplectic that Manning, an Alabama native, had uttered such heresy in the northern press. It called Manning "rattle-brained" and, reaching back to an archaic term for any creature that turned against family doctrine and patriarchy, a "nest fouler."
The newspaper labeled his description of widespread slavery an "outrageous exaggeration." The Advertiser also railed at Roosevelt's promise at Lincoln's tomb of a "square deal" for African Americans, and any assertion that the peonage cases were part of a larger movement in the South to disenfranchise black men and reassert white dominance.
Peonage was no worse than the treatment of workers in the factories, mines, and sweatshops of the North, the newspaper maintained.34 "These cases of ‘new slavery’ have nothing to do with the adoption of the new Constitution in Alabama. If there is any difference, the mass of white people are more kindly disposed toward the negro now than before their disfranchise-ment. These peonage cases are simply a few here and there. There have not been tens of thousands of such cases. We doubt extremely whether there have been even hundreds of them in all the State in the past twenty years."35
Nearly every Alabama leader contended the events in Tallapoosa County constituted a small anomaly, easily stamped out by making examples of a few offenders. "Deputy U.S. Marshall Colquitt seems to have taken up with this county," wrote the Dadeville Spot Cash. "In fact three or four men of this community have been escorting him to Montgomery where he placed them under bond, charged with Peonage—that new word lately sprung on us which means the enslaving of a freeman against his will, as we understand it. This is a pretty bad state of affairs in Alabama, but not so bad as the northern papers would make it. These conditions will be thoroughly investigated and we hope every guilty party will be punished so that the evil will be stopped and the blot on our state and county removed."36
Underscoring southerners’ sense that it was hypocritical for their region to be targeted for its racial misdeeds, residents in Belleville, Illinois, went on a rampage a day after the Dadeville editorial appeared. A black schoolteacher named David Wyatt and the town's white school superintendent had argued over the renewal of Wyatt's teaching certificate. An altercation ensued. The superintendent was shot, but not seriously harmed. Wyatt was arrested and taken to jail. By nightfall, at least two thousand whites were gathered in the town—including many women and children encouraged to attend the spectacle. A phalanx of two hundred men attacked the steel doors at the rear of the jail with sledgehammers, pounding it with thousands of hammer blows. The city's police did not voluntarily hand the prisoner over to the crowd, but also gave no meaningful resistance. Wyatt, an educated and imposing man—standing six feet three inches tall—waited in his cell on the second floor of the jail, enveloped in the cacophony of the hammers pounding out his death beat. After half an hour, the doors splintered open. Wyatt was seized from his cell and his head immediately smashed.
Dragged into the street, the mob surged around him, kicking and stomping his body until it was matted in blood and dirt. A rope was secured to his neck and tossed to two men who had climbed a telegraph pole. Hoisted just a few feet off the ground, Wyatt's body whipped back and forth as members of the crowd gouged, stabbed, and sliced his torso, legs, and arms with knives. Others in the mob gathered pickets from nearby fences and roadside signs to build a crude pyre beneath his dangling corpse. Still more went for gasoline and benzene. Soon Wyatt's body was engulfed in flame. By the time the earliest churchgoers left their homes on Sunday, June 7, the grotesque form of Wyatt's carbonized remains lay amid a heap of ashes and smoldering wood on the street.
"The mob knew that the negro's victim was alive and had a fair chance to recover," a correspondent for the New York Herald dutifully noted. "The excuse given is that the lawless element among the negroes has been doing all sorts of deviltry, and that it was determined to teach the negroes a wholesome lesson."37
Wyatt's lynching was unremarkable in many regards. His was the thirtieth African American lynched in 1903. There would be at least fifty-five more before the year ended. Yet few developments caused as much delight to leading southern whites than a gruesome racial atrocity committed in the North. Such incidents proved, in their reckoning, that northerners were just as inclined to crimes against African Americans as their southern cousins, and that the end result of greater racial equality like that in the North was simply more brazen criminality and chaos caused by blacks. Many white southerners were further gratified when less than two weeks later a mob in Wilmington, Delaware, seized a black man named George White from his jail cell. White, accused of rape and murder, was tied to a stake, forced to confess the crimes, then shot repeatedly and finally burned.
The Advertiser could hardly restrain its glee.
In the North the negro is an alien, an exostosis on the body politic, as it were. They do not understand him and cannot do so. They talk sympathetically and humidly of his wrongs and his rights, shed some tears over his alleged cruel fate in the South, and then, if he aspires to be a laborer in the hive of industry, they turn on him and drive him out with curses and revilings. If he resists or falls back on the sacred laws of self-deference and self-preservation, he is either shot down or lynched. They love him— at a safe distance.
With us here in the South it is different. We received the negro by inheritance. He came to us through the generations of slavery. Emancipation left him stranded on the shores of a new world, for which he had no preparation and no fitness. The Southern people, remembering the negro of the olden time, when he was the faithful servant, the willing worker and the protector of the family of his master—with all this in their minds our people have borne with him, have helped him and have tried to fit him for some of the duties of citizenship. We recognize in him a part of our population a necessary worker on the farm, in the shop and in the home, but not in any way an equal.
And for all this because the negroes have come down to us from the good days of old; because they are at home with us, and must perhaps forever be in some degree our wards, we owe them justice, fair treatment, and protection in all their civil rights. Now that they have practically lost the right of suffrage, we more than ever owe them our watch care and should throw over and around them the shield of law and justice. The fact that they are lynched in the North, or driven out like dangerous wild beasts is no reason that our people should do the same. Let us not follow the evil example set by those Pharisees who preach what they do not practice and who condemn in others the deeds which they practice among themselves. In short, let us steadfastly refuse to follow the evil examples set by our brethren of the North and the West.38
South Carolina senator Ben Tillman summed up the sentiment more succinctly to a northern audience: "I see you are learning how to kill and burn ‘niggers.’ That's right. Let the good work go on. Keep it up. You are getting some sense."39
Roosevelt had to be astonished. Only a day before Wyatt's murder in Belleville, he had been in the same state, visiting Springfield, barely a hundred miles away, praising black soldiers and promising his "square deal" for African Americans. At the same time, the Justice Department was telling him that slaves were still being held down south. There was nothing the president could do about Wyatt's death; murder was clearly outside the jurisdiction of federal officials. But surely slavery, of all things, was different. He told Attorney General Knox he was personally concerned about the Alabama allegations and asked for a full report. Roosevelt was assured that "vigorous and uncompromising prosecutions" were under way40
In Montgomery, U.S. Attorney Reese was growing more troubled by the scale of the crimes coming to light in the grand jury room. On June 10, he sent an alarmed report to Attorney General Knox. "The conditions of the ‘black belt’ in this district are more deplorable as the investigations of this grand jury proceed. It is now being revealed that hundreds of negroes are held in peonage and involuntary servitude of the most vicious character," Reese wrote. "Men and women are arrested on the flimsiest charges …they are brutally whipped, worked and locked up without let or hindrance. The tortures inflicted are severe and sometimes result in total disability or death. Some counties in this district are honey combed with these slave trade practices."41 Worried that his report might sound like hyperbole—and recognizing the potentially explosive reaction to the case that was bound to soon develop locally—Reese asked for an urgent meeting with officials in Washington.
The stoutly bourgeois Knox, hardly two months removed from his lavish Pittsburgh law offices and now ensconced in the presidential cabinet, was perplexed by Reese's letter. He had to take it seriously. President Roosevelt had expressed concern, and the inquiry grew from charges first lodged by a federal judge—one of Roosevelt's earliest appointees. Reverberations were still rippling across the country from the president's "square deal" speech less than a week earlier.
But Knox couldn't avoid a measure of incredulity. How could so dramatic a state of affairs come to pass, without challenge, in twentieth-century America, even in uncivilized reaches so far from his rarefied world? Moreover, the prosecutor in Montgomery was entirely unknown to Knox, who knew that among the scores of U.S. attorneys named in provincial centers around the nation, many were less-than-extraordinary political operators— holding their positions purely as patronage to local presidential allies or financial backers. Two days later, on the last workday of the week, Knox told an aide to telegraph Reese for a more complete report on the details of the investigation. For the moment, he ignored Reese's request for a personal audience.
The telegraph from Washington arrived at the drafty offices of the U.S. attorney above the Montgomery post office as Friday's work hours came to a close. Reese no doubt shared it with the two other lawyers who assisted him in government cases, Julius Sternfeld and James K. Judkins, and the office secretary—his cousin Mildred Elmore. Sitting near the transomed door to the hallway, she managed his correspondence and appointments and attended to the two modern luxuries of the office—a single Remington typewriter and one telephone.42
Reese knew he faced the most consequential matter of the five years since his first appointment to office. In the balance of the report requested by the attorney general hung all of the family prestige and political support—perhaps even all of the aspirations of eventual Republican power in his state—that had been so dramatically reflected in the flood of supportive letters that paved the way for his selection by President McKinley.
The heavy humid heat of early summer in Alabama was already seeping into the hallways of the post office building. Fixed at his desk that afternoon, he perspired as the temperature approached 90 degrees, sunlight shafting through the wide sash of rippled glass in his window. Past the arched doorways opening from the dark interior of the federal building onto crowded Dexter Street, Reese could have seen and heard the noisy throngs of pedestrians crowding the cobblestone street on either side of the clanging electric trolley line running through the heart of Montgomery. Lines of carriages and horsemen pushed slowly through the crowd. Open wagons pulled by mules driven by muddy black teamsters waited to cross from side streets littered with manure and the debris of commerce.
Four blocks to the east, just beyond the field of view from Reese's window perch, the domed Alabama state capitol peered regally across a city that had become, more than any other, a royal capital of the New South— collecting the tribute of both the region's reengineered cotton empire and its smoke-belching new industrial expansion.
The trolley line ran in an asymmetric loop the length of Dexter Street, then passed out of his view by the old slave auction fountain in Court Square across from the Exchange Hotel. Here, buyers from textile makers and cotton exporters encamped from hundreds and thousands of miles away to bid and contract for delivery six months later of millions of dollars’ worth of cotton from plants only just beginning to peek from the deep black soil of the South's richest cotton region.
If Reese climbed into the five-story-high tower rising atop the post office, he could have followed the line as it threaded through the crowds, drays, buckboards, and early automobiles chugging down Commerce Street toward Union Station. The streetcars crossed Bibb, Coosa, and Tal-lapoosa streets, as they rolled past the long row of cotton warehouses that, by early fall, would be packed with the bulk of southern Alabama's economic output. The cotton compress on the same street packed billions of pounds of lint into five-hundred-pound bales ready to be loaded on railcars or the perpetual line of steamboats waiting a few hundred yards beyond, at the edge of the Alabama River. On the docks there, scores of black men stacked cotton bales atop loads of pig iron taken in Birmingham the day before from the furnaces of Sloss-Sheffield and Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad.
Montgomery luxuriated in the wealth of this surge of cotton—still unmolested by the scourge of the boll weevil and other new insects and diseases that would ravage the crop beginning in a little more than a decade— and the rich new windfall pouring into the state capital from the sale of convicts into the coal and ore mines in Birmingham.
Cotton, steel, and timber were by far the state's largest sources of wealth and livelihood. Alabama produced more than 1.1 million bales of the white lint in 1900—surpassing the pre-Civil War output for the first time and almost tripling the state's production during the first years following the war.43 Vast tracts of forest were under the saw. Yet mineral production and the iron and steel industry surpassed all other economic activity. In 1905, the state's mines, anchored by the slave camps near Birmingham, generated nearly twelve million tons of coal and almost four million tons of iron ore— making Alabama one of the foremost producers of iron, steel, and coal in the world.
Early in the testimony before the grand jury in May of 1903, Warren Reese shared the conventional assumption that the stories of John Pace's abuses in Tallapoosa County were anachronistic relics—isolated redneck antics, certain to be the subject of scorn once exposed. But by the beginning of June, Reese realized how significantly the new slavery underpinned Alabama's cotton, timber, and steel paradise. He knew he was on the verge of an attack on its heart. He could not know how the fight would end, or whether he would survive it.
At noon on June 10, the grand jury filed into the courtroom to report seventeen additional indictments. Then, foreman Judah T. Moses, a wealthy seller of real estate and insurance, gave Judge Jones a written request for advice on the constitutionality of the Alabama statute making it a crime for a worker to break a farm labor contract—which was punishable by a fine of up to $50 or six months of hard labor.
In the note, the jury asked whether the act violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendments of the Constitution. Judge Jones replied that he had devoted "much thought" to this question and would give them an answer later. One juror also inquired whether a justice of the peace who gave a sentence in excess of his authority was guilty of peonage. The judge said that the justice of the peace would not be guilty if the sentence had simply been an honest mistake, but that if the official "acted in bad faith or corruptly" he would be guilty of causing the person to be held in peonage. No judicial proceedings, regardless of how lawful they appear on their face, would be a defense, the judge noted, if they were "a cloak or a fraud to cover up the illegal design to cause persons to be held in peonage."44
Five days later, on June 15, Judge Jones issued a formal charge to the grand jury, answering their inquiries and directing how they should interpret the federal peonage statute as their deliberations continued. Jones began with a long discourse on the origins of the peonage statute after the acquisition of New Mexico by the United States, and then laid out how the new labor system of Alabama appeared to violate that law.
Jones explained that any man who induces a laborer to sign a contract agreeing to be held under guard and unable to leave until a debt is paid was guilty of peonage. A citizen or law enforcement officer who tricked a laborer into believing he could avoid criminal prosecution or a sentence to hard labor only by signing such a contract was guilty of peonage, the judge explained. Anyone who falsely accused a person of a crime in order to compel him or her to sign such a contract or conspired to obtain the labor of a worker through such false charges, Jones wrote, was guilty of violating the pre-emancipation slave kidnapping act, which forbade "carrying away any other person, with the intent that such other person be sold into involuntary servitude."
Jones also declared Alabama's labor contract law—which bound hundreds of thousands of black workers to white landowners—unconstitutional. Any person held against his will under this statute, Jones ruled, should be released on habeas corpus—the ancient legal principle used to win the release of the falsely imprisoned.45
Southern whites immediately recognized the implications of the ruling, and the reaction was furious. "Judge Jones’ …opinion, if sustained by the highest court, is far reaching and with disastrous consequences to the labor system of the South," wrote the Prattville Progress, a newspaper in the heart of a slave-riddled county. "There must be a revolution in the labor system."46
The residents of counties across eastern Alabama were baffled by Judge Jones's interpretation of the law. Tens of thousands of black workers were at labor in Alabama under contracts signed when a white man "confessed judgment" for an arrested black man—paying his "fines" before any prosecution commenced and receiving in return a signed contract for labor.
These arrangements sounded precisely like the ones described by Judge Jones as illegal. Hundreds of farmers were at risk of arrest. Thousands more African American laborers were being forced to work in mines and timber camps under similar contracts signed between county governments and the state of Alabama itself. Some local attorneys asked if farmers who worked convicts for debts were guilty of peonage, wasn't the state of Alabama equally guilty in its handling of convict leases?47 It occurred to virtually no one in Alabama that this was precisely the point. The vast majority of black laborers leased from the law enforcement system were being held illegally.
Even Judge Jones failed to comprehend the full ramifications of his opinion. Like many well-intentioned but still fundamentally racist whites, he naively believed that the system engineered by Pace in Tallapoosa County was an isolated instance of abuse. He accepted the common convention of the time that African Americans were less intelligent and more inclined to criminal behavior than whites. He presumed that the vast majority of blacks arrested in the South were in fact guilty of their crimes, and merited severe punishment. What made him more "progressive" than other whites, and where he differed from most white southerners, was that he believed blacks could not be brutalized in their punishment, and that the concept of impartial treatment of all citizens by the courts had to be upheld.
Rank-and-file southerners, especially in rural sections with large black populations, had no such illusions. They knew Judge Jones had set a standard by which thousands of white men were guilty of slave dealing, that hundreds of state and county officials were in jeopardy, and that the whole financial structure of governments and local economies was at risk. A correspondent to the Birmingham Age-Herald reported that "more than 100 men" in the area of Coosa and Tallapoosa counties—just two of Alabama's nearly seventy counties—were at risk of arrest in the federal investigation. "The people of East Alabama are very much wrought up…. They have been working criminals for twenty years, and the majority of such men do not know they are violating the law," the writer said.
Inundated with bewildered queries, Judge Jones began to realize the breadth of coerced labor in his state. He hadn't intended to set off panic. To quell anxieties, Jones quietly summoned a reporter for the Associated Press and explained that white men could avoid breaking the law if their contracts with blacks were approved by a local judge and signed in court.48 Surely local judges could never condone slavery, Jones reasoned.
While Judge Jones tried to soothe Alabama's worries, Warren Reese asked Sternfeld, the assistant who had listened to much of the testimony brought to the grand jury, to collect for the attorney general the most egregious allegations that had surfaced so far in witness statements and reports from U.S. marshals in the countryside. As Mildred Elmore rattled the Remington's keys, they dictated what became an eight-page report to Washington.
"There have been flagrant abuses and violations … on the part of wealthy and influential men," Reese began. "These violations have not been confined to one or two periodical and independent instances, but it has developed into a miserable business and custom to catch up ignorant and helpless negro men and women upon the flimsiest and the most baseless charges and carry them before a justice of the peace who is usually a paid hireling of these wealthy dealers….
The victim is found guilty and a fine is assessed which, in the beginning cannot be paid by the victim, and then it is that one of these slave dealers steps up, pretends to be the friend of the negro …telling him he will pay him out if he will sign a contract to work for him on his farm…
…the negro readily agrees rather than go to the mines, as he is informed he will have to do, his fine is paid, the contract is signed, and the negro is taken to the farm or mine or mill or quarry of the employer….
Placed into a condition of involuntary servitude, he is locked up at nights in a cell, worked under guards during the day from 3 o'clock in the morning until 7 or 8 o'clock at night, whipped in a most cruel manner, is insufficiently fed or poorly clad—in fact the evidence in nearly all of the cases investigated reveals that the negro men are worked nearly naked, while the women are worked in an equally disgraceful manner.
Brutal things have transpired and sometimes death has resulted from the infliction of corporal punishment….
When the time of a good working negro is nearing an end, he is re-arrested upon some trumped up charge and again carried before some bribed justice and resentenced to an additional time. In this way negroes have been known to have worked on these places in this situation for years and years. They can get no word to friends nor is word allowed to reach them from the outside world…. They are held in abject slavery without any knowledge of what goes on in the outside world.
If they run away the dogs are placed upon their track, and they are invariably retaken and subjected to more cruel treatment….
The indictments so far found are based upon some twenty-five negro men and women who have been the subjects of these violations. These are some of the most severe instances, but it has been discovered there are hundreds of other cases.49
Reese and Sternfeld detailed the physical abuses they had discovered and the extraordinary obstacles to their investigation. In Tallapoosa County, the grand jury had already issued indictments against Pace, Fletch Turner, and the Cosbys. Also charged were the enforcers and procurers of the system, including Robert Franklin, Grogan, Pruitt, and Dunbar, all constables. The jury had indicted the three justices of the peace most flagrantly involved—-James M. Kennedy, Jesse L. London, and W. D. Cosby. Another eight men who had worked as whipping guards for Pace and the other buyers were also under charge, including Turner's son, Allen, and Pace's son-in-law, Anderson Hardy.
Beyond Tallapoosa County, Reese reported, the grand jury was also investigating conditions in Lowndes County—a hundred miles away and deep in the plantation country of the Black Belt, with more than 35,000 black farmhands and sharecroppers working cotton on the land of white men. "This county is really the center where it is charged these practices are more freely indulged than anywhere else. This county, it is claimed, is honeycombed with slavery."50
The slaving practiced in Lowndes County was orchestrated by the sheriff himself, J. W. Dixon. In one case described by Reese, Dixon chased down a black worker named Dillard Freeman, who had left his plantation without permission to visit a sick brother a few miles away. Tracked to his mother's home, Freeman was beaten by Dixon with a pistol, tied with a rope around the neck, and forced to run behind a mule for more than five miles, while the sheriff followed on horseback, "whipping him whenever he would lag behind."
Once back at the plantation, Reese wrote, Dixon began whipping Freeman with a wide piece of rubber belt attached to a wooden handle. "Four men were required to hold him off the ground while Mr. Dixon himself administered the punishment. When Mr. Dixon became tired, another man was made to do the whipping. In this way, the boy was whipped nigh until death. He cannot tell how many licks he was hit, nor can he tell how long this happened." After the whipping, Freeman was chained to the floor near the beds of Dixon and his overseer.
In the grand jury room, Freeman revealed his back, Reese said, showing "one mass of scars from his thighs to his neck."
Yet already the prospects of pursuing a conviction against the slavers of Lowndes County and the other plantation regions where hundreds of thousands more black farmworkers lived were being challenged, Reese advised the attorney general. Dillard Freeman was threatened with death if he testified to the grand jury. A member of the Dixon family had followed him to the courthouse in Montgomery on the day of his first appearance. "It was impossible to get anything out of him because of his fear of death."
When a black grand juror who lived in Lowndes County went home after a week of hearing witnesses, Sheriff Dixon and his four brothers rode up to his house at midnight on horseback and demanded to know what was being said to the grand jury—testimony that is dictated to be secret under the U.S. Constitution. They told the juror to remember that "he had to live in Lowndes county, and if he did not stand up for his own people he knew what to expect," Reese wrote.
The Dixons are "dangerous men," Reese continued. "They are said to have killed several men. It is believed that witnesses who come here and who expect to return to Lowndes county are practically compelled to perjure their souls because they fear their lives."51
As the letter to Knox continued, Reese outlined how the new slavery was far larger than one or two places, and involved far more than scattered pockets of involuntary servitude, confusion about the law, or unintended violations. His timbre rising as the report continued, Reese said that he was receiving daily letters from other Black Belt locations—Wilcox, Sumter, Chambers, and Coffee counties. "Unquestionably, there are hundreds of these people in this district who are held in abject slavery," Reese related.
The prosecutor continued that Judge Jones had just ruled that Alabama's contract labor law—a statute shared in some form by every southern state and effectively criminalizing any black worker who left the employment of a white farmer without permission—was unconstitutional. The implications of the ruling were just dawning on Reese. He realized the black men and women of the South had never been truly set free.
Judge Jones's ruling, Reese wrote, "in effect, amounts to an actual and not a theoretical emancipation of the negro, and it is now necessary that this office make an effort to rescue these people from their condition by and through habeas corpus proceedings."
Reese recognized that his investigation could eventually require thousands of court filings. He asked the attorney general to assign a Secret Service agent to assist with the investigations and to create a new special assistant U.S. attorney to move from county to county in Alabama instituting legal challenges to free enslaved blacks. "Unless the government will take steps to bring these habeas corpus proceedings …they will not be much benefited by these investigations." 52
As Mildred typed out the last lines of the report, the telephone rang. Western Union told the secretary a bicycle delivery boy was pedaling toward them with an urgent message. When the telegram arrived, Reese read that the attorney general wished him to personally deliver his report to Washington. President Roosevelt had been briefed on the investigations and directed that a legal attack be fully pressed.53 Reese called Western Union and dictated a reply. Mildred hastily retyped the last page of Reese's report: "I have just received your wire … I will report to you at ten o'clock morning of seventeenth."54
Reese rushed to Washington, where he outlined for the attorney general the details of the investigation and his belief that much more than scattered peonage was at stake. Knox was cautious, but given the president's specific interest in the cases, the expectations raised by his speech at Lincoln's tomb, and a chorus of cries from northern publications, he could not move slowly. "The new slave-driving in Alabama has pricked the conscience of the nation," proclaimed The Nation on June 11.55
After the meeting, the attorney general authorized what amounted to the most sweeping federal investigation into the working conditions of southern blacks since the Civil War. He directed U.S. attorneys in Montgomery, Birmingham, Mobile, and in the southern sections of Georgia to begin inquiries in their districts, including the densely populated Black Belt, and other areas where more than a million impoverished African Americans lived. Across Alabama and Georgia, the prosecutors sent deputy federal marshals into the countryside with orders to bring back any evidence of ongoing slavery.
Not since the first years of Reconstruction had law enforcement officials of any kind expressed interest in the legal protections of blacks. Suddenly a squad of Secret Service agents led by an indefatigable detective named Henry C. Dickey, as well as every federal marshal across a three-hundred-mile-wide swath of the South, was quietly, if often reluctantly, quizzing African American pastors, sharecroppers, and farmhands about the treatment of black laborers by many of the most prominent white landowners in the South.
By late June, sixty-three indictments had been returned by the Montgomery grand jury, and locals expected as many as twenty more white men to be arrested. The government was holding nearly thirty black witnesses in a closely guarded boardinghouse in a black neighborhood of Montgomery. Not all came from Tallapoosa or Coosa counties. And many witnesses were reported to have appeared at the federal courthouse from counties other than those originally targeted in the investigation.
The ten white men from Coosa and Tallapoosa counties who had been indicted up to that point were summoned to appear in court on June 22. Pace, Fletcher, and many of the others arrived by an evening train the previous day. Monday morning they filed into Judge Jones's courtroom for a grueling, hours-long hearing. Soon, the corridors of the federal building were clogged with lawyers in dark, vested suits and the curious wandering in from the streets and the stone steps of the courthouse. Throughout the morning, U.S. Attorney Reese came in and out of the courtroom, consulting repeatedly with the battery of prominent lawyers representing John Pace.
Montgomery buzzed with speculation. Word rippled through the onlookers that all charges against Kennedy would be dropped once he testified in open court. By now Kennedy was a pariah among his longtime friends. His confessions to the grand jury, implicating at least a dozen other white men, had been widely reported. Meanwhile, word was spreading of letters sent the previous day to every Montgomery newspaper by Fletcher Turner, insisting that all accusations against him were false—most especially testimony that women had been murdered at the Turner farm. He specifically denied the claim that Sarah Oliver had been brutally beaten to death at his place during the previous winter. Then came the day's most sensational story: Pace planned to plead guilty to the charges—and then challenge the validity of the anti-peonage statute to a higher court.56
The court formally convened at noon, with U.S. Marshal L. J. Bryan calling the names of men to form petit juries to hear the evidence in the cases. A large crowd of spectators jammed the courtroom, craning their necks to catch a glimpse across the gallery of the Tallapoosa farmers. Pace, Fletcher Turner and his son, the three Cosbys, and other defendants sat together on a bench near the front of the room. At the bar were the half dozen members of their defense team. The old guard of Alabama was rallying to the men. Among the lawyers was Thomas L. Bulger—son of the Tallapoosa County Confederate war hero, and D. H. Riddle, the Goodwater attorney who had actually participated in some of the fake trials held by his mayor.
Later, the lawyers announced the defense of the Turners had been joined by Gen. George P. Harrison, a flint-eyed lawyer with a jet black beard in the imperial style of the day. He too was a widely remembered former Confederate commander, best known for his central role as a newly appointed colonel in the bloody repulse of the Union army's most famous black regiment, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, during the gruesome battle for Fort Wagner in July 1863.
Judge Jones ordered that the trial of Pace, the Cosbys, and John Kennedy—the newly cooperating witness—begin one week later on charges of peonage and related crimes. Fletcher Turner and his son, Allen, would stand trial beginning July 6. A few days later, the trial of Robert Franklin and Francis Pruitt would begin, followed within a week by Jesse Berry and James Todd, two of the enforcers who helped violently hold slaves on the farms, quarry, and sawmills.
After forming two juries and giving them instructions from the bench, Judge Jones turned to the crowd, warning that any person who entered the court with a weapon would be "sent to the penitentiary" for contempt of court.
Before the day ended, Reese announced that additional indictments had been issued against J. Wilburn Haralson, of Dadeville, and John G. Dunbar, the former city marshal of Goodwater then serving as marshal in Columbus, Georgia. New charges were also announced against the Turners, for holding a black woman named Camilla Hammond. In total, the grand jury had issued ninety-nine indictments against a total of fifteen defendants. Pace alone faced twenty-two counts.
Lawyers for the defendants urged Judge Jones to delay the trial to give the farmers time to harvest their fields and to study the "peculiar" and unfamiliar charges they faced. Reese said the farmers had created the situation for themselves and that black witnesses were being held in Montgomery to protect them from intimidation before trial. "The government is not at liberty to give in detail the instances of this kind," Reese said. "But it can be said that intimidation both of witnesses and grand jurors have been going on in connection with these peonage cases."
Judge Jones concluded that a speedy trial would not burden the defendants unfairly, and made clear that he feared efforts to frighten the witnesses. "The court has nothing to conceal, gentlemen," Judge Jones said. "In a great many of these cases intimidation has been practiced. A witness has been taken from a train. I need not say more. These cases must be tried as early as possible consistent with proper opportunity to make defense."
It was clear that black witnesses were in danger. For days, Reese had been gathering African Americans critical to the trial in Montgomery, housing thirty of them under federal guard in "negro boardinghouses." At one point in the proceedings, Secret Service agent Capt. Henry C. Dickey arrested two black schoolteachers who went to the boardinghouse posing as detectives sent by Judge Jones. They quizzed the black workers about what they were telling government agents, apparently to report back to Pace and the other whites.
Before any of the trials began, federal officials learned that Tallapoosa County had appointed a deputy marshal specifically "to keep an espionage on the negro witnesses of the government," reported Montgomery newspapers.57
Until the day of the arraignments, most of Alabama's political elite and the white general public had imagined that the slavery investigation was entirely the handiwork of the White House and its representative in Montgomery, U.S. Attorney Reese. Judge Jones's directions to the grand jury a week earlier were startling, but his confusing equivocation after denouncing involuntary servitude left open the question of where Jones's true allegiances rested. Across the South, newspapers and politicians still banked on the fact that he would uphold a well-honed ritual of southern posturing in high-profile court cases involving blacks: factitiously expressing the importance of legal rights for African Americans while simultaneously ensuring no harm to a white defendant and aggressively curtailing redress to the black victim.
"It turns out that the main mover in Alabama to break up what is called the peonage system, whereby convicts are held to labor indefinitely by white men, who pay their penal fines and contract their labor in return, is Judge Thomas G. Jones, ex-governor of the state," wrote the Atlanta Constitution. "If there is anything criminal in the system, that criminality should be exposed and punished properly, and whatever of false hue and cry there is on the affair should be exposed." 58
The Montgomery Advertiser continued to proclaim mock surprise at the discovery of forced labor in Alabama: "The character of offense was peculiar and unknown in this country since the emancipation of the negroes. It was practically and to all intents the enslavement of men for a period of time in violation of State and Federal law. There has been much brutality charged and a great deal of testimony given …few of …the people of Alabama …ever dreamed of such things as seem to have existed."59
As the first trial neared, however, it was clear that Judge Jones was deviating from the script. He appeared to be serious. The Advertiser, alarmed that a southern leader would join with a Republican president from New York to attack southern whites who resubjugated blacks, poured forth with what had become the ascendant view of turn-of-the-century white southerners. "A sentiment that is now practically unanimous throughout the Southern States … is that we, the white men of the South, propose to settle racial questions in our own way and in our own time. And we will do it in the way best for both races," the newspaper editorialized.
Several millions of ex-slaves, suddenly exalted to citizenship, was the heritage we received from the Federal government. As if the mere fact of their presence in changed conditions was not serious enough, they were endowed with all the political rights that any citizen of the Union possessed, and for which they were neither prepared nor fitted. And then, to add to the bitterness of our degradation, and the hopelessness of the problem, our country was overrun with adventurers from the North, some of them good and well meaning men, but others as unprincipled scoundrels as ever scuttled a ship or robbed a safe. It was these and their kind who made the condition of the Southern people unbearable and revolt inevitable.
Forgiveness is a Christian virtue and forgetfulness is often a relief, but some of us will never forgive nor forget the damnable and brutal excesses that were committed all over the South by negroes and their white allies, many of whom were federal officials, against whose acts our people were practically powerless. And one of the worst features of this saturnalia was that the ballot in the hands of ex-slaves was in almost every instance, both from their own ignorance and at the instigation of their carpet-bag allies, used to despoil, degrade and humiliate the real citizens of the almost helpless South.
The Advertiser asserted that southern whites made a choice for which they should be applauded—declining to resume armed rebellion against the federal government and instead only stripping African Americans of the right to vote and most other legal rights. That northerners would complain about this—and that some southerners agreed—was infuriating.
What do we see? All over the North we find public speakers and newspapers assailing our methods and our people and in every way, as words can do, inciting the colored people to resist, fomenting discord between the races and in many cases maligning and vilifying the Southern people for their course.
Our people do resent the interference of Northern people in a matter with which they have no real concern, and we intend to continue resenting it. What is more, we intend to settle this race question in our own way and if the result is to have the country "rent again into factions hating each other" …we shall not feel that we of the South are the offending party. We do not hate the North, but we will settle the race question.60
Even in the North, there was consternation about the trials beginning in Alabama, and stirring up issues that northern whites increasingly agreed should be left to southern whites to handle. The Chicago Tribune opined that relations between the South and North had deteriorated to their worst state in more than a decade and pointed to the current message of former President Grover Cleveland and other leading northerners: "The South— the white and the black South—should be let alone to settle their problems in their own way," Cleveland said.
Edgar Gardner Murphy, a moderate white Montgomery resident, insisted in letters to northern newspapers that the Tallapoosa peonage cases did not indicate a massive level of continued black enslavement. In a letter to the New York Evening Post, Murphy wrote:
The sentiment of the whole state has been unanimously insistent upon a thorough investigation of the charges and upon the rigorous punishment of the guilty…. An ignorant and lowly people settled in isolated regions where local courts and local constabularies are often inefficient and sometimes corrupt are always in danger of becoming the prey of brutality and greed. If it is hard for the best sentiment of New York to protect effectively the poor immigrants of her great port from the avarice of thieves and "loan sharks," and it is difficult for your city to protect some of its young girls from the degrading barter of the "cadet."
He argued that the peonage cases weren't the result of leaving the South alone to deal with race issues. Instead, the new rise of slavery was caused by "a persistent policy of intrusive censure and of political threatenings." He said the North placed undue "pressure upon Southern life, putting the South ever on the defensive and partly neutralizing the forces of self-criticism and of local responsibility. Whatever evils may now exist at the South have not resulted from the policy of letting the South alone."61
But as each defendant stood perspiring before Judge Jones in the increasingly crowded courtroom, wearing his best black church suit, bolo tie, and clutching his hat, it became clear that whatever the judge's southern pedigree nothing would be sacrosanct in this proceeding.