Saturday, October 31, 2015

This Day In History...The Convict Lease

On October 31, most of us annually don masks and descend upon the neighborhoods of our city or town, seeking the answer to one question: trick or treat?  In eastern Tennessee in 1891 however, miners donned masks for a much more serious and worthy cause, freeing prisoners being forcibly used as free labor, and giving them the chance at a new life.  In today’s version of “This Date in History” I’ll remind you of events that touch on issues at the forefront of political battle today, such as unions, racism, and the free market.  I’ll also talk about how October 31, 1891 was a turning point in what became known as “The Coal Creek War”.

The "Convict lease" system was nothing short of legalized
slavery, and lasted for about 30 years after the Civil War.
“The Convict Lease” was an agreement originally worked out in Tennessee, which quickly spread across the south in the years following the Civil War.  With hundreds of thousands of freed slaves-many released with no more property than the clothes on their back-roaming the south, petty crime had spiked, and without the use of those slaves, production had declined.  The southern economy hadn’t yet figured out how to work without the use of forced labor, and in an effort to both rebuild the south and continue to grow, they turned to an old reliable tactic of production: forced labor.

“Convict leasing” really began for the first time seriously in eastern Tennessee, when Thomas O’Conner, a professional card player with a very deep wallet and some serious political connections negotiated (and by “negotiated” I mean bribed) the Tennessee legislation into a 5 year lease of what amounted to the state’s entire prison system for the price of $150,000.  By 1871, O’Conner had worked out an agreement with the Tennessee Coal Mining Company as the primary lessee of state prisoners for use as coal miners, and then additionally as railroad laborers.

Opponents to the system pointed out it’s similarity to slavery, with the judge and courts acting as traders, while wardens played the part of owners.  The program also used local police to feed them prisoners, as working conditions were hard, leading to a very high turnover rate-as high as 50% in some areas-due to death from incidents involving explosions (dynamite), landslides, cave collapses, and flooding.  Local police were happy to oblige, picking up sweeps for drunks and vagrants when the need for labor was high, who would then be sentenced to anywhere from 60 to 90 days of hard labor-if they managed to survive.

American historian David Oshinsky writes:
“Railroad fever was sweeping the state, and unskilled labor was in short supply.  After little debate and much bribery, the legislators turned over the entire prison system to a professional card gambler named Thomas O’Conner for $150,000 on a 5 year lease.  By 1871, state convicts were laying track and mining coal from Memphis to Knoxville.  Each morning their urine was collected and sold to local tanneries by the barrel.  When they died, their unclaimed bodies were purchased by the Medical School at Nashville for the students to practice on.”

Forced labor from convicts helped ease the pain of the Civil
War on the south's farming system, and was responsible
for a good deal of construction on the country's new railroad.
He goes on to talk about the flexibility of local laws, according to the company’s labor needs:
“The numbers ebbed and flowed according to the labor needs of the coal companies and the revenue needs of the counties and the state.  When times were tight, local police would sweep the street for vagrants, drunks, and thieves.  Hundreds of blacks would be arrested, put on trial, found guilty, sentenced to 60 to 90 days, plus court costs, and then delivered to a “hard labor agent”, who leased them to the mines.  In an average year, 97% of Alabama’s county convicts had “colored” written next to their names.”

Mine owners found convict laborers were not very cooperative, often sabotaging their own work, or the mines in an effort to get time off due to broken equipment, or poor quality of work and thus a decreased demand for their product. To combat this problem, many coal companies mixed in free laborers as well, hoping that with enough men whose jobs could be lost and who wanted to be there, they’d be able to better combat the issues with quality and sabotage.  Unfortunately, adding these free laborers into an abusive work environment introduced the ability to organize-or at least attempt to.

Throughout the 1880’s, free laborers organized to protest such issues as company checkweight men, who routinely underweighed their production to save money, payment in legal tender vs. “scrip” (basically a company credit, perhaps to the company store), and the Convict lease, which robbed free workers of any leverage negotiating fair wages, or the ability to strike, since they could be replaced by workers at ⅙ of the cost of a free laborer.

By the early 1890’s the struggle between workers and ownership in the coal mines and railroads of eastern Tennessee was flirting with real violence, having gone from protesting and lobbying to fire setting.  The workers’ frustrations mounted, and on July 5, 1891 the TCMC locked them out, replacing them with convict laborers; the straw that broke the already fragile peace between the workers and company.  Nine days later, on the 14th of July workers and their allies would raid the convict stockade in Briceville, breaking their fellow convicts out.  The convicts would quickly be returned, only to be released in another raid 6 days later, on the 20th.

Over the next few months, miners would attack the stockades in Briceville and Coal Creek, and Governor Buchanan would convene with legislators to discuss the convict lease, partly due to the rebellion, but also in part due to the company being 11 months behind on “rent” of the convicts.  On October 31, 1891 however, things took a real turn as the miners’ rebellion made a significant change to their strategy: they started actually freeing their comrades.

On the night of October 31, three days after mining leaders had resigned and issued statements officially endorsing and encouraging pacifism in the resolution of their problems, they donned masks and lead 1,000 armed workers in a charge on Briceville’s stockade and mine. After overcoming and disarming the militia stationed there, the miners freed their comrades, supplying them with clean clothes, and putting them on the train to Knoxville, effectively freeing them from the convict lease.  

Some prisoners remained behind and moved on with their liberators to Coal Creek, where they freed still more prisoners in the same fashion, resulting in 300 freed prisoners that night.  Over the next year the miners would continue with this strategy, freeing most of the forced laborers throughout the summer of 1892.  A few more attacks would follow as negotiations carried on, ultimately ending for good when Tennessee became the first state to abolish the convict lease, under the leadership of former pro-lease judge and sitting Governor at the time, Governor Peter Turney.

Looking back, it’s hard not to see the cycle created by greed, both through the government accepting bribes and a company purely seeking profit and let loose on the free market, completely unhindered by regulation.  First, society released these slaves with nothing, then when they had to steal to eat, or couldn’t find housing, would be locked up as vagrants and thieves, sentenced to months of hard labor which they weren’t likely to survive.  Stuck in this cycle, there didn’t appear to be much hope, and for 25 years this policy dominated most of the southern states, as they were reconstructed on the blood, sweat, and tears of the unpaid black worker in much the same way they’d originally been built in the first place.  Today, locals claim that on a quiet night, you can hear the screams of the miners who died in one of the greatest disasters of that time; the Fraterville mining disaster, which killed 184 of 187 men living in the area.  But that is a story for another day in history.

On this day in history, October 31, coal miners in eastern Tennessee struck a critical blow in a bloody war that began as a labor movement, and ended in the liberation of thousands of forced laborers.  This generation of Tennesseans were surrounded by war veterans; their fathers had fought in the Civil War, their sons would fight in World War 1, and their grandsons in World War 2.  This generation fought an important battle as well however, ensuring fair treatment for miners, railroad workers, and laborers all across the South, as the economy and country healed from the Civil War.

Labor unions have certainly grown, and evolved into colossal organizations that often forget their roots.  The dream of a “free market” dominates certain political airwaves, and most seem to have forgotten the origin of labor unions, and the difficult times that existed prior to some of the regulations that were instituted for a reason, in some cases, what seems like a very long time ago.

Friday, October 30, 2015

This Day in History: Battle of the Iron Bridge (Oct 30)

October 30, 637 CE, the Battle of the Iron Bridge, at Antioch in Roman Syria came to an end.  This was a battle waged between Muslims (The Rashiduns) and the Byzantine army-or the Eastern Roman army-the primary military force of the Byzantine forces, and direct descendant of the Roman army.  The battle was fought near a 9 arch stone bridge by the River Orontes, about 12 miles from the city of Antioch itself, with the Byzantine forces defending the city, and the Muslim forces on the attack.  While details of the battle itself were not recorded, it is known that Khalid ibn al-Walid (a companion of the prophet Mohammed) lead the Muslim forces.  The Byzantine forces ultimately surrendered, making just one of hundreds of victories al-Walid would pile up on his resume before his dismissal from the military in the year 638.

With two forces totalling 40,000-50,000 soldiers between them, the battle claimed more than 10,000 lives, and waged on for days, maybe weeks, finally ending in a siege laid by the Muslim invaders against the city itself.  Following this decisive victory, al-Walid moved his forces south, where he continued his victorious march, claiming most of north-western Syria with little difficulty.  Ultimately, al-Walid would unify all of Arabia under one single political entity: the Caliphate.  By the end of his career, al-Walid had achieved hero-like status in his community, due primarily to his military prowess, and earned the nickname "Sword of God".  This was part of the reason for his dismissal, which seemed to be due in part to jealousy of a cousin of his; Umar.  He lived his final years out in Emesa, dying just about 4 years after being dismissed from the military.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

This Day In History...Black Tuesday

As our country finds itself trying to scratch and claw our way out of the worst financial crisis in many of our lifetimes, I often find it useful to look back at historical times of hardship, both at the mistakes that were made leading up to it, and the actions taken afterwards to resolve those issues.  On this day in history, we’ll look primarily at the start of the Great Depression, in particular a day known as “Black Tuesday”.

On Oct 29, 1929 the stock market crashed
and sent the country's economy into a tailspin
The 1920’s were known as the “Roaring Twenties” for two reasons: a rise in organized crime in reaction to Prohibition, and a raging economy, primarily throughout the first half of the decade.  That rage however, was built off of optimism, not real success.  Following the first World War, a feeling of patriotism and optimism swept through the country.  Investors caught the optimistic feeling, pouring money into the stock market as prices soared, with the Dow Jones reaching 350 On October 10, 1929 for the first time in it’s history.

The market couldn’t bear the strain, and began to buckle.  The first hiccup came on September 18, 1929, a day originally labeled “Black Thursday”.  On this day, the market took a sharp turn downward-however the relatively new Federal Reserve System was able to stall the crash in the immediate time frame, however by the end of the next month things had taken a turn for the worse.

On what would become the real “Black Thursday” (October 24, 1929) the market took a sharp turn downwards at the opening bell, dropping 11% to start the day off.  A group of banks put their collective financial weight and buying power behind a man named Richard Whitney, who attempted a tried and true method of stopping the crisis by staging large purchases of certain “blue chip” stocks.  This method had worked in 1893 and 1907 to help pull the country out of potential financial tailspin, and for a moment it seemed like it would work again, as by the end of the day the market had regained some ground, closing at the end of the day down only 6%.

The following week however, the market would finish tearing the heart out of the American financial system, dropping 13% on “Black Monday” (October 28, 1929) losing 38.33 points.  The following day on “Black Tuesday” the market finished it’s plummet, losing 30 more points to shed another 12%.  This on a day that the Dow Jones set a record that would stand for another 40 years; trading a total of 16 million shares amidst wide speculation that President Herbert Hoover would veto the pending Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act.

The Glass-Steagall Act eventually helped pull the
country out of it's financial tailspin.
The market would experience a brief one day recovery on the 30th, but over the next several weeks it would continue to crash, ultimately bottoming out around 198 points (from that previous high of 350).  Over the next two decades the market would continue to slide, and then slowly begin to build itself back up.  In fact it would be more than another 25 years-November 23, 1954-before the market would fully recover and hit that pre-crash high of 350 again, as economists tried to figure out the best way to regulate things and avoid sharp crashes like that of 1929 again.

Such regulatory measures as the Glass-Steagall Act grew out of the experiences of 1929, in much the same way regulatory measures such as Sarbanes-Oxley or the Dodd/Frank has grown out of the financial failures our country has experienced over the last decade or so.  The question history forces us to ask today is the same that it forced economists to ask in 1929 however; will the same policies that have worked in the past work this time?  Only time will tell...

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

This Day in History...The Volstead Act

Sometimes it truly amazes me to go back in time and read about struggles over the same issues we find dominating airwaves and internet space today.  In truth however, most political issues are never ending battles that span across many decades.  Today we see uprising with the “Tea Party” and “Occupy” movements lashing out against corporate favoritism, leading to the entire country attacking lobbying, as we collectively realize just how much it has shaped the legislature of our land.  In 1919, the true birth of lobbying as we know it today culminated in one of the biggest changes in legislature our country has ever seen-and also one of it’s biggest failures.  I write about today in history to remind us all of what happens when we let special interests write our laws.

“The Volstead Act” (aka “The Prohibition Act”) was an act written by Wayne Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon league, one of the most powerful lobbyists and men in politics at the time.  He’d been an employee of the Anti-Saloon league since graduating college, and had quickly risen through the ranks.  Wheeler all but invented pressure politics, otherwise known as “Wheelerisms” in today’s political world.  Under the leadership of Wheeler, the ASL focused solely on promoting prohibition, working feverishly to advance that agenda at all costs, while ignoring all other issues including party.

The act would be passed, and then vetoed by President Woodrow Wilson, however on this day in history-October 28, 1919-Congress overrode that veto, passing the Volstead Act into law as a reaction to the political pressure organizations such as the ASL, and smaller organizations like the Prohibition Party piled on them.  With a man who wielded the clout of Wheeler-a man who according to his former publicity secretary “controlled six Congresses, dictated to two Presidents of the United States” and “directed legislation in most of the states of the union” it was almost impossible to imagine the bill not passing.

The ASL pushed their agenda on every front they could, ranging from legislature and lobbying in congressional hearings to emotional appeals to anti-German feeling that still hung in the air throughout the country following the first World War.  They attacked at every level of legislation, from local to state to federal until finally a Constitutional Amendment was passed; the 18th Amendment barring the “manufacture, sale, and transport of intoxicating beverages”.  This left a few questions to be asked, not the least of which was: just what is an “intoxicating beverage”?  The Volstead Act was drafted to answer all the questions of just how the 18th amendment would be interpreted and enforced.  As the main lobbyists, supporters, and proponents of the amendment, Wheeler and his ASL co-workers were the right people to write the act.

The Volstead Act answered three main questions regarding the 18th Amendment;
1) What is an “intoxicating beverage”?
2) What will the penalties be for breaking the law?
3) Are there any exceptions to the amendment?

The first version of the bill identified anything over .5% alcohol percentage to be an intoxicating beverage, however it did allow citizens to make juice that was not intoxicating for themselves.  Very quickly, the .5 limit would be struck down however, (by the Bureau of Internal Revenue) leading to the effective legalization of homemade wine.

The act failed miserably when it came to punishment and enforcement of the 18th amendment.  While it did call for trials for all offenders, many-if not most-of those trials were unsuccessful.  In one sampling, of over 4,000 arrests there were merely 6 convictions.  One of the major problems was that the act failed to allocate enough resources, committing too few agents to enforce and oversee such large areas as to virtually guarantee their failure.  You see, proponents of the act and amendment never foresaw the negative affects, with some believing so staunchly that alcohol was essentially the root of all evil, that many towns even sold their jails on the eve of Prohibition, thinking they’d never need to use them again.

Lastly, the act outlined many exemptions, including the ability of doctors to actually prescribe alcohol to cure certain ailments.  What resulted was really a maze of exemptions, allowing almost anyone who wanted to bypass the new law to do so.  Between the unclear language outlining the implementation of the act, the poor planning regarding public backlash, and the ability of most to bypass the law if they wanted to, the act was more or less doomed to fail from the get-go.

The Volstead Act ultimately failed completely, when on December 5, 1933 Utah became the 31st state to ratify the 21st amendment, striking down the 18th and ruling the Volstead Act to be unconstitutional.  With Wheeler dead in 1927 within a year of his retirement and the namesake of the act; Andrew J. Volstead out of the House of Representatives in 1923 there were few willing to combat the rise of public pressure to repeal the 18th amendment, as the government finally decided to return the power of regulating alcohol to the states once and for all.