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Chapter Four Lilly and Alberta Birmingham, Alabama, 1899 I’m a-rolling, I’m a-rolling. I’m a-rolling through an unfriendly world. —African American Spiritual It is impossible to know exactly when Lilly King’s carefully ordered life began to fall apart. When I asked my mother about Lilly’s husband Richard King, she did not even recognize his name. The only story Mom had ever heard about her grandfather was that he “left the family” after Alberta was born. When I looked for Richard King in the U.S. census records for 1900, I found him living in a prison on the outskirts of Birmingham. Was there a thief or a murderer in my family? What had my great-grandfather done to land him in jail? The answer to these questions was linked inextricably to America’s racist past. In 1860 Alabama’s citizens enjoyed a per capita wealth nearly twice that of other Americans.1 But by the end of the Civil War, the state was almost bankrupt . Alabama had little in the way of industry, and its infrastructure had been destroyed in the war. The only resources that remained were its fertile land and its large African American labor force. In order for the state to extract the most profit from these resources, Alabama’s black citizens would have to be deprived of all political and economic power. In other words, in order to return to its halcyon days, the state of Alabama needed to find a way to bring back slavery in everything but name. In 1871 white supremacists swept into power with a plan to do exactly that. The “Black Codes” were repressive laws that targeted Alabama’s African American citizens and were among the first laws enacted by this so-called Redeemer legislature. By 1880 it was illegal for a black man to change jobs without his employer’s permission. Even walking down the street could earn an African American ten years of hard labor unless he had a written note from his employer.2 By the 1890s blacks had lost all the political and economic gains they’d made at the end of the Civil War. Alabama’s large black workforce was once again 14 15 Lilly and Alberta, Birmingham, Alabama, 1899 cheap and docile. Due to the Black Codes, Alabama was now imprisoning so many African Americans that it faced a new crisis: How was the state, financially strapped and still reeling from the Civil War, going to afford to feed and house its ever-growing inmate population? The state legislature devised an ingenious solution. Instead of keeping its prisoners in jails, Alabama would lease them out to mining and railroad companies.3 Although slavery was illegal, making state and county prisoners work without pay was not. Convict leasing was not only legal, it was profitable. By 1900 the income generated from selling convict labor to private companies accounted for one-quarter of Alabama’s tax revenue. In 1900 Tennessee Coal and Iron Railroad, the company that operated the mine where Richard King was imprisoned , took in earnings of over $2 million. That would be $52,800,000 in today’s money.4 In order to meet the mining company’s increasing demand for labor, black men had to be sent to prison on a regular basis. The “crimes” committed by these men hardly mattered. Historian Douglas Blackmon notes that Alabama courts frequently sent men to prison for vagrancy, a crime whose definition he describes as “deliberately vague and understood to be only rarely applicable to whites.” Blackmon also found cases where the court did not even bother to specify the crime for which the man was being punished. The county clerk simply listed the black men’s crimes as “unspecified” and shipped them off to the mines.5 Given the tenor of the times and the color of his skin, Richard King’s imprisonment was virtually inevitable. My great-grandfather’s first day in prison must have been terrifying. After spending the night in iron shackles, King and the four hundred other prisoners at Tennessee Coal and Iron’s Prison Number One were marched from their barracks and lowered into the mine, a maze of slimy black tunnels lit by flickering kerosene lanterns. King, a country boy who’d spent his entire life behind a plow, would have spent the next twelve hours crouched on a four-foot-bytwo -foot ledge, chopping at rocks with a pickax. Richard King...


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