- The Tennessee Convict War
A thousand masked coal miners marched on the small coal town of Briceville, Tennessee, on Halloween night 1891. There, they “treated” convict workers to liberty while depriving mine operators of their bound labor supply. This sortie marked the culminating affair of a remarkable series of events that Karin Shapiro persuasively describes as “one of the most far-reaching challenges to governmental and industrial authority in the New South” (p. 235).
Simply by bringing this fascinating chronicle fully to light, Shapiro adds significantly to the literature in the field, but her contribution extends much further, ultimately helping us to understand much about the character of industrial and community relations in the small coal towns of the postbellum South.
Over the past several years the study of southern convict labor has attracted the attention of a talented cadre of historians. In one of the earliest and most comprehensive of those studies, Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the Nineteenth-Century American South (1984), Edward Ayers details the peculiar character of an amoral criminal justice system that entrapped accused miscreants and the abhorrent system of forced labor to which they were subjected following their conviction.
Matthew Mancini’s indictment of the leasing system in One Dies, Get Another: Convict Leasing in the American South, 1866–1928 (1996), is even more devastating. Ultimately, Mancini concludes that convict leasing was not simply slavery resurrected under a new name; it was much worse. Alex Lichtenstein added still another dimension to the story in Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South (1996). Lichtenstein argues that convict labor played a key role in exploiting the mineral resources and building the transportation infrastructure that facilitated New South economic modernization. In addition to these studies, [End Page 587] convict labor systems recently have been examined in Texas and Mississippi, including the latter’s notorious Parchman Farm. 1
But Shapiro’s book is less about convicts and the circumstances associated with their incarceration than it is about political protest. The prisoners, themselves, are distinctively passive players in the drama; indeed, we learn little about the treatment of either convict or free miners. The author is more interested in the role of the state in New South industrial relations and the variety of strategies that laborers used to influence it. In the process, she tells us much about the civic culture and political behavior of southern workers.
The basic story is this. For the residents of four small Tennessee towns located in the southern Appalachian coalfields, mining held the promise of their industrial future. But mine owners in these communities dashed that prospect by leasing from the state an ever increasing number of convict laborers. The Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company (TCIR) first introduced the use of such bound workers in 1871, and the practice quickly spread as the supply of convicts grew.
The Tennessee coal industry existed in a highly competitive, relatively limited regional market. It further suffered from inadequate capital resources and excessively high freight rates. As most operators saw it, the key to profitability depended almost exclusively on reducing labor costs; consequently, the allure of a convict work force proved irresistible. Not only was prison labor supposedly cheaper and more pliable than free labor, but it also had a depressing effect on labor militancy and union organizing. With the complicity of state officials, inmates could always be used to replace striking miners. Prison labor, then, became a panacea for the employers’ production and marketing problems. It would assure a substantial pool of low-priced bound labor, keep down the cost of free labor, and curb challenges to work rules.
Understandably, free miners fiercely opposed a system of labor that depressed their wages and compromised their ability to negotiate better working conditions. But the use of convict labor also imperiled the economic well-being of town merchants and service...