On April 8, 1911 the weather was lousy in much of Alabama. It rained in the town of Littleton in Jefferson County, the place where the Banner Coal Mine was located.
The mine was operated mostly by African American prisoners who, under the state of Alabama’s disgraceful convict lease system, had been “leased” to the mine owners.
Most of the prisoners in the mine were there for incredibly minor offenses. Among the worse were several who allegedly had stolen a bicycle. Regardless of how minor their crimes were, however, on August 8 all of them received the death penalty in what until today is still the worst mining accident in Alabama history.
As horrific as the explosion that killed the 128 men in the mine was, the decision by Alabama afterward to continue with the practice of selling convicts into hard and deadly labor was even worse.
“They paid for their crime not only with their works and imprisonment, but also with their life,” read an editorial in the Tuscaloosa News from April 12, 1911. “That such a thing should happen is a blot on justice. The whole thing goes to show the utter wretchedness of our convict laws and demands in the name of right and humanity they be revised.”
Despite the protests of progressives in the state, the convict-lease system remained in place until 1928 in Alabama. Even after the explosion, the Banner Mine owners won the right to have their mine be the only mine in Alabama to which prisoners could be sent.
The tragedy, as horrible as it was, was just one of many at the mine. In the six years before the explosion there were accidents that killed 18, 39, 57, 89, and 112 miners at a time. Just three days before the big explosion, two black convicts died from lack of oxygen in the mine. Douglas Blackmon, a Wall Street Journal reporter, wrote about this in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Slavery by Another Name.”
“Everywhere in the slave mines of Birmingham was death. Hardly any week passed when one or more dead black corpses weren’t dragged up from inside the earth, heaped atop the mounds of coal in the rail cars, or found dead in the simple infirmaries of a prison.
“Mining companies such as Pratt Consolidated Coal Co. (the owner of the Banner mine) derived too much benefit from cheap workers who couldn’t form unions or protest working conditions, and state leaders and county sheriffs were addicted to the money they raked in from rounding up men, mostly black, on trivial crimes and selling them to the highest bidder.”
Most of those who died were serving sentences of less than 20 days on trumped up charges of “vagrancy.”
Only a day before the big explosion, the Alabama legislature had failed to pass a bill that would have ended the practice of leasing convicts to private companies. The measure that failed would have replaced the convict lease system with a law that put convicts instead into chain gangs doing road work. That bill didn’t finally pass until 1928.
After years of struggle, unions were able to influence policy that resulted in the establishing of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration – MSHA.
Photo: Miners at the slope entrance to the Banner Mine. From the Birmingham Public Library Archives via the Encyclopedia of Alabama.