US Steel & the Reinvention of Slavery

Posted on January 24, 2011


The year was 1908.

Green Cottenham had just been arrested for vagrancy in Shelby County, Alabama.  But in that era of the American South, when unemployment among Euro-American males was endemic, the application of the so-called vagrancy law was  reserved exclusively for African American males.  The reason went beyond racism.  The law represented the reintroduction of slavery.

Cottenham was unemployed, even though there was actually work to do in the mines.  But US Steel didn’t have to hire him.  They merely had to wait for the sheriff to arrest him for being unemployed.  Then, with a nearly a one-year sentence of hard labour assessed against him for this non-crime, US Steel could buy Green Cottenham from the country at the rate of $12 dollars a month.  They purchased many such African men from the sheriffs of Alabama.

Here is a description of what happened to Green a few hours after the company purchased him.

…the company [US Steel] plunged Cottenham into the darkness of a mine called Slope No. 12….There, he was chained inside a long wooden barrack at night and required to spend nearly every waking hour digging and loading coal.  His required daily “task” was to remove eight tons of coal from the mine.  Cottenham was subject to the whip for failure to dig the requisite amount, at risk of physical torture for disobedience, and vulnerable to the sexual predations of other miners–many of whom already had passed years or decades in their own chthonian confinement….Before the year was over, almost sixty men forced unto Slope 12 were dead of disease, accidents, or homicide.  Most of the broken bodies, along with hundreds of others before or after, were dumped into shallow graves scattered among the refuse of the mine. —

(Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name, The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, Anchor Books, NY, 2009.)

That is how US Steel got its coal in 1908.  By purchasing slaves from a totally corrupted legal system.  Which did not start to get dismantled until after World War II.

Posted in: history