Thursday, July 22, 2010

One Dies, Get Another - Part Four

Being a product of the North Carolina public school system, I was never taught about the Labor Movement in America.

I never heard of the Coal Creek War in the coal fields north of Knoxville.

In 1891, the Western North Carolina Railroad was finished to Murphy, NC. That same year, eighty miles away, Tennessee prepared to lease out prisoners to work the mines.

Mine owners had long threatened to hire convict crews if the miners attempted to organize. After rejecting demands from workers, the Tennessee Coal Mining Company shut down the Briceville, TN mine, then reopened it with a convict labor force.

TCMC destroyed several workers’ homes to build a stockade for the prison work crews. “Tensions ran high,” as they say.

On the night of July 14, 1891, 300 armed miners surrounded the stockade, obtained the surrender of the guards, and marched the convicts to Coal Creek where they were put on a train to Knoxville.

Though he had been elected as labor-friendly, Governor John P. Buchanan brought the convicts back to Briceville, escorted by three companies of the state militia. Under the comand of Colonel Granville Sevier (great grandson of John Sevier) the militiamen remained at the stockade to guard the convicts.

Harper’s Magazine reported what happened one week later:

On the 20th of July a body of 1000 miners at
Briceville, 'I'ennessee, attempted to compel the withdrawal
of the convicts who were working in the
mines at that place. The Governor, by' ordering
ten companies of militia to hold themselves in readiness
to march to the place, succeeded in preventing
a more serious disturbance. Five days later the
dissatisfied miners withdrew upon the assurance of
the Governor that he would call an extra session of
the Legislature to act on the convict lease system
authorized bv the law of the State.
-Harper’s, Oct 1891, p. 805

Ignoring the governor, Tennessee’s legislature made it a felony to interfere with the convict labor system.

Tennessee Mining Company camp and stockade in Briceville

On October 31, miners burned the Briceville stockade and seized another stockade on Coal Creek. They freed more than 300 prisoners, provided them with food and civilian clothes. They burned another stockade on November 2 and freed 153 convicts.

Despite resistance from the miners, the state and the coal companies were determined to use convict labor in the mines. Violence continued. When militiamen were shot and killed, public opinion began to turn against the miners, leading to a massive crackdown and arrest of hundreds of miners.

Governor Buchanan was vilified by the coal companies and the miners. His political career was over.

By 1896, the legislature recognized that the economic benefit of the convict leases was outweighed by the cost of maintaining the militia , and abandoned the system, becoming one of the first states in the South to end the practice.

The events of Coal Creek inspired several songs. Uncle Dave Macon wrote and recorded Buddy Won't You Roll Down the Line:

Way back, yonder in Tennesee, they leased the convicts out.
They worked them in the coal mines against Free Labor stout.
Free Labor rebelled against it; to win it took some time.
But while the lease was in effect, they made 'em rise and shine.

chorus: Oh, Buddy, won't you roll down the line?
Buddy, won't you roll down the line?
Yonder come my darlin', comin' down the line.
Buddy, won't you roll down the line?
Buddy, won't you roll down the line?
Yonder come my darlin', comin' down the line.

Every Monday morning, they've got 'em out on time.
March them down to Lone Rock, said to look into that mine.
March you down to Lone Rock, said to look into that hole.
Very last word the captain say--"You'd better get your pole."

The beans they are half done, the bread is not so well.
The meat is a-burnt up and the coffee's black as heck.
But when you get your task done you're glad to come through at all.
For anything you can get to eat--it taste good, done or raw.

The bank boss is a hard man, a man you all know well.
And if you don't get your task done, he's gonna give you hallelujah!
Carry you to the stockade, and it's on the floor you'll fall.
Very next time they call on you, you'll bet you'll have your coal!

Jilson Setters recorded Coal Creek Troubles in 1937:

My song is founded on the truth,
In poverty we stand.
How hard the millionaire will crush
Upon the laboring man.
The miner's toiling under ground
To earn his daily bread;
To clothe his wife and children
And see that they are fed.

Some are from Kentucky,
The place known as my birth;
As true and honest-hearted man
As ever trod this earth.
The Governor sent the convicts here
And works them in the back;
The captain and his soldiers
Are leading by in rank.

Although the mines are guarded,
The miners true and fair,
They mean to deal out justice,
A living they declare.
The corruption of Buchanan
Brought the convicts here,
Just to please the rich man
And take the miner's share.

The miners acted manly,
When they turned the convicts loose;
You see, they did not kill them
And gave them no abuse.
But when they brought the convicts here
They boldly marched them forward;
The miners soon were gathered
And placed them under guard.

Soon the miners did agree
To let them take their place;
And wait the legislature
To act upon the case.
The law has made no effort
To lend a helping hand;
To help the struggling miner
Or move the convict band.

Buchanan acted cruelly
To put them out to toil.
He says he has not room enough
For the convicts in the wall.
He has no law to work them
Only in the pen.
Why should they be on public work,
To rob the laboring man?

I am in sympathy with the miners,
As everyone should be.
In other states they work free labor,
And why not Tennessee?
The miners true and generous
In many works and ways,
We all should treat them kindly,
Their platform we should praise.

The Lord in all His wisdom
Will lend a helping hand,
And if we hold out faithful,
God will strive with man.
He gives us happy sunshine,
A great and glorious light.
He'll give us food and raiment,
If we'll only serve Him right.

Coal Creek Watershed Foundation has the scoop on the Coal Creek War, with a self-guiding tour and much more:
The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture includes an entry on the "Convict Lease Wars":

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