On this dayApr 08, 1911
Explosion Kills 128 at Mine That Disregarded the Safety of Black Convict Laborers
On April 8, 1911, the Banner Mine near Birmingham, Alabama, exploded, killing 128 mine workers. According to the official investigation report, “about 90 percent were negro convicts. The other men in the mine were white convicts and free negroes who were employed as shot firers and foremen.”
By 1910, the State of Alabama had become the sixth largest coal producer in the U.S. Between 1875 and 1900, Alabama’s coal production grew from 67,000 tons to 8.4 million tons. This growth was driven in large part by the expansion of convict leasing in the state; in Birmingham, the center of the state’s coal production, more than 25% of miners were leased convicts. In addition, more than 50% of all miners in the state had learned to mine while working as convicts.
State officials quickly learned how to use the convict leasing system to disproportionately exploit Black people. In an average year, 97% of Alabama’s county convicts were Black. When coal companies' labor needs increased, local police swept small-town streets, targeting Black Alabamians for quick arrest on charges of vagrancy, gambling, drunkenness, or theft. These citizens were then tried and convicted, sentenced to 60- or 90-days hard labor plus court costs, and handed over to the mines. Employers frequently held and worked convicts well beyond their scheduled release dates since local officials had no incentive to intervene and prisoners lacked the resources and power to demand enforcement.
Conditions in the mines were deplorable. Imprisoned men were often chained together in ankle-deep water, working 12- to 16-hour shifts with no breaks and surviving on fistfuls of spoiled meat and cornbread stuffed into the rags they wore for uniforms. Describing the experience, a Black former convict laborer recalled that the prisoners had slept in their chains, covered with “filth and vermin,” and the powder cans used as slop jars frequently overflowed and ran over into their beds.
Prisoner safety was not a priority for the mines’ owners and operators. After the deadly explosion, local newspapers reported on the deaths as a humorous event rather than a tragedy of lost life. Coverage listed the victims' names alongside their conviction offenses: vagrancy, weapons violations, bootlegging, and gambling. One rural newspaper reported, “Several negroes from this section... were caught in the Banner mine explosion. That is a pretty tight penalty to pay for selling booze.”