Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Diamonds in the Rough: A History of Alabama's Cahaba Coal Field

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Diamonds in the Rough: A History of Alabama's Cahaba Coal Field

Article excerpt

Diamonds in the Rough: A History of Alabama's Cahaba Coal Field. By James Sanders Day. (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2013. Pp. [xiv], 209. $49.95, ISBN 978-0-8173-1794-2.)

The Cahaba coal field is considerably smaller than the better-known Warrior field to its west and north in central Alabama. But as James Sanders Day shows in Diamonds in the Rough: A History of Alabama's Cahaba Coal Field, its story is every bit as interesting and instructive. Day thoroughly describes the field's discovery and early development, but the most significant part of his study covers the 150 or so coal mines in the Cahaba and the workers and their families who lived in the mining communities. Day uses personal recollections, official records, and secondary sources to produce a history that nicely complements Crandall A. Shifflett's excellent Coal Towns: Life, Work, and Culture in Company Towns of Southern Appalachia, 1880-1960 (Knoxville, 1991).

Day's chapter on convict labor is especially compelling. Alabama continued the practice of leasing convicts (usually African Americans, many serving short terms for misdemeanors) to mining companies and other businesses until 1927, longer than any other southern state. Treatment was brutal, and security measures made mining accidents deadlier than would have been the case otherwise: a fire in the Cahaba field at Lucile in 1910 killed 27 prisoners, and an explosion a year later in Alabama's Warrior field killed 122 convicts. Reformers' efforts to keep convicts out of the mines were thwarted by owners and state officials.

Most workers in the coal towns were free, not convicts, and Day describes their lives in greater detail. Mine owners operated on a system of welfare capitalism, to keep unions out and workers happy. …

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