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Erik Loomis @ErikLoomis
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This Day in Labor History: July 20, 1891. Miners in the Coal Creek War force a militia to surrender in battle to keep prisoners from stealing coal jobs. Let's talk about the complexity and problems of prison labor, now and then.
After southern treason in defense of slavery was crushed, not only was the southern elite stripped of their capital, but the states themselves were a physical and financial wreck, often run through over and over again by four years of battles and marches.
Such was the case in Tennessee. Other than Virginia, no southern state suffered more damage. The state had no money. But the Reconstruction government there did have prisoners to exploit.
Without the ability to even pay to keep prisoners, in 1866, Tennessee began renting their convicts out to coal companies in exchange for the companies paying for their board. This was common. Virginia did it--one was a black former Union soldier named John Henry.
The irony of unpaid prison labor in the wake of the Thirteenth Amendment is rich, but that amendment did make an exception for prisoners and that loophole has been blown wide open ever since.
By 1871, Tennessee was leasing its convicts to the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railway Company, which subcontracted to small coal mines. This immediately created dissatisfaction from free laboring coal miners, but there wasn't much organized action against it in the early years.
During the 1870s, Coal Creek, in Anderson County on the Cumberland Plateau, became the state’s coal center. By the 1880s, miners, locked out of the profits the coal companies raked in on their unfree labor, began seriously organizing.
Ultimately, it was the rise of the Farmers’ Alliance, the state organizations that would lead to the Populist Party, that gave miners the organization they needed to resist unfree competition.
The Tennessee Farmers Alliance and their allies in the fading but still locally relevant Knights of Labor elected several supporters to the state legislature, as well as a new governor.
Feeling emboldened, it next made direct demands on the coal mines, including the end of the use of company scrip and that miners could use their own checkweighmen, which were the people who weighed the coal and determined how much the miner would get paid.
In fact, both of these things were already mandated by state law but ignored by the owners.
In the face of new pressure, most agreed, but the Tennessee Coal Mining Company, operating a mine on Coal Creek, near Briceville, refused and moreover, tried to force miners to sign a locked-in 2 year contract that gave them none of these things.
When they refused, TCMC shut the mine and reopened it on July 5 with state prisoners contracted through TCI. It then tore down company housing, kicking out residents, to build a new stockade for the convict laborers. In other words, prisoners were used as unionbusters.
This led to an explosion of anger. On the evening of July 14, fearing more convict laborers, miners and other concerned locals met and decided to do something about it.
The next evening, a group of 300 armed miners marched to the stockade, probably led by local Knights of Labor members, took it over, and placed the prisoners on trains to Knoxville.
They hoped their newly elected governor, John Buchanan, would support their action based on their own version of private property rights–they were defending their wages and property from essentially enslaved people.
But Buchanan himself helped escort the prisoners back to Briceville, one of many examples of the Farmers Alliance, Populists, and unionists electing people to state office during this era, only to have them turn on their labor supporters when the opportunity to cash in came.
Shots were fired at the stockade that night and 100 militia members were left to guard the prisoners. On the morning of July 20, 2000 armed miners surrounded the stockade.
Miners came all the way from Kentucky, as the convict miners had recently been evicted in that state and they worried about the system returning. The militia surrendered and the convicts were loaded on a train back to Knoxville. Local miners would not accept unpaid competition.
This put greater pressure on Buchanan, who got the miners to back off with the promise of a legislative session to deal with the legality of convict labor. Little happened though and a state court ruled against the miners, placing the sanctity of contract over all.
Miners responded by taking over TCMC and burning buildings. The 300 prisoners in the stockade were freed, given clothing and food, and told to go somewhere else. On November 2, another band of miners did the same at the stockade at Oliver Springs, freeing another 150 prisoners.
Finally, the state dispatched armed militia to ensure the ability of TCMC to use convict laborers. The militia were largely from west and middle Tennessee, and there was immediate tensions between the two sides, with plenty of shooting at each other.
But by this time, TCMC wanted to be done with the convict laborers, which had become more trouble than they were worth. The company came to an agreement with the miners to stop using the prisoners.
That said, TMI had no interest in stopping its contracting with mine companies for this profitable operation. It directly purchased a mine at Oliver Springs and sent the prisoners there. This led to another round of violent conflict.
Miners in Grundy County and Marion County tore and burned down stockades there. At Coal Creek, the militia head was captured and a direct charge on the militia led to the killing of 2, but the miners couldn’t take the stockade.
At this point, Buchanan ordered a militia company of 600 men to retake east Tennessee from the miners. This proved effective and hundreds of miners were jailed. Only one miner served any meaningful jail time as many fled and others were acquitted. Order was restored.
Tennessee banned the convict lease system in 1896, making it one of the first southern states to do so. It didn’t do this because it opposed using unpaid labor, but because the cost of keeping the militia in the field was more than the money the state made on the prisoners.
The Coal Creek War became part of Appalachian lore and songs were written about it.

The Coal Creek War is a useful moment to talk a little bit about the legacy of prison labor in the U.S. Prison labor has a long history. It still exists today. That minorities are prisoners are rates far higher than demographically predicted is of course the point.
So whether we are talking vagrancy laws under the Black Codes, John Henry, the Tennessee mines, or prison workers today, the point is for companies to find ways to pay workers the most exploited wages possible, setting downward pressure on the labor market.
It's highly unfortunate that the 13th Amendment had the clause excepting prisoners because this is a terrible loophole used ever since to exploit people of color, primarily, and extend the principle of slavery or near-slavery to the present.
Back on Monday to discuss the time Alexander Berkman tried and completely failed to assassinate the vile Henry Clay Frick, which is one of many reasons you can never trust an anarchist to do anything right.
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