Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2018/Fall/Section 3/Bennie Amerson

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Bennie Amerson[edit]

Bennie Amerson
Louis Shafer, miner, with armful of groceries bought at company store. 1942
BornUnknown
DiedUnknown
NationalityAmerican
OccupationCoal miner, Foreman

Bennie Amerson was a coal miner, foreman, and former moonshiner who spent much of his life in Republic, Alabama.

Biography[edit]

Bennie Amerson’s place and date of birth is unknown, but as of 1939 he had lived in Republic, Alabama for many years. Amerson and his wife Mary had seven children, three sons and four daughters. He became a coal miner when he was seventeen years old, and spent fifteen years at a mine in Republic before moving to Walker County. There, he became partners with his former boss at a new mine, but returned to Republic as a foreman shortly after the lease on the mine ended. Both Amerson and his wife mentioned his love of mining to a Federal Writers Project interviewer. According to an interview with his wife, Amerson struggled with alcoholism, but was otherwise an amiable husband. Amerson was nearly arrested for distilling his own whiskey during Prohibition, but hid the evidence before the authorities arrived. Amerson also supported labor unions, but was weary of the United Mine Workers of America leadership. While it is unknown if he was a union member himself, he believed that every worker should have to right to join a union. Amerson was interviewed for the Federal Writers Project on June 16, 1939, but his death date us unknown.[1]

Social Issues[edit]

Prohibition and Bootlegging in Alabama[edit]

The Eighteenth Amendment prohibited the sale, importation, manufacturing, and transportation of alcohol. Prohibition lasted from January 17, 1920 to December 5, 1933. A large market for illegal liquor, known as moonshine, emerged as a result of the ban. Bootleggers would make their own alcohol with hidden stills and sell it to individuals or distributors. Bootlegging lead to the development of larger criminal organizations that monopolized the illicit alcohol market.[2] The state of Alabama banned alcohol in 1915 and did not lift said ban until 1937, with some counties remaining dry until this day.[3] Women’s groups and church groups primarily lead the temperance movement in Alabama in the early twentieth century. By 1908, 45 of Alabama’s 67 counties were dry. Despite the strength of the temperance movement, Alabama led all other states in the amount of illegal stills found in 1920.[4] Alabama is home to numerous cave systems; many of which served as underground speakeasies and distilleries.[5]

Coal Mining in Alabama[edit]

Coal mining was a notoriously risky job due to extremely poor working conditions and accidents, like roof falls, killed hundreds of miners per year.[6] Mines often had poor ventilation and workers, particularly African American workers, were often mistreated. During the 1930s, the Bureau of Mines had no authority to enforce safe mining practices, so workers had to advocate for more legal protections.[7] The Bureau also faced significant budget cuts as a result of the Great Depression and had to cease all research on mechanical equipment, explosives, and roof falls, as well as close the Health Division of the Bureau.[8] However, the United Mine Workers of America made significant progress in improving working conditions in coal mines in the 1930s.

In the early years of the Great Depression in Alabama, coal mining was hit hard as both reduced output and changing energy use greatly decreased demand. In 1932, Alabama coal miners, on average, only worked 107 days out of the year, half the average number of work days in 1922.[9] Coal output was also halved.[10] By 1933, 60.5 percent of electricity in Alabama was produced by hydroelectric plants while coal only created 1.3 percent.[11] Alabama was slower to mechanize its mines, but by the 1930s significant amounts of coal was cut and loaded by machines.[12] By 1939, 71.4 percent of the state’s coal was machine cut and 24.3 percent was mechanically loaded.[13] Due these factors, there was significantly less work, particularly entry level work, available to miners.

Racism within Alabama Coal Mines[edit]

African American coal miners faced significant discrimination in Alabama coal mines. Until 1928, state prisoner leasing was legal in Alabama, but afterwards county governments still leased convicts to private companies.[14] Black miners also suffered employment discrimination due to automation. Most jobs available to African American miners were manual labor such as loading, and these jobs began to disappear as more machines were used. Many mine officials refused to hire African American workers in mechanical and supervisory jobs due to racist attitudes.[15] Due to this, and the illegalization of prisoner leasing, the percentage of African American miners dropped by 0.6% between 1920 and 1930.[16] The system of prisoner leasing in Alabama began in 1866 as a way to increase state revenues and provide private companies with cheap labor.[17] The system was essentially a continuation of slavery as African Americans had few legal rights to contest their arrests. African American men were targeted by vagrancy laws, laws prohibiting unemployment, and bias policing. The practice was widely used, and most of these convicts were sent to work in coal mines.[18] Convicts were often maltreated and worked in subpar conditions.[19]

Unionization and the United Mine Workers of America[edit]

During the Great Depression, labor unions made large gains due to the pro-labor stance of the Roosevelt administration. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was a supporter of unions in the private sector and believed that collective bargaining was a worker's "fundamental right".[20] The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 allowed for collective bargaining and immensely strengthened unions. The United Mine Workers of America rapidly gained membership during the Great Depression, and even managed to organize coal miners in the South into unions where the labor movement was not as strong.

Once the Great Depression hit, working conditions and pay worsened for all mines, black and white. This helped UMWA officers appeal the a wider breath of workers, and, by 1935, only ten percent of miners were outside the UMWA.[21] Federal support for organized labor also bolstered the union. Though the UMWA had mostly white leaders and members, it was integrated. Many white members were opposed to the minor influence of African American workers and left to join all white unions.[22]

  1. McDonald, Nettie S. and Kytle, Jack (interviewers): I'm Crazy 'bout Rats, 16 June 1939, Folder 55, Federal Writers' Project Papers, 1936-1940, Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  2. Lerner, Michael. "Prohibition: Unintended Consequences." PBS. 2011. Accessed September 24, 2018. http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/prohibition/unintended-consequences/.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Aldrich, Mark. "Engineers Attack the "no. One Killer" in Coal Mining: The Bureau of Mines and the Promotion of Roof Bolting, 1947-1969." Technology and Culture 57, no. 1 (01, 2016): 80-118. http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1776151009?accountid=14244.
  7. Ibid.
  8. United States of America. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Department of Health and Human Services. One Hundred Years of Federal Mining Safety and Health Research. By John A. Breslin. Pittsburgh, PA: Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Pittsburgh Research Laboratory, 2010. 23-24.
  9. Brown, Edwin L., and Colin J. Davis. It Is Union and Liberty : Alabama Coal Miners and the UMW. Tuscaloosa, Ala: University of Alabama Press, 1999. Accessed September 21, 2018. https://auth.lib.unc.edu/ezproxypass:[_]auth.php?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=39937&site=ehost-live.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. "Timeline of Slavery in America." PBS. February 4, 2012. Accessed October 02, 2018. http://www.pbs.org/tpt/slavery-by-another-name/slavery-timeline/.
  15. Brown, Edwin L., and Colin J. Davis. It Is Union and Liberty : Alabama Coal Miners and the UMW. Tuscaloosa, Ala: University of Alabama Press, 1999. Accessed September 21, 2018. https://auth.lib.unc.edu/ezproxypass:[_]auth.php?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=39937&site=ehost-live.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Curtin, Mary Ellen. "Convict-Lease System." Encyclopedia of Alabama. September 12, 2007. Accessed October 02, 2018. http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1346.
  18. Ibid.
  19. "Timeline of Slavery in America." PBS. February 4, 2012. Accessed October 02, 2018. http://www.pbs.org/tpt/slavery-by-another-name/slavery-timeline/.
  20. Roosevelt, Franklin D. "Address at San Diego Exposition." Address, Address at San Diego Exposition, San Diego Exposition, San Diego, October 2, 1935. Accessed October 22, 2018. https://fdrlibrary.org/unions.
  21. Brown, Edwin L., and Colin J. Davis. It Is Union and Liberty : Alabama Coal Miners and the UMW. Tuscaloosa, Ala: University of Alabama Press, 1999. Accessed September 21, 2018. https://auth.lib.unc.edu/ezproxypass:[_]auth.php?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=39937&site=ehost-live.
  22. McKiven, Henry M., Jr. "United Mine Workers in Alabama." Encyclopedia of Alabama. October 12, 2010. Accessed October 02, 2018. http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-2948.