The names of a few of the men who built Birmingham – like Josiah Morris, James R. Powell, and Robert H. Henley – have gone down in history. They had the vision, money, and political power needed to found the city in 1871, with iron and steel production at its core. Laborers came from all over the country to provide the muscle for the mines, the furnaces, and the railroads. Thousands of African Americans migrated to Birmingham seeking a better way of life, often trading a sharecropper’s hoe for a miner’s pick ax. For several decades, these African Americans made up the majority of the labor force in the mines.
Excerpts from the 1900 U.S. Census:
Bunk Trout, age 51, black, laborer, birthplace Florida
Doc Windom, age 27, black, miner, birthplace Alabama
Eulad Harris, age 25, black, cook, birthplace Georgia
In 1900, the nationwide census that occurs every decade included Red Mountain’s mining camps and immortalized the names of mine laborers and their families. Included in the survey was 51-year-old Bunk Trout, a laborer from Florida who was 14 when, in 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. There was laborer Doc Windom, from Alabama, a younger man born after the Civil War. And there were a few employed women, including Eulad Harris, a 25-year-old cook from Georgia who fed dozens of laborers each day. Bunk, Doc, and Eulad – and hundreds of others who’ll never be recognized – also built Birmingham. Without them, there would have been no iron ore for the blast furnaces. There would have been no “Magic City,” no “Pittsburgh of the South.”
Mining of iron ore on Red Mountain began in 1863, during the Civil War, and ended about a century later. Mine operators provided housing for the laborers and their families in small villages called mining camps. Ware, Wenonah, Redding, Smythe, Muscoda, and Ishkooda mining camps are those we know about. Several of them are being studied by archaeologists and historians for clues to the daily lives of miners. Historians are keenly interested in their findings, for this was a dynamic time in African-American history, a time when, throughout the South, many African Americans took a daring leap from a rural, agricultural life to an urban, industrialized one.
Not surprisingly, the evidence suggests that camp life was difficult. Houses were small and simple, drafty in the winter and sweltering in the summer. Each had a fireplace for heat and cooking. Some houses were built in the saddlebag style that had housed slaves on plantations. Others were built in the shotgun style popular at the time. Around their foundations, archaeologists have found fragments of simple ceramic dishware – most of which was plain white – and inexpensive folk pottery made by local artisans.
Sanitation was a problem. There was no running water, and the toilet was an outhouse. Garbage pits were shared by several houses, and chickens, hogs, and vultures fought over the waste. Layers of ash in the soil suggest the trash was burned whenever it was dry.
People slept, toiled, and played in close quarters. This, plus the poor sanitation, promoted the spread of diseases such as typhoid, malaria, and hookworm. Mine dust damaged the lungs of laborers, making them susceptible to tuberculosis. Pellagra, a disease brought on by vitamin deficiency, was also common. An archeological survey of a local cemetery revealed it was a busy place. Many were buried without a gravestone. On-the-job injuries and disease made the camps unstable in the first decades. Only one person recorded in the 1900 census was also recorded in the 1910 census.
Recovered pistol shell casings hint at an atmosphere of violence and tension. Pistols were a tool for settling interpersonal disputes, whether used in aggression or in defense. The abundance of pistol shells suggests there were frequent disputes within the community and/or between the community and outsiders.
Artifacts such as doll fragments reveal that life wasn’t always distress, drudgery, and disease. An abundance of shotgun and rifle shell casings suggest that hunting was commonplace, likely providing recreation and a sense of independence. The slightly wealthier families enjoyed a few luxuries, indicated by recovered fragments of ceramic tea sets, a perfume bottle stopper, fancy buttons for clothing, ceramic shards decorated with blue and gold, and a pendulum weight from a clock.
“Living artifacts” have been discovered, too. A few plants grown in the camps still survive. These include daffodils, roses, monkey grass, and Japanese Bitter Orange (Trifoliate Orange). Some of these are ornamentals whose presence would have brightened daily life.
Life in the mining camps slowly improved over the years. Sometimes progress was due to the mining unions pushing for fairer payroll practices. Sometimes it was due to the mining companies wanting to avoid unionization and further strikes. Sometimes the companies recognized that a stable, healthier workforce was more productive. Health improved significantly for the miners and other industrial workers with the arrival in Birmingham of Dr. Lloyd Nolan, in 1917. One of the most modern and largest industrial hospitals in the nation was built under his leadership in 1919.
As archaeologists continue their work, they will be making many more discoveries at Red Mountain Park, and eventually many of these artifacts will be on display for you to see.
R. Scot Duncan