At precisely 6:30 in the morning on April 8, 1911, an explosion rocked the Banner Coal Mine, the pride of the Pratt Consolidated Coal Company located west of Highway 78 near Littleton in northwestern Jefferson County. When the gas and dust settled, 128 miners lay dead in the dark corridors. Of the total killed, 125 were convicts leased to the mining company from state prisons. The tragedy, the largest loss of life to date in an Alabama mine, led to debate and legislation on the issues of mine safety and the use of the convicts in mining, and moved the state further toward the eventual end of the notorious convict-lease system.
Like most industries of the time, Pratt leased convicts from Alabama's prisons to work its mines. Alabama had an abysmal record of mine safety, with more than 1,000 deaths between 1900 and 1910, and the convict-lease system had been a perennial issue before the Alabama legislature since 1866, when prisoners first were leased to contractors. The practice was financially beneficial to both the state and industry, so despite numerous attempts to reform the exploitative and corrupt system, convicts continued to suffer and often die in the mines. Prior to the disaster at Banner, a bill to abolish the lease system had been introduced in the Alabama Senate. At first the bill enjoyed clear sailing and the Senate actually approved the bill on February 23, 1911. But the House of Representatives postponed any action until the last day of the session, a time-honored method of killing legislation. Despite a vigorous fight by its supporters, the bill died in the House.
Governor Emmet J. O'Neal, who took office in January 1911, was a strong proponent of improving safety conditions in the mines, and the Banner Mine
explosion gave him the momentum he needed to reopen consideration of the bill. After many compromises and much debate, the
legislature passed the mine safety bill on the last day of the legislative session, and O'Neal signed it into law on April
18, 1911. The law called for many more state mine inspectors and higher salaries, and it set standards for almost every piece
of equipment and procedure used in mining. In deference to industry, mine inspectors could investigate accidents but could not publish their findings, and
there was no clear statement of company liability for loss of life. It is debatable if the law represented a victory for labor and a defeat for the corporations or the reverse. But it certainly was an improvement over its predecessor and thus demonstrated
restrained progress. The economic interests involved could not be overridden even by the shock of the Banner explosion, however,
and the convict lease system continued until its abolishment in 1928.
Armes, Ethel. The Story of Iron and Coal in Alabama. 1910. Reprint, Leeds, Ala.: Beechwood Books, 1987.
Ward, Robert David, and William Warren Rogers. Convicts, Coal, and the Banner Mine Tragedy. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1987.
Robert David Ward
Georgia Southern University
Published March 21, 2007
Last updated January 21, 2010