As a white child in Alabama schools in the 1950s, I was taught something of slavery, the Civil War, and a few basic facts about the importance of cotton to the state's early economy. Although slavery had been a terrible crime against humanity, I believed that the Emancipation Proclamation had resulted in freedom for African Americans who had been enslaved in my state.
Nothing in my education caused a critical light bulb to click on in my head: the eye-opening realizations that the Alabama economy of the 1950s through today would not exist at all but for the brutal forced labor of enslaved African Americans, and that the forced servitude continued long after the Civil War and emancipation.
“Alabama the Beautiful” proclaim the highway signs that welcome visitors to our state as they drive across the state line. It isn't difficult to imagine the thick forests and clear streams of Alabama as they were in the early years of the United States because small pockets still exist if you know where to look in parks, preserves, and in nooks and crannies of privately owned property in the state. This abundance of nature was a virtual cornucopia for the Native Americans who hunted, fished, and grew food crops until Americans of European ancestry began moving into the state in droves in the early 1800s.
Underneath the Edenic landscape, however, lay an even richer lode of natural resources, the building blocks of what would become a booming southern economy. Those troves were just waiting to be exploited by white people and even by those Native Americans who accepted the terms of white occupation in order to be assimilated into the culture. The land above and below the surface was ripe and ready to give birth first to cotton and later to coal, iron and steel industries and the untold wealth they promised, all created on the backs of enslaved African Americans.
First, of course, came cotton. Between 1820 and 1866, the growing and processing of cotton made Alabama the Cotton King, one of the 10 wealthiest states in the nation (http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1491). The invention of the cotton gin had removed a huge obstacle to cotton production, enabling the processing of picked cotton at rate which made it a much more profitable enterprise.
But feeding the gins required ever more cotton. Growing cotton and harvesting it would not have been possible without enslaved labor. Planting, “chopping” (thinning and weeding), and picking or pulling the burst cotton bolls were all back-breaking and labor-intensive processes performed in tropical heat and humidity. There would have been no profit in the enterprise if planters had paid for that arduous labor commensurate with the effort involved, so acquiring and employing forced labor became the chief engine pulling Alabama along the open road to fortune. Tuning that engine to hum along profitably resulted in the relegation of enslaved people to the status of capital, monetized and commodified through cotton production, breeding (just as with livestock), and trading/ selling their bodies.
While many settlers had brought slaves with them to the state, the growing need for workers in the cotton industry gave birth to the thriving slave markets in Montgomery and Mobile. Alabama's slave population skyrocketed during the cotton boom years to comprise almost half of the humans in the state by 1861 ( http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-2369).
Wealthy cotton planters delegated the responsibility for managing their enslaved people to white men they hired as overseers. These men quickly became experts at what economists now call “human engineering.” They used daily quotas and brutal punishment to increase production and make their employers even wealthier. In The Half Has Never Been Told (Basic Books, 2014), Edward E. Baptist describes in agonizing detail the development of the cruel system called “pushing,” an innovation that cotton growers perfected in order to increase productivity of enslaved labor, especially in the most labor-intensive of cotton industry processes, that of harvesting (picking or pulling) the cotton.
“Pushing” systematically increased the acreage and amount of cotton that an enslaved asset could produce, with accompanying meticulous record-keeping in ledgers to track each slave's output. Using negative reinforcements such as whipping for failure to meet the ever increasing daily quotas, the industry would more than double picking productivity per slave between 1820 and 1860. While some of that increase could be credited to the planting of more productive strains of cotton, Baptist leaves no doubt that the greatest increase came from the brutal “motivation” employed by overseers. Those processes gave birth to a plethora of terms that would outlast slavery itself, to include referring to an enslaved human worker as a “hand,” no more than a unit of mechanical effort that would factor into the statistics of productivity and profit.
Cotton began to wane as an engine of the Alabama economy during the Civil War. The state seceded from the United States in January of 1861 to join the Confederacy because Alabama leaders foresaw the destruction of everything they had built if the institution of enslaved labor were to be abolished and the captive labor force freed.