|Date(s):||1928 to 1929|
|Tag(s):||Convict Labor, New South|
|Course:||“The Historian's Craft,” University of Alabama at Birmingham|
|Rating:||5 (1 votes)|
Your name is screamed aloud behind you. So, what do you do? If you are the Attorney General to the State of Alabama in the 1920s, you do not turn around. Major Harwell Goodwin Davis learned this lesson the hard way. Coming out of the Justice Department in Downtown Birmingham, he turned to address the shout he had heard and the next thing he knew, he was waking up in a hospital with a nasty bruise on his head. There was a reason behind the knot on his head, and it is one of hundreds of cases of assault due to racial unrest in early 1900s Alabama.
Davis was a lawyer working for the State of Alabama when he was presented with a case of Mr. John Knox in 1928. Knox was a Mobile, Alabama resident that was sentenced to hard labor at the Flat Top Coal Mine in Central Alabama. At Flat Top, he would be expected to produce three to four tons of coal a day, which was the standard for convicts at the time. During one of his shifts, he was said to be “malingering.” For punishment, the officials on duty literally tried to whip him into shape. This tactic proved to be futile. The deputies then threw him into a vat of water, which was used to boil hogs. Their decision ended up costing Mr. John Knox with his life and it gave Major Davis a new case, almost three years later.
During his investigation, Davis found that the information given about the cause of death of John Knox was false. It was written that he died from the ingestion of mercury pills, while Davis discovered the pills still lodged in the deceased’s throat from almost three years ago. This proved that it was the mistreatment that killed him, not the medication given. He proceeded with his case, but did not get one single conviction. The only ramifications were that the warden was to be fired.
Although the case did not serve immediate justice, it did catch the eye of a few notable people. Literary Digest caught wind of the story and published an article on its account. The governor of Alabama at the time of the case, Bibb Graves, read this article and along with several inside sources in the political system, decided that Major Harwell Goodwin Davis was trying to take a stab at his incumbency. Graves immediately decided to put the reformation of the convict labor system on his platform of his next election. He won his race, and put an end to the system in Alabama in 1928.
Major Davis later explains in his interview with a historian from the University of Alabama at Birmingham that while he was informed during his hospital stay of who it was that blind-sided him. As it turned out, the man who hit him was the same warden of the prison that he got fired in his famous John Knox case.