This Day in History: 1908-03-30

In an all too common incident of the Jim Crow era, a 22 year old Black man named Green Cottenham is arrested and charged with “vagrancy” in Shelby County, Alabama. An offense created at the end of Reconstruction and disproportionately enforced against Black citizens, vagrancy was defined as an inability to prove employment when demanded by a white person. Cottenham was quickly found guilty in a brief appearance before the county judge without a lawyer, and received a sentence of 30 days of hard labor. He was also assessed fees payable to nearly everyone involved in the process, from the sheriff, to the deputy, to the court clerk, to the witnesses. Due to his inability to pay these fees, Mr. Cottenham’s sentence would actually last nearly a year. For that year, Cottenham was leased by Shelby County to the railroad and forced to labor as a coal miner under deadly conditions. The railroad paid the county $12/month for Cottenham’s labor, the proceeds of which were allocated to pay the rigged fees the County assessed on Cottenham. This convict leasing system re-enslaved countless Black people for generations after Emancipation. Learn more.