B. B. Comer

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B.B. Comer
Braxton Bragg Comer.jpg
33rd Governor of Alabama
In office
January 14, 1907 – January 17, 1911
Lieutenant Henry B. Gray
Preceded by William D. Jelks
Succeeded by Emmet O'Neal
United States Senator
from Alabama
In office
March 5, 1920 – November 2, 1920
Appointed by Thomas Kilby
Preceded by John H. Bankhead
Succeeded by J. Thomas Heflin
Personal details
Born November 7, 1848
Barbour County, Alabama
Died August 15, 1927 (aged 78)
Birmingham, Alabama
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Eva Jane Comer
Children Sally Bailey Comer
John Fletcher Comer
James McDonald Comer
Eva Mignon Comer
Catherine Comer
Braxton Bevelle Comer
Eva Comer
Braxton Bragg Comer, Jr.
Hugh M. Comer
Alma mater University of Alabama
University of Georgia
Emory and Henry College

Braxton Bragg Comer (November 7, 1848 – August 15, 1927) was a planter, businessman, slave owner, and an American Democratic politician who was the 33rd Governor of Alabama from 1907 to 1911, and a United States Senator in 1920. As governor, he achieved railroad reform, lowering rates for businesses in Alabama to make them more competitive with other states. He increased funding for the public school system, resulting in more rural schools and high schools in each county for white students, and eventually a rise in the state's literacy rate.

In addition to interests in the Comer family's 30,000-acre (120 km2) plantation, devoted to corn and cotton production, he had an interest in the Comer mines near Birmingham known as the Eureka Mines. In 1897 he invested $10,000 with the Trainer family, who intended to develop textile mills in the state, and he was appointed president of Avondale Mills, which he developed in Birmingham, serving in that role until his death in 1927.

Early life and education[edit]

B.B. Comer upon his graduation from William and Henry College.

Comer was born in 1848 at old Spring Hill, Barbour County, Alabama, the fourth son of John Fletcher and Catherine (Drewry) Comer. As planters, Comer's parents had built their wealth based on slave labor for their cotton plantation. B.B. Comer began his education at the age of ten under the tutelage of E.N. Brown.

In 1864 Comer went to the University of Alabama, but in April 1865 was forced to leave when General John T. Croxton's troops burned the university. He enrolled at the University of Georgia in Athens, where he joined the Phi Kappa Literary Society. He transferred to Emory and Henry College in Virginia, where he graduated in 1869 with AB and AM degrees.[citation needed]

Early business career[edit]

Following graduation, Comer returned to Spring Hill and helped to manage the family plantation. He primarily grew corn and cotton on what became a 30,000-acre (120 km2) plantation.[1] He continued to operate his Barbour County plantation, with his brother John managing it, after he moved his family to Anniston in east central Alabama in 1885.

Although a powerful, successful businessman, Comer always advocated for the primacy of importance to be placed on the people of that state, and not on the business concerns. Comer stated that "...where the interests of the corporation and the masses clash and are at hazard, if the one or the other must take loss, statecraft, with unerring judgement decrees that it is less dangerous first to secure the interest of the people."[2]

Marriage and family[edit]

In 1872 Comer married Eva Jane Harris of Cuthbert, Georgia. He built a large house for them at Comer Station, Barbour County. He and his wife remained married until her passing on March 6, 1920, the day after he had been appointed Senator by Governor Kilby.[3]

Comer plantation[edit]

Comer's brother, J.W. Comer, operated the family's plantation in Barbour County.

Comer support for redemption[edit]

While living in Spring Hill, Comer served on the Barbour County Commissioners Court from 1874–1880. The historian Douglas Blackmon suggests Comer supported disfranchisement of blacks, who in black-majority areas comprised the majority of Republican voters.[4] The Ku Klux Klan in the late 1860s, and later paramilitary groups such as the White League in the Deep South, conducted intimidation of blacks to reduce their voting participation in the period when white Democrats regained control of state legislatures.

In 1891 Alabama adopted the Australian ballot box, which made voting more complicated, and difficult for those who were illiterate.[5] White Americans in the 1880s had literacy rates only slightly better than African Americans, but were given assistance by registrars. The blacks were not.

The legislature passed a new constitution in 1901 that included a suffrage provision which essentially completed the disfranchisement of blacks. It included provisions for voter registration depending on poll taxes, literacy tests, property requirements and grandfather clauses, which were applied in a discriminatory manner against blacks. Men with the right to vote prior to 1865 (and their descendants) were grandfathered in and exempted from the literacy requirements, which essentially eliminated black voters. In 1902 nine-tenths of African Americans in Alabama (who comprised more than 45 percent of the population) were excluded from voting,[5] as were many poor whites. They were thus also excluded from participation on juries or serving in local offices.[6]

Eureka Mines[edit]

An important source of wealth for John Comer, B. B. Comer's brother, was the development of the Eureka Mines.

Avondale Mills[edit]

Comer in his mid-30's

Another of Comer's enterprises was the Avondale Mills, which, with his sons' help, became one of the largest textile companies in Alabama. The Trainer family, who had a textile business in Chester, Pennsylvania, planned to expand its business into the South by way of the new and growing industrial city of Birmingham. It offered stock to business leaders, such as Frederick Mitchell Jackson, Sr., who agreed to commit $150,000 to bring the mills to Birmingham. Jackson, president of Birmingham’s Commercial Club, a forerunner of the Birmingham Area Chamber of Commerce, pledged in order "to help give employment to those badly in need of it in the young and struggling city of Birmingham." B.B. Comer’s son, James McDonald Comer, later recalled that his father was motivated to participate in the new business by "feeling that Birmingham needed an industry which could employ women as well as men." [7]

Accepting the businessmen's pledges of financial participation, the Trainers sought a local investor to assume presidency of the mill. In 1897, they approached Braxton Bragg Comer.[4] The future governor accepted the offer, and invested $10,000 in the enterprise. From 1897 until his death in 1927, he served as president of Avondale Mills, directing continued expansion to new sites over the years.

In 1897 Comer built the first mill in Avondale, an area that would become part of Birmingham. During the first year of its operation, Avondale Mills used 4,000 bales of cotton. By 1898, Avondale Mills employed 436 laborers and generated $15,000 in profit. By the time B.B. Comer became governor of Alabama in 1907, Avondale Mills declared $55,000 in profit and produced almost 8,000,000 yards of material. By the turn of the century, Avondale Mills had set the course for future development.

"Avondale Mills began with 30,000 spindles in the first mill in Birmingham and grew over the next thirty years to include ten mills in seven communities, with a total of 282,160 spindles. The mills [included]: Eva Jane, the Central, the Sally B, and the Catherine in Sylacauga; the Alexander City Cotton Mills, the Sycamore Mills, Mignon and Bevelle Mill, and the Pell City Manufacturing Company."[8]

As cotton prices fell, poor white farmers lost their land and turned to sharecropping and tenancy; some of those were willing to give up farming and move to mill towns. One white mill worker said, we "made good money compared with the farm." Another white sharecropper said, "Mebbe we ain’t got much, but we sure has got more." And at least one white ex-farmer remembered the move with considerable enthusiasm: "Yeah! Oh we just thought we had almost come to heaven when we got up here. We didn’t have to pick cotton, chop cotton, like that. Just go to work and come back and nothing else to do. And we really had it made when we come here."[citation needed]

Although a common practice at the time, the mills did make use of child labor. See Avondale Mills.

Railroad Commission[edit]

Comer was a vocal advocate for railroad reform. Alabama businessmen were at a disadvantage when competing for business with companies based in Georgia, due to that state’s lower freight rates. The Birmingham Commercial Club and the Birmingham Freight Bureau, organizations in which Comer had major roles, found evidence of rate discrimination by the railroads. Comer believed giving more power to the state’s Railroad Commission was the best way to end the discrimination and lower rates to a level allowing Alabama companies to compete with those in Georgia. But, the state legislature and delegates to the 1901 Constitutional Convention did not strengthen the commission’s power.

When the Railroad Commission did not change rates after two more years had passed, Comer switched his tactics to run for a seat on the commission, which had recently been converted to an electoral office. He campaigned for limiting the power of the railroads in favor of shipping.[1] In 1904, he was elected as president of the commission, but quickly realized he had little power due to the other two commissioners siding with the railroads.[1] Three years into his term as president, Comer concluded that he could only enact railroad reform by becoming governor.[9]

Gubernatorial campaign[edit]

The disfranchisement of blacks by the 1901 constitution and suffrage amendment had reduced the Republican Party as an active force in the state. For more than 60 years, until federal civil rights legislation was passed to enforce constitutional rights of African Americans in the mid-1960s, Alabama would essentially be a one-party state, with elections won in the Democratic primaries.

The 1906 gubernatorial campaign in the Democratic primary…was considered notable as the party "dropped the word ‘Conservative’ from its formal name, demonstrating that it was comfortable with a more progressive platform."[9] Both of the party’s gubernatorial candidates were progressive on almost every topic. However, as Lieutenant Governor Russell M. Cunningham of Birmingham did not support railroad reform on rates, he gained support from the industry.

Comer was criticized because of his known opposition to child labor laws; he said families should be the ones to decide about their children. Comer was "a better campaigner and orator than Cunningham, and his verbal attacks on the railroads so aroused Alabama audiences that he won the primary with 61 percent of the vote and the November election with more than 85 percent."[9] Comer, representing the planter elite and rising businessmen[citation needed], easily defeated Asa E. Stratton of the Republican Party and J. N. Abbott of the Socialist Party of America in the November 1906 election. Comer’s plan to enact reform of the railroads, as well as in other areas such as education, appeared a strong possibility as progressive Democrats favoring reform constituted a majority in the newly elected, Democratic-dominated state legislature.[9]

Comer's administration[edit]

Railroad reform[edit]

Comer "devoted most of his inaugural address to the issue of railroad reform and requested the legislature pass 20 separate laws to give the railroad commission strong rate-making and enforcement powers."[9] The like-minded legislature passed his railroad reforms with only a few changes. Through these new laws, Comer finally achieved lowering the rates to enable Alabama businesses to better compete with their counterparts in neighboring states.[1]

The state legislature "added a provision that would revoke the state business license of any corporation bringing suit in federal court on any issue already before a state court."[9] L&N Railroad and other railroads challenged the new railroad statutes in federal court. The disagreement between the state government and railroad continued after Comer had left office, but he achieved his goal "to give the state increased regulatory power over railroad freight rates."[9]

Response to 1908 miners' strike[edit]

In 1908, 7,000 free (mostly white) miners went on strike at the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad (TCIRR) and other mining operations in Alabama. They were joined by 500 African-American convicts leased from the state. Company officials petitioned the state to break up the strike with state militia. To keep operating, TCIRR officials pushed the African-American convicts to work extremely long hours.[10][verification needed] White foremen brought in additional bonded African Americans as convict labor as well.[11] William Millin, a prominent African-American union leader, protested these conditions and was arrested. A mob took him from jail and lynched him.[10] Another African-American organizer was hanged in a lynching a week later. Governor Comer issued orders mobilizing the state militia to break up the strikers and their organized camps.[12][verification needed]

In mid-August 1908, a delegation of prominent Birmingham citizens visited leaders of the striking miners and issued an explicit threat. They said that unless the strike ended, Birmingham would "make Springfield [Illinois] (where 12,000 whites had burned down the African-American section of the city) look like six cents.".[13] Governor Comer said, "We are outraged at the attempts to establish social equality between black and white miners." He added that he would "not tolerate eight or nine thousand idle niggers in the state of Alabama."[verification needed][14]

Educational reform[edit]

Comer’s reforms to improve education for whites were funded by increases in revenues to the state.[9] A State Board of Assessors was created "to equalize taxation by equalizing property values throughout the state and establishing franchise taxes for businesses."[1] The reassessment of property values angered the large property owners who saw their property taxes increase.[9] But, the major increases in state tax revenues came about not through taxation reforms (although this probably stabilized tax revenues) but through the increase in revenues generated from convict labor leased from the state to private enterprise.[9][verification needed]

Comer's administration applied the increases in spending for education only of white students.[15] Comer directed funds to the building of white rural schools and county high schools (at least one in each county), and increasing the appropriations made to the University of Alabama, the Alabama Polytechnic Institute in Auburn, the nine agricultural schools, the normal schools, and the Girl's Technical School at Montevallo. In addition, the state took control of the Alabama Boy’s Industrial School.[1] Comer’s educational reforms influenced the state’s educational system for a century.[16]

More than 25 percent of the state's revenue in 1910 was derived from leasing African-American convicts to private enterprise.[17] The journalist Douglas Blackmon notes that Comer based his improvements for white citizens on funds derived from the slave labor of African Americans.[17] The curriculum level was raised for white students, with resulting increases in literacy, but in the segregated system, African Americans did not get equal funding for their educational system. Under Comer, the money spent on education for black children on a per capita basis was one-seventh that for white children.[15] Literacy climbed dramatically for whites but lagged for blacks (by 1920 the rate was less than 50% for African Americans in Alabama).[18]

Comer adamantly asserted that investment by the state in its educational infrastructure was of the utmost importance, advising the legislature "...to be liberal in their appropriations to the University (of Alabama-Tuscaloosa), Auburn (University), (The University of) Montevallo , all the schools of Alabama, as much so as the finances of the state will admit, because the investment is the best."[2]

A testament to Comer's emphasis on education as the supreme attribute of any society, one of his final actions was to direct the construction of the Catherine Comer School in Barbour County. Due to mandatory segregation in educational facilities at the time, only white children could attend the Catherine Comer School. In order to ensure that all had access to educational opportunities, Comer also directed the construction of the Beckie Comer School, also in Barbour County.[19]

Prohibition[edit]

Progressives were divided on prohibition, with some believing it should be decided by local jurisdictions and others supporting the passage of state laws against the sale of alcohol. During his gubernatorial campaign and first two years as governor, Comer viewed prohibition as a local matter. "By 1908…50 of the state’s 67 counties had voted for prohibition."[9] Despite the majority of the counties being "dry," the powerful Anti-Saloon League pushed for statewide prohibition. Other prohibition groups rallied to the League’s push for a statewide law, forcing Comer to call the legislature into special session to decide the matter. The 1909 special session enacted prohibition statewide, "but, not content with a mere statute, they also proposed a constitutional amendment to end the sale of liquor."[9] Comer traveled the state to garner support for the proposed amendment, but it failed to win enough votes.[9]

Comer noted that "Just as we would separate cholera from hogs, ticks from cattle, and boll weevils from cotton, so we should separate from youth of the state all that would deteriorate and destroy."[2]

Later life[edit]

As state law prevented governors from running for successive terms, Comer was ineligible for the 1910 gubernatorial election. In the election of 1914, Comer was defeated by a candidate supported by an "unlikely coalition" of railroads, organized labor, and supporters of local option [for prohibition].[9]

In the spring of 1920, Governor Thomas Kilby appointed Comer to serve the remaining months of the late John H. Bankhead’s term in the United States Senate. He did not seek election when the term expired.[20]

Following his short time in the Senate, Comer spent the remainder of his life following his business pursuits.[21] Aside from issuing his endorsement for Alabama gubernatorial candidate A.H. Carmichael, Comer refrained from political activity following his term in the U.S. Senate.[19]

Comer died on August 15, 1927. His wife, Eva Jane, had died on March 6, 1920 while he was serving in the Senate. He and his wife were survived by their nine children: Sally Bailey, John Fletcher, James McDonald, Eva Mignon, Catherine, Braxton Bevelle, Eva, Braxton Bragg, Jr., and Hugh M. Comer. He was buried in Birmingham's Elmwood Cemetery.

Legacy[edit]

By the mid-20th century, Comer was hailed as a reformer who brought Alabama's primary and secondary educational systems into the mainstream. He was praised as an enlightened business man for bringing Avondale Mills to Birmingham and Central Alabama.[1] A product of his time, he relied on a system of segregation and white supremacy, and child labor to earn profits for his plantations, mines and mills.[14][22][23]

His improvements to Alabama's educational systems were unable to provide sufficiently for African-American children. Although literacy rates for whites increased during his tenure as governor, his administration, hampered by the state legislature, achieved little for blacks. The white dominated Democratic legislature consistently underfunded African-American education.[18]

Comer also had success in the following areas: he helped to establish a tuberculosis sanatorium as part of his use of state funds to improve public health.[9] He also strengthened insurance laws.[1]

Encouraged by President Theodore Roosevelt's initiative to conserve natural resources, Comer gained legislation to establish the Alabama Soil Conservation Department; it was to oversee a public park system in the state.[9]

He increased transportation funding to improve roads as part of the basic infrastructure of the state.[1]

Much of the early 20th century's industrial growth and productivity in Birmingham, and, although to a lesser degree, in all of Alabama can be attributed to Comer's regulation of the railroad industry, as well as to his investment in the textile industry.[19]

Although criticized early in his career as an industrialist for his attitudes towards child labor, Comer progressed with the common attitude and, as governor, passed a relatively progressive law requiring that no child under 12 years of age be employed at a textile mill.[19] Also as governor, Comer passed another equally progressive (relative to his time period) law mandating that children under the age of 16 who were employed in mills must attend school for at least 8 consecutive weeks each school term.[19]

Comer was successful in turning back the peonage investigation. The use of convict lease labor continued to provide incentives to police and local officials to entrap, convict and lease African Americans as laborers.[24]

The Comer Foundation, established in his name and headquartered in Birmingham, provides substantial scholarships to students living in the Alabama counties where Comer's mills once operated.[25]

More recently, Comer has been recognized as a progressive politician who advocated for increasing sources of state revenue to benefit lower income residents. Described as "no flaming liberal and...flawed like any person in history", Comer is recognized for his progressive stance with regard to adequately funding state provided services.[26]

Numerous institutions and places were named for Comer:

Comer Bridge, Sylacauga, AL

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Braxton Bragg Comer", Alabama Department of Archives and History, accessed 27 August 2012
  2. ^ a b c Comer, Donald (1947). Braxton Bragg Comer: An Alabamian Whose Avondale Mills Opened New Paths for Southern Progress. New York: The Newcomen Society of England. p. 5. 
  3. ^ Comer, Donald (1947). Braxton Bragg Comer: An Alabamian Whose Avondale Mills Opened New Paths for Southern Progress. New York: Newcomen Society of England. p. 23. 
  4. ^ a b Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II,, p. 70 (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2009)
  5. ^ a b 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica "State of Alabama- references to peonage and disfranchisement of African Americans"
  6. ^ Kelly, Race Class and Power in the Alabama Coal Field, 16
  7. ^ Hall, Like a Family: the Making of a Southern Cotton Mill, p. 61 (Chapel Hill University of North Carolina 1987)
  8. ^ Mock, "Braxton Bragg Comer, Birmingham, Alabama", Textile History
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Harris, "Braxton Bragg Comer (1901-11)", Encyclopedia of Alabama
  10. ^ a b Blackmon (2009), Slavery By Another Name, p. 321
  11. ^ Kelly, Race Class and Power in the Alabama Coal Field, pp. 1-8 (Urbana, 2001)
  12. ^ Atlanta Constitution, 6 August 1908, p. 2
  13. ^ The Lynching Century: African Americans Who Died in Racial Violence in the United States 1865-1965, Database of lynching victims, Tuskegee Institute, p. 5
  14. ^ a b Kelly, Race Class and Power in the Alabama Coal Field, p. 24 (Urbana: University of Illinois, 2001)
  15. ^ a b Bond, Negro Education in Alabama: A Study in Cotton and Steel, pp. 160-161 (University Alabama Press May 30, 1994)
  16. ^ Alabama Hall of Fame, "Braxton Bragg Comer"
  17. ^ a b Blackmon, Slavery By Another Name, pp. 100-106 (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2009)
  18. ^ a b Blackmon (2009), Slavery By Another Name, p. 120
  19. ^ a b c d e "Eventful Career is Closed". The Avondale Sun. 19 August 1927. 
  20. ^ "Braxton Bragg Comer", Alabama Men's Hall of Fame,
  21. ^ "Comer, Braxton Bragg, (1848-1927)", Biographical Directory of the United States Congress
  22. ^ Blackmon (2009), Slavery By Another Name, p. 69
  23. ^ Hall, Like a Family the Making of a Southern Cotton Mill, 128 (Chapel Hill University of North Carolina 1987)
  24. ^ Blackmon (2009), Slavery By Another Name, p. 326
  25. ^ "Mission". www.comerfoundation.net. Retrieved 2015-09-20. 
  26. ^ "What will Alabama become? We are about to find out". Retrieved 2015-09-20. 

References[edit]

(Alphabetize by last name of author)

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
William D. Jelks
Governor of Alabama
1907–1911
Succeeded by
Emmet O'Neal
United States Senate
Preceded by
John H. Bankhead
U.S. Senator (Class 2) from Alabama
1920
Served alongside: Oscar Underwood
Succeeded by
J. Thomas Heflin