Down in Joe Brown's coal mine

joe brown sr.In researching my book The Sword of the Lord, I learned that my great-great-great grandfather was a man named Dangerfield Rice, a poor Tennessee farmer who moved to Missouri in 1820 and to become a wealthy owner of a hemp plantation and the many slaves who worked the land. 

I followed the thread of a single scribbled line in an ancient genealogy, and discovered  that one of Dangerfield‚Äôs grandsons was the famous Joe Brown, who served as the war-time governor of Georgia from 1857 to 1865.

Joe Brown’s works are mentioned in Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind. I read that book for the first time as I was finishing the writing of my book so I could get a better sense of how white folks in the mid-twentieth century South viewed their history of slave-owning.

From my perspective, seventy years later, the book is shockingly and openly racist, with hardly a notion that black people were more than a step above farm animals. Mitchell helped me imagine what my own family’s attitudes might well have been in that long ago time. Incidentally, Scarlett O’Hara’s plantation – “Tara” in Mitchell’s book – was a close match to our Rice plantation in Missouri for its size and value, the number of slaves required to farm it, and the time when Tara’s soil was first tilled by Scarlett’s father in the 1820s.

On the eve of the Civil War, he wrote a long “Open Letter to the People of Georgia,” which clearly explained that the basic argument for Georgia to secede from the Union was the danger that Lincoln and the Republications would free the slaves – thus putting the lie to defensive claims I’ve heard by many Southern friends and relatives that the War had nothing to do with enslaving Negroes but was rather all about protecting states’ rights.

Cousin Brown served four terms as governor, interrupted by his imprisonment in a Yankee prison at the end of the war. He temporarily switched to the Republican Party and was allowed by the Unionists to return to Georgia as Supreme Court Chief Justice, and then spent the next few decades bull-dozing a swath through public life as a US Senator, power broker, railroad baron, and ultimately one of the richest men in the South.

My cousin’s great wealth and power ultimately rested on a great and evil crime: the scheme of “convict labor” he promoted, a cruel re-invention of the slave system. Companies that leased convicts from the state prison system had no financial motivation to protect any investment in the health or welfare of the convict, unlike slave owners who needed to keep their slaves alive and productive.

So companies like Joe Brown’s Raccoon Mountain Coal Mine often simply worked their convicts to death and then ordered replacements from the prison system. In order to ensure a steady supply of captive labor, black men were imprisoned for many years on slim pretext, and then provided as low-cost labor. Ironically, Joe Brown specified that any revenues to the state of Georgia from the prison system would go to support the education of white children, thus earning him a reputation as the “Father of Public Education” in Georgia.

In the spring of 1970, I travelled to a cow pasture in Dane County, Wisconsin, where I slept in the mud and ate yogurt and granola for the first time and smoked some mild weed while getting little sleep and wondering how I might get a girl named Bobbi to like me better than she ever would, and I danced and cheered as the Grateful Dead played a lively rock version of an old African American folksong, “Joe Brown’s Coal Mine:”

This job I got is a little too hard
Dangerous money, little pay
Gonna wake up in the mornin' and pack my case
Beat it on down the line

I'll be waiting at the station
When the train come along
Scamperin' on down the line
Lord I'm goin' back from where I used to be
Down in Joe Brown's coal mine