Bailey v. Alabama (1908-1910)

In From Jim Crow to Civil Rights (New York, 2004) Michael Klarman introduces the Supreme Court decision in Bailey v. Alabama(1908, search through lexis-nexis) as an example of a number of cases that proved controversial considering the oppressive racial context of the time. Klarman asserts that this case challenged the constitutionality of the Thirteenth Amendment as well as indicated that Supreme Court decisions were not always consistent with the national opinion of the time.

Compliments of nps.gov

While Klarman largely focuses his attentions on the cases implications about the Supreme Court and how it makes decisions, scholars like Pete Daniel observe its implications in the context of peonage and the biographical life of Booker T. Washington. In his Pelzer Prize winning article Up from Slavery and Down to Peonage: The Alonzo Bailey Case ( Journal of American History, Vol 57: 1970) Daniel asserts that Booker T. Washington saw Bailey as a symbol of injustice and the tortures of peonage as well as an opportunity to challenge the Alabama Contract Labor Law. In order to understand Bailey v. Alabama and the limitations of Peonage Daniel suggests an examination of Washington’s life and his goals including a belief that fair labor would lead to economic prosperity and therefore full citizenship and equality in American life. However, in order to achieve fair labor it was important to challenge “old legal mechanisms for coercing black labor”(71), as well as new methods such as convict labor.

A more recent and incredibly well received and reviewed investigation of Booker T Washington’s life and involvement in Bailey v. Alabama is a biography by Robert J Norell, Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington ( New York 2009, available through Google Books). This book shows the importance of overturning the Alabama Contract Labor Laws as a great step forward for blacks. Washington explained that these laws made it so that “any white man, who cares to charge that a Colored man has promised to work for him and has not done so, or who has gotten money from him and not paid it back, can have the Colored man sent to the chain gang” (406).

The effects of labor laws in this “progressive era”(New York, 2004: 71) are contextualized in Jennifer Roback’s article Southern Labor Law in the Jim Crow Era: Exploitative or Competitive?  This article shows the importance of overturning a Supreme Court decision despite the social political and economic limitations of the time. In the case of Bailey v. Alabama, Alabama state law criminalized Alonzo Bailey for a breach of contract that paid wages in advance.  At this time Alabama state law did not allow defendants  to rebut with a testimony so Bailey was tried and sentenced to 136 days of hard labor or a significantly longer period of service to a white plantation owner.  Bailey with the help of a few judges and the financial and social sway of Booker T Washington challenged the state law because he believed it to be a violation of the Thirteenth Amendment’s prohibition on slavery and involuntary servitude. The Court decision appeared unconstitutional because it made a crime out of a mere departure from service. Ultimately, the Court found the challenged statute unconstitutional and reversed judgement of the State Supreme Court. The reversal in this case was voted on 5-2, Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Horace Lurton dissenting.

The White Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy ( California, 2004) by Rebecca Shoemaker provide insights into the way the Court operated at the time as well as a background to some of the key judges involved. Additionally, the correspondence between Booker T Washington and Theodore Roosevelt, Alonzo Bailey and various Chief Justices are available though the Library of Congress in the Manuscript Division.

Klarman’s book does provide compelling evidence and context for the case, however when coupled with the sources above a more dynamic story begins to appear. The final dimension to this case can be discovered through archival documentation and primary source research.


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Bailey v. Alabama (1908-1910) — 1 Comment

  1. In order to understand Bailey v. Alabama and the limitations of Peonage Daniel suggests an examination of Washington’s life and his goals including a belief that fair labor would lead to economic prosperity and therefore full citizenship and equality in American life

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