Shelby Iron Works

Shelby, Alabama




Posted: 03/23/2013  By: Daniel Valles

In attempting to alleviate the labor shortages during the Civil War, recruiting of available slave labor was initiated. The first slave quota was set at three hundred and fifty men. Slaves were to be rented from the owner and the company only purchased slaves when it could no longer find owners willing to rent them to the Shelby concern.

The company agents formed a contract for one year with the slave owner and the Shelby Iron Company. The contract included rental price paid the owner, time of payment, and enumeration of supplies furnished the slaves and a “lost time” provision. The company also agreed to furnish medical supplies, a company doctor and deduction from rental pay for loss of time due to minor illness. By June, the company was using only two hundred and nine slaves. The acquiring of more was hindered by transportation tie-ups as all trains and boats were loaded to capacity, transporting Confederate personnel and supplies.

All of the slaves were provided clothing and lodging by the company. The clothing usually included a coat, three pairs of shoes, and three shirts. The slaves without a family were lodged in temporary barracks. Besides working at the iron works, the slaves worked at a small company coal mine near Boothton, Alabama. They were also used to cut and process the wood for charcoal. They were often wagoners for transporting finished iron to Columbiana for shipping, as well as transporting supplies. They were also used to take care of the company livestock and to cultivate the company corn and hay fields. Wives of the slaves were engaged in cooking, washing and sewing for company officials, the white boarding houses, and the slave barracks. At its height, the company employed as many as four hundred and fifty slave laborers.

While slave labor was regrettably employed at the Iron Works, the leadership took pioneering steps from the culture of its time, and displayed noted generosity toward the slaves, providing clothes, medical care, building a church, paying some of them overtime, and other measures - sometimes to their criticism.  Luxuries, such as tobacco, were issued weekly and deducted from their overtime work awards. So well did they treat their fellow man that many former slaves returned to the Iron Works after the war, looking for work - because they knew they would be treated well. According to the owner of slaves rented to the Shelby company, conditions at the iron works were much better for the slave when compared with conditions elsewhere in the Confederacy.

While the Civil Rights movement and efforts toward equality would not fully blossom till many years later, it is encouraging to see some of the initial bold steps take place right here in our community. This is a great testimony to the caliber of men who lived and worked here during this tumultuous time - when culture, peers, and circumstances would have lesser men doing otherwise.