B. B. Comer, Governor, U.S. Senator

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Braxton Bragg Comer

Also Known As: "B. B. Comer"
Birthdate: (78)
Birthplace: Barbour County, AL, USA
Death: August 15, 1927 (78)
Birmingham, Jefferson, AL, USA
Place of Burial: Birmingham, Jefferson, Alabama, USA
Immediate Family:

Son of John Fletcher Comer and Catherine Lucinda Drewry
Husband of Eva Jane Harris
Father of <private> comer
Brother of Hugh Moss Comer and John Wallace Comer

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About B. B. Comer, Governor, U.S. Senator


Braxton Bragg Comer (November 7, 1848 – August 15, 1927) was a planter, businessman, 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

Comer was born in 1848 at old Spring Hill, Barbour County, Alabama, the fourth son of John Fletcher and Catherine (Drewry) Comer. As planters, they 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.

Early business career

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. 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.

Marriage and family

In 1872 he married Eva Jane Harris of Cuthbert, Georgia. He built a large house for them at Comer Station, Barbour County.

Comer Plantation

In 1885 B. B. Comer moved his family to Anniston. The Comers had built their wealth through slave labor before the Civil War and leased convict labor afterward.

His brother John Comer ran the family plantation in Barbour County. He operated the plantation using leased convict labor, which essentially amounted to slavery, throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Comer Plantation leased African-American convicts from the State of Alabama. After a visit to the Comer Plantation in Barbour County in 1883, Richard Dawson, the Alabama Prison Inspector, wrote:

"Things in bad order. No fireplace in cell. No arrangements for washing. No Hospital. Everything filthy- privy terrible- convicts ragged many barefooted- very heavily ironed."

At this time, residents of Barbour County were notorious for kidnapping and selling African Americans into bondage, to exploit their labor after the war to rebuild the wealth of Alabama's elite.

The peonage scheme in the American South grew out of enforcement of the "Black Codes" passed by the states immediately after the American Civil War, which sought to control the movement and labor of freedmen, who were sometimes migrating to reunite families and who wanted to do sharecropping rather than work for wages. States required freedmen to work or be defined as vagrants, and sought to regulate behavior by narrowly defining what was acceptable, including prohibition of gambling. Freedmen could also be arrested for such charges as insulting behavior or rudeness to white women, or gambling. By the 1880s, local and state officials manipulated the system to entrap African Americans. Local officials would arrest African Americans, use white juries to convict them of trumped-up charges, and fine them for their actions plus court costs. Most cash-strapped African Americans could not pay such fines. The state leased them as prisoners to industry and planters for the amount of the fines (usually for $50– $100). Prisoners had to work off the amount they owed to the state through forced labor on farms, plantations, mills and mines.

Although illiterate, the prisoners were forced to sign labor contracts, often including stipulations that they would be subject to the same conditions as other prisoners, which meant leg irons, being unable to leave their place of work without being subject to punishment, and extension of labor contracts. Researchers have found that the bondsmen were charged for food and medical care; this meant that they were forced to incur debts so they would have to keep working as prisoners. Local and state officials collaborated during the 1880s and 90s, to convert black tenant farmers and share croppers into convict labor. Once convicted of petty crimes, these citizens were subject to imprisonment, shackles, and the lash, and worked in the same fields where a few weeks earlier they had been independent, free laborers.

In 1890, B.B. Comer relocated with his family to Birmingham, where he was involved in successful business pursuits, including cornmeal and flour mills. He also served as the president of City National Bank. Later, he liquidated the bank to focus on his other business pursuits.

In 1903, the US Attorney General Philander C. Knox, of the Theodore Roosevelt administration (1901-1909), assigned Warren Reese and Julius Stern to investigate the charges of peonage or slavery in Alabama. More than forty such cases in Coffee, Geneva, Covington, and Barbour counties were investigated by these Federal agents.

Comer support for redemption

While living in Spring Hill, Comer served on the Barbour County Commissioners Court from 1874–1880. The historian Blackmon suggests Comer supported disfranchisement of blacks, who in black-majority areas comprised the majority of Republican voters. 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. 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 amendment, 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, as were many poor whites. They were thus excluded from participation on juries or serving in local offices.

Eureka Mines

An important source of wealth for John Comer, B. B. Comer's brother, was the development of the Eureka Mines in Shelby County south of Birmingham. The manager of the labor force was J.W. Comer, the brother of Governor B. B. Comer. The Eureka complex consisted of two mines, one worked by free miners, and the other by convicts leased under the convict labor system. The vast majority of convict laborers were African Americans, who were convicted in the justice system at a rate of four times that of white citizens. The Comer mines were developed by "primitive excavation techniques and relentless, atavistic physical force."

Ezekial Archey, a prisoner leased to Eureka mine, wrote that the convicts lived in a stockade "filled with filth and vermin. Gunpowder cans were used to hold human waste that would fill up and 'run all over our beds where prisoners were shackled hand and foot for the night'." Later he wrote to a Roosevelt Administration investigator that

"[JW]Comer {the Governor’s brother and manager of the mine} is a hard man. I have seen men come to him with their shirts a solid scab on their backs and he would let the hide grow on and take it off again. I have seen him hit men 100 to 160 times with a ten prong strop and then say thay was not whipped. He would go off after an escaped man come one day with him and dig his grave the same day."

Between 1878 and 1880, twenty-five bonded convicts died whose contracts had been sold to the Eureka mines. Their bodies were dumped into shallow earthen pits on the edge of the mine site.

Jonathan Good testified to the Joint Commission created by the Roosevelt administration to investigate the use of peonage in Alabaman enterprises. He said that J.W. Comer, manager of the Eureka mines,

" ordered a captured black escapee to lie on the ground and the dogs were biting him. He begged piteously to have the dogs taken off of him, but Comer refused to allow it. Comer...stripped him naked took a stirrup strap, doubled it, wet it, bucked him and whipped him, unmercifully whipped him, over half and hour. The Negro begged them to take a gun and kill him. They left him in a Negro cabin where... he died within a few hours."

Avondale Mills

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."

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. 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, land 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."

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."

Lewis Hines, an American sociologist and photographer studying industrial conditions, visited the mills during 1910 and documented his findings with photographs. Hine's photographs and interviews in 1910 revealed that numerous children were employed at Avondale Mills with "mere weeks of education if any." The state law required that children be educated and that none younger than twelve work in factories. At first the children were not "officially" employed, but were recruited to assist their parents in completing strenuous twelve-hour shifts in the mill.

Hines noted numerous examples of child labor and abuse of children at Avondale Mills, including that of the fourteen- and fifteen-year-old girls Mary and Miller Gilliam. Their father, had removed them from school to work at the mills; he had no job at the time. Hines recorded that "none of the children would admit to being younger than twelve years of age ". He wrote, "The Mill bosses...arrived at school anytime during the day to remove children to work at the Mill.". When demand for textiles was low, the children were allowed to return to school. The children comprised a source of cheap labor who could be flexibly employed according to the needs of the mill managers.

At twelve years of age, children could begin work at Avondale Mills as bobbin doffers. This was a fast-paced job that required dexterity but little technical skill. The room where the children worked became filled with lint from the operation. This got into their lungs, and the children often later developed brown lung disease as adults.

When Hines exposed the conditions, Governor Comer responded that the children were working at the insistence of their parents, and neither he, nor the state, had any right to interfere. Stopping the exploitation of child labor might have undermined the financial success of Avondale Mills. Cotton mills in the South were successful because of the abundance of cheap child labor, whose families were willing to have them work and who could be used according to the managers' needs.

Cotton mills provided worker housing at inexpensive rates, which tied the families more closely to their work. While the family occupied the dwellings, the tenants were obligated to work in the mill and supply labor. In the paternalistic system, mill operators monitored worker behavior outside the mills. If a worker missed church or drank alcohol, he or she faced discipline and possible loss of housing and mill employment.

Railroad Commission

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. 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. Three years into his term as president, Bragg concluded that he could only enact railroad reform by becoming governor.

Gubernatorial campaign

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." Both of the party’s gubernatorial candidates were progressive on almost every topic. 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. But he 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." Comer, representing the planter elite and rising businessmen, 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. Despite the urbanization that was taking place in the state, rural interests resisted redistricting and dominated the state legislature until the 1970s, when a federal court ordered redistricting to reflect demographic changes.

Comer's administration

Railroad reform

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." 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.

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." 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."

1908 miners' strike

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. White foremen brought in additional bonded African Americans as convict labor as well. William Millin, a prominent African-American union leader, protested these conditions and was arrested. A mob took him from jail and lynched him. 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.

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.". 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."

Educational reform

Comer’s reforms to improve education for whites were funded by increases in revenues to the state. A State Board of Assessors was created "to equalize taxation by equalizing property values throughout the state and establishing franchise taxes for businesses." The reassessment of property values angered the large property owners who saw their property taxes increase. 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.

Comer's administration applied the increases in spending for education only of white students. 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. Comer’s educational reforms influenced the state’s educational system for a century.

More than 25 percent of the state's revenue in 1910 was derived from leasing African-American convicts to private enterprise. The journalist Douglas Blackmon notes that Comer based his improvements for white citizens on funds derived from the slave labor of African Americans. 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. Literacy climbed dramatically for whites but lagged for blacks (by 1920 the rate was less than 50% for African Americans in Alabama).


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." 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." Comer traveled the state to garner support for the proposed amendment, but it failed to win enough votes.

Other issues

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. He also strengthened insurance laws.

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.

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

Later life

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].

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.

Following his short time in the Senate, Comer spent the remainder of his life following his business pursuits.

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.


By the mid-twentieth 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. 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.

His attempts to improve Alabama's educational systems did not provide sufficiently for African-American children. Although literacy rates for whites increased during his tenure as governor, his administration achieved little for blacks. The White Democratic legislature consistently underfunded African-American education.

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.

Numerous institutions and places were named for Comer:

B.B. Comer Memorial High School, B.B. Comer Memorial Elementary School, and B.B. Comer Memorial Library, all in Sylacauga, once home to one of Avondale’s largest mills.

B.B. Comer Hall at the University of Alabama houses the Department of Modern Languages.

The federal building in Birmingham.

Braxton Bragg Comer Hall at Auburn University houses offices and labs for the School of Agriculture.

BB Comer Bridge in Scottsboro, Alabama.

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B. B. Comer, Governor, U.S. Senator's Timeline

November 7, 1848
Barbour County, AL, USA
August 15, 1927
Age 78
Birmingham, Jefferson, AL, USA
Birmingham, Jefferson, Alabama, USA