(UPDATED June 17, 2020, to include information on Comer’s role in Eufaula racist violence and giving the specific quote about the 1908 miners strike.)
Auburn and Tuscaloosa might not agree on much beyond the state’s pitiful support of higher education, but here is something behind which both campuses can unite:
The name “Braxton Bragg Comer” needs to be removed from buildings on both campuses.
At Auburn, Comer Hall houses the College of Agriculture, which is so central to our land-grant mission. It is situated atop a hill across from the library deck. A parking lot marks the hillside where cows used to graze.
At Alabama, B.B. Comer Hall houses several programs related to global studies — both international students and study abroad programs (not to be confused with H.M. Comer Hall, named for Braxton’s son, Hugh, which houses the College of Engineering).
Braxton Bragg Comer was governor of Alabama from 1907 to 1911 and was appointed to the U.S. Senate briefly in 1920.
Some state leaders tried to resist the racial hate of the period and build a better state. Comer was a racist who exploited free black labor in the post-slavery era and improved the educational choices for white residents only.
He made a bad situation worse to the degradation of a race, a state and his reputation.
He started early, soon after he married and moved to Barbour County to oversee Spring Hill, the family plantation. In 1874, according to this excellent article by Safiya Charles, a white mob attacked a group of African Americans who were trying to vote. Ultimately, six of the voters were killed, some were arrested, and the rest fled.
Hilliard Miles, an African American man, named Comer as one of the attackers. Miles, however, was the one arrested and charged with perjury.
Comer’s family also benefited from the horrific “leased convict” system, where counties would lease mainly African-American convicts to mines and mills as slave labor, with the county benefiting financially from the arrangement.
Comer’s brother, J.W., operated the Eureka mines in Shelby County, where the convicts were not only overworked but also tortured, often by J.W. Comer himself, as Douglas Blackmon noted in his book, Slavery by Another Name.
States across the South were doing away with the system, but it perpetuated in Alabama, clearly under the protection of Comer’s governorship, until David Bibb Graves did away with it, almost immediately after being elected governor in 1927.
Some call Comer a “progressive” for increasing funding to education during his term as governor, but that does not give the whole story.
Comer did increase funding for both urban and rural schools — for white students. Schools educating African-American students remained under-funded; some estimated the ratio as high as 7-to-1. Separate but hardly equal.
This is not surprising, because Comer was not merely a man trying to make the best within a racist system. He promoted and enhanced that system with his policies and philosophies, as noted above.
Comer was perhaps at his race-baiting worst during a 1908 strike by the racially integrated United Mine Workers against Alabama coal operators. The mine operators worked with state officials and (sadly) newspapers to convince white citizens that a successful strike would cause an uprising by African-American miners.
Comer told the union president, “You know what it means to have eight or nine thousand <n-words> idle in the State of Alabama, and I’m not going to stand for it.” (The quote is from Steven Diner’s book, A Very Different Age: Americans of the Progressive Era, p. 136.)
At this point, let me say: I do not advocate the wholesale cancellation of all white males of the era. A few years ago, I wrote a column about William Broun, Auburn president from 1882-1902.
Broun married into a slaveholding family, but the record shows a more respectful relationship; the slaves remained with the family as paid workers after they were freed.
Comer, on the other hand, showed an embracing and promotion of a racist pathology that continues to shame the state. He embraced the racial hatred that marked the Jim Crow era and used it to his financial and political benefit.
To continue to honor his legacy at two of the state’s most well-known institutions of higher learning brings particular shame to them as well.
If the performing arts center had not been named for Dr. Jay Gogue, I would have suggested that he be honored by the renaming of Comer Hall.
What Alabama does on their campus is their concern. But certainly, Auburn University can find a more appropriate person to honor than Braxton Bragg Comer.