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Industrial Archeology
Summer 1994, vol. 7(2)

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*  Engine of Injustice: African American Labor and Technological Change at the Sloss Furnaces

(photo) Mill worker filling a shuttle, ca. 1917.

"Standing in the cold, numbing rain, I was surrounded by a sea of brick rubble [and] rusting car bodies. It was a challenging place to do archeology. The site was both foreboding as a focus of study and contaminated with cadmium."

Joel W. Grossman

by Alex Lichtenstein

Think of the city of Birmingham, Alabama, and Bull Connor, Martin Luther King, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and the Birmingham jail readily come to mind. While these icons of the civil rights struggle justly dominate Birmingham's historical consciousness, the city King called "the most segregated in America" was also known as the "Pittsburgh of the South." Indeed, Birmingham has a significant history of coal, iron, and steel production, and in the late 19th century the "Birmingham District" became the industrial heartland of the Deep South, and consequently the locus of the south's first free industrial proletariat.1

In fact, the city's physical landscape reveals this story more readily than it does the struggle for racial justice. The winding streets and Victorian homes in the hills above town bespeak southern gentility, but the rail lines that bisect the basin below, lined with brick industrial buildings surrounded by turn-of-the-century working class neighborhoods betray a past at odds with images of pastoral Dixie.

Only two miles from the new banks and office buildings of downtown Birmingham, and dominating city vistas from the surrounding hills and superhighways, stands a relic of the bygone industrial era: the Sloss Furnaces. A major site of pig-iron production in the Birmingham District for 90 years, Sloss shut down in 1970, long after Birmingham had passed its prime as an industrial center. However, recognizing that "one of the modern day resources we have to draw upon is the potential benefits that can be derived from a relic of our early development," an unusual combination of boosters and community activists successfully saved Sloss from the wrecker's ball, and in 1981 the site was designated a national historic landmark open to visitors.2 This "history you can touch and smell" (in the words of a tourist brochure) is well worth a visit for anyone interested in the industrial, technological, or labor history of the postbellum South.

In the post-industrial age of the microchip, the sheer immensity of the plant almost defies belief. The two enormous blast furnaces, over 70 feet high, dominate the 17-acre site. But the molten iron that flowed several times a day from the "notch" at the base of the furnace was a product of a complex process dependent on a vast assemblage of machinery to harness the raw energy needed to put a furnace "in blast."

Rail line spurs and hoists for iron ore and coke, enormous engines to pump air, 12 tall, cylindrical hot blast stoves to heat it, six large boilers to produce steam to power the entire plant, and a network of giant pipes to integrate the entire process give the site a fantastic appearance--it resembles nothing more than the bizarre, simultaneously archaic and futuristic world of the film Brazil. As the on-site blacksmith, who works a small forge in the shadow of the furnaces, remarked to me, to modern eyes it is astonishing that the plant actually worked.

A visitor is free to wander at will to get a feel for the place, but the "self-guided tour" that winds through the maze of pipes, boilers, stoves, and engines is absolutely essential to grasp the actual operation of the furnace and the manufacture of iron. The tour roughly follows the path of the industrial process itself, beginning with the enormous air blast generated at the blower building, basically a giant bellows. The next stop is the torpedo like brick-lined stoves used to heat the air blast to 1400 degrees Fahrenheit in preparation for the furnace, then up a steel stairway to a catwalk that runs around the No. 1 Furnace, where the superheated air was used to smelt iron ore.

On one side of the furnace, one can examine the skip hoist, a mechanized pulley system that carried raw ore and coke from arriving rail cars up to the furnace mouth (unfortunately not accessible to visitors). Not until 1927 did this device end the extremely hazardous process of stoking the furnace at the top by hand, 30 years after mechanization in comparable northern plants.3 As a tour panel points out, workers stoking the furnace were on occasion overcome by the heat and fumes, and fell into the volcano below to be melted in the blast with the rest of the raw materials.

Finally, stretching approximately 100 feet to the east from the base of the furnace, and fully accessible to visitors, is the casting shed, a long, low hangar with a sand floor in which molten iron was molded into pigs in the final stage of the 19th century production of iron. After exploring the furnace and pig-casting area, the tour leads back to the boilers, which generated the steam power that drove the entire process, beginning with the air blowers. Interestingly, the boilers themselves were eventually heated by gas drawn off from the furnace, thus completing the circle of an entirely self-contained production facility.

Certainly the self-guided tour and indeed the site itself are limited and rudimentary, really more of an undeveloped park than a comprehensive museum. Nevertheless, careful attention to the handful of informational panels can provide an excellent sense of the interaction between the initially overwhelming technologic process and another crucial element of production: the men who worked at the furnace.

The narrative is particularly attentive to how the human element combined with--and was shaped by--the technological imperatives of early iron production, using oral testimony by workers to good effect. For example, it was interesting to learn that the craft of brick masonry remained an important element in the maintenance of the hot blast stoves. The brick latticework lining the interior of these stoves was built to exact specifications to retain heat, and a skilled mason who learned the craft from his father describes the harrowing experience of working inside an oven to make delicate repairs on the brick "checkers." Pride in 19th century craft traditions appears to be carried into the dangerous and frightening heart of industrial labor. Similarly, the description of the unskilled, heavy labor of stoking a furnace always in danger of explosion offers a dramatic sense of the fragility of the human contribution to production in the face of an immensely powerful industrial process.

Another superb illustration of the connection between labor and the industrial process is found in the gripping eyewitness description of the crucial work done in the casting shed, where hot molten iron flowing from the furnace every four hours was cast by hand in sand molds. The words of Edward Uehling, the engineer who eventually mechanized the iron-casting process, indicate that the work of breaking and carrying the newly cast pigs was arduous, hot, and dangerous. Workers wore wooden shoes in order to protect their feet from being scorched by the liquid iron and had to work at a rapid pace to clear the shed for the next opening of a furnace notch.

Despite Frederick Winslow Taylor's infamous presentation of the pig-iron carrier as a dumb brute in need of scientific management, it is clear from the panel that this difficult work was carried out by a select group of workers who retained a fair measure of job control. Records of another furnace company in the Birmingham District indicate this as well. In 1897, when the iron carriers in his plant struck to demand an increase in the size of work crews, the furnace operator complained that "it is a little remarkable that iron carriers should call themselves skilled laborers. This, however, is a fact"--a fact he discovered when it proved difficult to replace these men with green hands.4

The photograph that accompanies Uehling's description of pig casting shows the shed workers as black, but there is no other indication or discussion of the racial characteristics of this important component of the labor force. But in other areas of the site, the question of race is given some of the attention it deserves.

According to one historian, in 1900 a majority of the workers at Sloss were black 5; there is no direct statement of this fact on the site, but a number of panels describe the impact of segregation on the work force--both in daily life (company picnics were strictly segregated, as was housing and all public accommodations in Birmingham) and in the construction of job categories. One panel points out that all the technicians, foremen, supervisors, and "skilled" workers at the plant were white, while the so-called "common labor" was entirely black. "That's just the way white folks are," one black worker is quoted as saying.

Another panel notes the ambivalent response of black workers to the growth of union power at the furnace after the 1930s, which eventually helped a few move into semi-skilled positions but did little to challenge structural job segregation until forced to by the Civil Rights Act in 1965. Sloss closed down five years later.

Unfortunately all of this is suggestive rather than comprehensive, raising more questions--about race in the workplace, the impact of unionization on work and race relations, and the impact of mechanization--than it answers. If the black experience with the CIO is duly mentioned in general terms, there is little exploration of the full range of opportunities and limitations this may have represented. If, indeed, white and black workers alike made gains in the workplace through union representation, there is no indication of how this was translated into changes in Birmingham's racial climate, or alternatively, how the labor movement helped perpetuate segregation both within and beyond the plant gates, as some historians have suggested.6

Similarly, if the most interesting facet of the site is that it conveys an immediate impression of the intimate connection between dangerous work and craft pride and control, technological wizardry and intense human effort, it fails to explain how labor and the productive process shaped each other over time. The most compelling descriptions of workers' experience at the furnaces focus on labor processes essentially dictated by 19th century iron technology, and are frozen there. True, at Sloss charging the furnaces, opening and closing the notch to control the flow of molten iron, and molding, casting, and carrying the pig-iron were all carried out by hand until the late 1920s. But the remaining physical plant actually consists of several layers of 19th and 20th century technology, artifacts of both the hand-casting era and the advent of the mechanized processes that eclipsed it. Unfortunately industrial archeology of the site remains opaque to the visitor. While some descriptions of labor are attentive to the contrast between mechanized and non-mechanized production, rarely are the chronology or implications of modernization made explicit.

The initial development proposal to preserve the abandoned furnaces noted that "the primary importance of the site today is the insight which it offers into the pace and extent of technological change of the period during the late '20s and early '30s."7 But this is not readily apparent to the visitor, whose attention is more often called to the preceding period of industrialization. Thus, while a furnace on this site was first put in blast in 1882, the extant one was rebuilt in the 1920s; unfortunately there is no indication of how much more "modern"--or efficient--20th-century production was, other than in the mechanical charging system made possible by the skip hoist.

Similarly, when I visited Sloss, lying in one corner of the casting shed, as if left there by accident, were what appeared to be 19th century tools for plugging the iron notch or for breaking pigs by hand, with no explanation as to their function. This labor-intensive process was eventually superseded, and the panel that describes the sand-casting of pig iron also calls attention to the remains of a pig-casting machine, visible to the right of the casting shed but inaccessible. This conveyor belt, which automatically filled molds with molten iron, was not built until 1931 (35 years after its invention)--which means, incredibly, that the archaic process of sand-casting pigs persisted until the Great Depression.

No explanation for this long delay is offered, nor are the reasons for the decision to finally mechanize, a decision clearly dictated by factors other than the availability of technology. Moreover, there is no hint that mechanization must have had profound implications for the size and skill level of the work force as well. Elsewhere, the exhibit notes that 2,000 workers labored at Sloss in 1900, and that this force had been reduced to 250 by 1970, on the eve of shutdown. But this decline is not connected to changes in the productive process.

Thus one of the most pressing questions in the industrial and labor history of the South--its competitive handicaps--tends to be obscured by the site. Gary Kulik, who was a consulting historian on Sloss for the Historic American Engineering Record, has suggested that the furnace company's failure to adopt modern technology can in large part be attributed to the ample supply of cheap black labor in the Birmingham District, which began to decline in the 1920s.8

Not only does the site fail to incorporate Kulik's insight, but there is no exploration of the impact technological delay may have had on the weak position of the southern iron industry in the national market. Also unmentioned is the fact that for four decades the essential coal and coke for the furnaces was produced by convicts leased from the state by the Sloss Company, and this forced labor was seen as "absolutely necessary both from an economic standpoint and in order to guarantee operations in the face of bad weather, railway disaster, strikes, or other contingencies."9 The mechanization of the late 1920s coincided not only with the increasing exodus of black workers from the South, but also with the abolition of convict leasing in Alabama.

Today, the isolated Sloss furnaces stand apart from the main circuits of capital and development in Birmingham, which no longer bases its economy on iron and steel. The former centrality of heavy industry is equally hard to grasp within the confines of the site itself.

Although the industrial process within the plant gates is laid bare, there is little sense of how raw materials were obtained, and where the final product went once it left the furnaces. Thus the place of the furnace within the Birmingham District's emerging political economy, its role in reshaping the surrounding hinterland, and even perhaps the Alabama plantation belt, and the story behind its ultimate demise remain hidden and obscure.

As Mike Wallace has suggested, public displays of industrial history should "strive for a still better connection of past, present, and future"--that is, industrial sites should be placed in the context of industrialization, growth, and deindustrialization. One information panel at Sloss hints at this when it notes (without comment) that in the 1950s Sloss began to procure its coal from Brazil and Peru. This certainly points toward the importance of what Wallace notes is the true meaning of the abstraction "deindustrialization"-"the global reorganization of capitalism in the late 20th century." If "behind the facade of solidity lies the quicksilver reality of mobility and relentless transformation," at Sloss, the idle furnaces and gas ovens, the cold pipes, the silent blowing engines, and perhaps, the concerts now performed in the casting shed testify to the process, played out in less than a century in the heart of the "Magic City."10

The developers of the Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark hoped it would "provide a mirror of [Birmingham's] past," but this glass can only be seen through darkly as of yet.11Nevertheless, despite its limitations, the Sloss furnaces provide a unique glimpse at the horror and the glory of industrialization in the New South. Ultimately, I found my visit there to be thought-provoking and even moving. This unusual national historic landmark recreates an industrial history that is rapidly receding, one which profoundly shaped the lives of thousands of black and white southerners and, indeed, American workers.

Excerpted by permission from "Black Labor and Technological Change at a National Historic Landmark: .Sloss Furnaces, Birmingham, Alabama," Radical History Review 56:119-126, 1993. For further information, contact Alex Lichtenstein, Assistant Professor of History, Florida International University, Miami, FL 33199, (305) 348-2328.


1. Stanley Greenberg, Race and State in Capitalist Development (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 209-42; Ethel Armes, The Story of Coal and Iron in Alabama (Birmingham: Chamber of Commerce, 1910); Carl V. Harris, Political Power in Birmingham, 1871-1921 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1977).

2. Jim Waters & Associates, "Sloss Furnace: Proposal for Initial Development," submitted to Birmingham City Council, October 1980 (in author's possession); Barbara J. Mitchell, "Steel Workers in a Boom Town, Birmingham, 1900," Southern Exposure 12 (November-December 1984): 56-60.

3. On the introduction of furnace-charging technology at Sloss see Gary Kulik, "Black Workers and Technological Change in the Birmingham Iron Industry, 1881-1931," in Southern Workers and Their Unions: Selected Papers, the Second Southern Labor History Conference, 1977, ed. Gary Fink and Merl E. Reed (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1981), 26; Gary Kulik, "Birmingham: Old Iron Furnaces Still Central Element of Industrial City's Skyline," American Preservation 1 (February-March 1978): 20-23.

4. On labor in the casting shed see Kulik, "Black Workers and Technological Change," 26-27; Alfred M. Shook to James T. Woodward, 22 June 1897, Shook Papers, Birmingham Public Library.

5. Mitchell, "Steel Workers in a Boom Town."

6. For a harsh assessment of the United Steelworkers' impact on race relations, see Robert J. Norrell, "Caste in Steel: Jim Crow Careers in Birmingham, Alabama,"Journal of American History 73 (December 1986): 669-94; for a dissenting view, see Judith Stein, "Southern Workers in National Unions: Birmingham Steelworkers, 1936-1951," in Organized Labor in the Twentieth-Century South, ed. Robert Zieger (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991).

7. Jim Waters and Associates, "Sloss Furnace: Proposal for Initial Development," 6; see also Kulik, "Birmingham: Old Iron Furnaces Still Central Element of Industrial City's Skyline."

8. Kulik, "Black Workers and Technological Change," 24, 28-31.

9. Second Annual Report of the Sloss-Sheffield Steel and Iron Co., 30 November 1901, SSS & I Co. Records, Birmingham Public Library.

10. Mike Wallace, "Industrial Museums and the History of Deindustrialization," The Public Historian 9 (Winter 1987): 9:19.

11. Jim Waters and Associates, "Sloss Furnace: Proposal for Initial Developement," 3.