Elijah Nelms, known also as Lige Nelms, was born in 1881. At age 22, he married Nettie Tolbert, an African-American woman. They had a son, Jaussie Smith. Mr. Nelms labored as a pumper, someone who pumps up mining products through wells, in the Banner Mines owned by the Pratt Consolidated Coal Company, in Pratt City.
In 1908, many Southern mines were facing strikes as the desire for greater profits created a need for cheap labor rather than unionized workers. Major mines, particularly those owned by the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company, refused to renew their contracts with the United Mine Workers union (UMW), and union members went on strike. Mr. Nelms was not a member of UMW and was one of the non-unionized workers who filled jobs at the Banner Mines during the strike.
On July 29, 1908, a group of white union laborers killed Mr. Nelms in an act of racial terror. The men shot Mr. Nelms and another African- American worker, Ed Miller. Mr. Nelms died from his bullet wounds, while Mr. Miller survived. When the militia arrived to restore order, they took Mr. Miller to jail. We have no records of what happened to him.
By August 21, 1908, twenty-two men had been arrested for Mr. Nelms’s murder. Yet, they all posted bail and so were released from jail prior to sentencing. There is no record of whether they faced penalties, but it was not uncommon for such hate crimes to receive light or no punishment. Ultimately, Mr. Nelms’s death had no real impact on the strike itself, which ended shortly thereafter due to the militia’s intervention.
While Elijah Nelms was killed, other African Americans suffered and lost their lives due to discrimination and wanton disregard for their humanity. The desperation of freed African Americans forced many of them to accept jobs that paid significantly less than their labor was worth and to work in unsafe conditions that often put their lives at risk. Whether they were given dangerous jobs or murdered publicly without justifiable cause, African Americans suffered prejudice and inhumane conditions in the post-Civil War era.
Jefferson State Community College
“Certificate of Marriage, Jesausie Nelms to Katherine Smith,” February 14, 1942, Norfolk, Virginia.
“Food for Strikebreakers,” The Montgomery Advertiser, August 1, 1908, page 1.
“Several Incidents In the Strike in Mining District,” The Birmingham News, July 1908.