Braxton Bragg Comer
Braxton Bragg Comer was born November 7, 1848, at old Spring Hill, Barbour County, Alabama, the fourth son of John Fletcher and Catherine Drewry Comer. 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 of 1865 was forced to leave when General John T. Croxton's troops burned the university.
In 1869 Comer graduated from Emory and Henry College with A.B. and A.M. degrees. He then returned to Spring Hill and helped to manage the family property. In 1872 he married Eva Jane Harris of Cuthbert, Georgia. He then built a large home at Comer Station, Barbour County, Alabama, and continued his plantation and general store business. He grew corn and cotton primarily on what became a 30,000 acre plantation. He also served on the Barbour County Commissioners Court from 1874-1880, helping to "redeem" that county from Republican Party rule." In 1885 he moved his family to Anniston, but continued to actively farm in Barbour County. In Anniston he joined S.B. Trapp in a grocery and commission business, Comer & Trapp. In 1890 he and his family moved to Birmingham, Alabama. After several other successful ventures, including the milling of flour and corn, he became president of City National Bank. In 1897 he began Avondale Mills in Birmingham, a cotton manufacturing firm. From that point forward he and his sons continuously expanded that company by acquiring other mills in Alabama, including those in Sycamore, Sylacauga, Pell City, Alexander City, and elsewhere.
Comer was not content to limit his activities to business. In 1904 he successfully defeated the incumbent, John V. Smith, for the position as president of the State Railroad Commission. He ran on a platform favorable to shipping interests - limit the power of the railroads. In 1906 he successfully ran for the office of Governor, defeating Lieutenant-Governor Russell M. Cunningham of Birmingham in the Democratic primary. The predominant issue in the campaign was that of railroad regulation. The Barbour County native then defeated Asa E. Stratton of the Republican Party and J.N. Abbott of the Socialist Party in the November 1906 election.
Comer's primary interests as governor were in the areas of railroad rate regulation, education and prohibition. He played an active role in labor disputes. In terms of railroad legislation and regulation, he particularly wanted rates lowered and equalized with neighboring states such as Georgia. The Legislature complied, and thus Comer "secured the adoption of a strict code of laws to regulate railroad rates and practices in Alabama." [Doster, "Comer, Smith, and Jones," 85]
These acts led to a long-running court battle with Milton H. Smith and the L & N Railroad in the federal courts. Judge Thomas Goode Jones presided over the initial court decisions, rendering a decision favoring the railroads' interests. After a rancorous fight, the case was settled out of court by Governor O'Neal in 1914. One of the more important reforms to emerge under the leadership of the Governor Comer was the establishment of a State Board of Assessors to equalize taxation by equalizing property values throughout the state and establishing franchise taxes for businesses. This caused a dramatic rise in income into the state treasury.
The rise in state income led to Comer's program to improve education from the common school level through the university level. Appropriations were made to build rural schools, a program was launched to insure that every county had at least one high school, and increased appropriations were made to both the University of Alabama and the Alabama Polytechnic Institute at Auburn. The nine agricultural schools, the normal schools and the Girl's Technical School at Montevallo also received more funds. In all areas the curriculum level was raised. He also led the movement to transfer the Alabama Boy's Industrial School to state control.
Also during his term, and under his leadership, a statewide prohibition law was enacted. The legislature enacted a child labor law that limited workers in cotton mills to the age of twelve and over and required children under the age of sixteen to attend school, but it received only lukewarm support from Comer. Also notable is Comer's role in the Alabama coal strike that began in July 1908. The governor sent in troops to protect nonunion miners on August 10 after much violence and destruction of property by both the strikers and the mine owners. On August 26 Comer ordered the military to cut down the tents of the strikers. On August 30 Comer threatened to arrest every striking miner for vagrancy, thus ending the strike.
Comer also served a short time as a U.S. Senator in 1920, filling the unexpired term of John H. Bankhead.
B.B. and Eva Jane Comer had eight children: Sally Bailey, John Fletcher, James McDonald, Eva Mignon, Catherine, Braxton Bevelle, Eva, and Braxton Bragg, Jr., and Hugh M. Comer. Eva Jane died on March 6, 1920 and B. B. died on August 15, 1927.
Alabama Official and Statistical Register, 1907.
Comer, Donald. Braxton Bragg Comer: An Alabamian Whose Avondale Mills Opened New Paths for Southern Progress, 1947.
Doster, James F. "Alabama's Political Revolution of 1904," Alabama Review, April 1954.
Doster, James F. "Alabama's Gubernatorial Election of 1906," Alabama Review, July 1955.
Doster, James F. "Comer, Smith, and Jones: Alabama's Railroad War of 1907-1914," Alabama Review, April 1957.
Going, Allen J. The Governorship of B.B. Comer, M.A. thesis, University of Alabama, 1940.
Moore, A.B. History of Alabama, 1934.
Owen, Thomas M. History of Alabama and Dictionary of Alabama Biography, 1921.
Stewart, John C. The Governors of Alabama, 1975.