Donald Comer (1877-1963) was long-time president and chairman of the board of Avondale Mills, operated by his father Braxton Bragg Comer, Alabama's 33rd governor. He expanded the corporation itself greatly and also expanded his father's progressive practices (although some have deemed them paternalism) toward his employees while in charge of the mills.
James McDonald "Donald" Comer was born on October 14, 1877, in Comer, Barbour County, the third child of Braxton Bragg Comer and Eva Jane Harris. During his childhood, he lived in Barbour County; Volusia County, Florida; Anniston, Calhoun County; and Birmingham, Jefferson County. He attended the Webb School in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, and Bingham, a military school, in Asheville, North Carolina.
In 1898, Comer joined the Army as a second lieutenant and served in the Philippine-American War from 1899-1902, achieving the rank of first lieutenant before he left the service in 1903. While in the Philippines, he contracted malaria and would suffer severe recurrences for the rest of his life. In 1902, upon resigning from the Army, Comer returned to Alabama to become secretary-treasurer of B. B. Comer & Sons Company, a corporation that operated extensive family plantations in Barbour County and large supply store at Comer Station. Comer married Gertrude Miller in 1904; the couple would have four children. His recreations consisted of sailing, fishing and hunting. His personal interest in outdoor sports and his love of children led him to have a lifelong involvement in the Boy Scouts.
When Braxton Bragg Comer was elected governor in 1907, Comer became treasurer and then vice-president of Avondale Mills, a cotton mill headquartered in Birmingham. In 1909, he also became both treasurer and president of the family's Cowikee Mills, headquartered in Eufaula, Barbour County, which expanded to both Ozark, Dale County, and Union Springs, Bullock County. The two firms together employed about 7,000 people at their peak. He also served as vice-president of the Southern States Industrial Council in 1914. Between 1907 and 1927, Donald and B. B. Comer were primarily responsible for expanding Avondale Mills to 10 cotton mills in Alabama and Georgia. He became president of Avondale Mills upon his father's death in 1927.
Comer was well-known for his paternalistic attitude toward his employees. In about 1920, the Comer family purchased land on the coast in Florida to which they annually took the children of employees. This camp was replaced and expanded in size by the purchase of Camp Helen, near Panama City Beach, Florida, by Donald Comer in 1932. He also established night schools in Avondale Mills, known as Opportunity Schools, in cooperation with the State Department of Education, for adults. He also sponsored individuals, primarily children of Avondale's workers, in their college educations through no-interest loans, which he usually forgave if the person graduated.
Comer's views on child labor gradually evolved during the 1920s, from being initially opposed to regulating hours for women and children to supporting an effort to end night work by children and women in the cotton mills in the early 1930s. By 1934, he had come to support a national movement to end child labor.
From 1923-1931, Comer actively supported a number of organizations aimed at economic development, including the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Rural Electrification Authority, and the Farm Security Administration. Within the state, he was vice-chairman of the Alabama Relief Administration from 1932-1935, a member of the National Recovery Administration Alabama Advisory Board from 1934-1935, and chairman of the Alabama Public Works Board, 1935-1939, among others.
While Comer favored some government intervention in industry, that support did not extend to unionization. Although he advocated that wages be raised and hours lowered, in 1933 he bluntly told stockholders that if Avondale Mills were unionized he was ready to liquidate. When the general textile strike of July 1934 occurred, only the workers at the Birmingham plant of Avondale Mills walked off of the job. Meanwhile Donald Comer launched a sophisticated public relations campaign defending his management of Avondale. This brush with unionization was followed by Comer's moving the headquarters of Avondale from Birmingham to Sylacauga in 1935 and his fervent opposition to the National Labor Relations Act , or Wagner bill, and later, the Fair Labor Standards Act.
He served as president of the American Cotton Manufacturer's Association from May 1936 through April 1937. In 1938, he became chairman of the Avondale Mills board. His life-long advocacy of economic diversification in the South was recognized with his 1940 appointment by Gov. Frank M. Dixon to be the Alabama Chairman of the Southern Governors Conference Ten-Year Program for Planned Prosperity in the South.
During World War II, he was appointed to the War Labor Board to help curtail work stoppages that were occurring as labor demanded higher pay as company profits skyrocketed during the war effort. Also during this time, he created a profit-sharing plan for employees of Avondale Mills. Between 1948 and 1950, Avondale Mills shared more than $12 milion in profits with its 7,000 mill workers In 1948, he went to Japan to help its textile industry recover in the aftermath of World War II; also in that year, he received an honorary LL.D. from Birmingham-Southern College. In 1949, he led an effort by a citizen's group to revoke the charter of the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama.
In 1951, he became chair of the Avondale Mills executive committee. At various times ranging from the 1920s through the 1940s, he was a director of numerous corporations, including the Birmingham Fire Insurance Company, American Mutual Liability Insurance Company, Central of Georgia Railway, First National Bank of Birmingham, and Southeastern Cottons, as well as of the Federal Reserve Bank in Atlanta, Georgia, from 1936-1961. He was also a director of the Cotton Textile Institute in the mid to late 1930s, rising to vice-president in 1938.
In addition to his business activities, Comer was a life-long advocate for public education, with a deep involvement in efforts to eradicate illiteracy and to promote vocational education. To that end, he served on both the Birmingham Board of Education (1937-1945; as vice-president of that board in 1941), and the State Board of Education (1935-1949), representing the Ninth District under both liberal and conservative governors. He specifically targeted the reduction of illiteracy among adults and adult education generally, a longer school year for all children, and better vocational education as goals to be achieved.
Donald Comer died on May 31, 1963, in Birmingham, Jefferson County. He is buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham.
Michael A. Breedlove. Donald Comer: New Southerner, New Dealer. Ph.D. diss.: The American University, 1990.
"My Brother Donald." Cotton 100.5 (May 1936): 63-66.
Michael A. Breedlove
Alabama Department of Archives and History
Published July 7, 2010
Last updated August 15, 2012