Alabama Governors

Thomas Erby Kilby

photo of portrait of Ala. Governor Thomas Erby Kilby




Thomas Erby Kilby was born in Lebanon, Tennessee, on July 9, 1865. He attended public schools in Atlanta, Georgia, from whence he moved to Anniston, Alabama, in 1887 to work as an agent for the Georgia and Pacific Railroad. In 1889 Kilby entered the steel business with associate Harry Clark. He advanced through the ranks of Clark and Company which became Clark and Kilby, then Kilby Locomotive and Machine Works, Kilby Car and Foundry Company and, finally, Kilby Steel Company, of which the future governor was president. In 1903 Kilby was elected vice-president of the Kilby Frog and Switch Company in Birmingham and became president of Anniston's City National Bank in 1905.


The political career of Thomas E. Kilby developed simultaneously to his successful business enterprises beginning in 1898 when he served two years on the Anniston City Council. He was a member of the city's Board of Education from 1900 to 1905. In 1905 Kilby was elected mayor of Anniston and re-elected in 1907. During these four years he reorganized the city's finances and inaugurated a beautification campaign to improve the appearance of the city and the quality of services for the citizenry.


Kilby moved from local to state government in 1911 when he was elected to represent Calhoun County in the State Senate. In 1914 the former mayor became Lieutenant-Governor of Alabama under Governor Charles Henderson. Four years later Kilby, an ardent prohibitionist, was elected governor in one of the quietest campaigns in state history.


Although securing ratification of the Eighteenth (Prohibition) Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was a major goal of Kilby's, reforming the state budgeting process was his chief ambition. He created a budget commission composed of the governor, attorney general, and state auditor to prepare a budget for the state when making appropriations. A revenue bill was also passed providing for a graduated income tax and a two-cent per ton tax on coal mined in Alabama.


Kilby did not initiate as much reform legislation as was passed during the administration of Braxton B. Comer but considerable achievements occurred nonetheless. The state's school systems were consolidated under the newly created State Board of Education. State prisons and juvenile reform schools were upgraded to provide cleaner facilities, better health care, and more opportunities for rehabilitation. Steps were taken to abolish the convict lease system but this reform did not happen during the Kilby administration.


Additional reforms under Kilby included: passage of a workmen's compensation act, Confederate pensions were increased, the Child Welfare Department was created, the Public Service Commission was strengthened, and appropriations to the Public Health Department were increased. In response to the numerous strikes that occurred, primarily by coal miners, Kilby created the Law Enforcement Department. Women's suffrage was recognized in the fall of 1920 when Tennessee became the 26th state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Although the governor straddled the fence on women's suffrage, he enthusiastically sponsored a $25 million bond to cover extensive improvements to the state's highways and the port of Mobile.


Known as the "business governor," Kilby's political career more or less ended after he left office. He was defeated by Hugo Black in 1926 and again in 1932 in the race for a U.S. Senate seat. Kilby married Mary Elizabeth Clark on June 5, 1894. They had a daughter, Anne Kilby Porter, and two sons, Oscar Marchant and Thomas Erby, Jr. Thomas Kilby died in Anniston on October 22, 1943.


Grantham, Dewey W. Southern Progressivism: The Reconciliation of Progress and Tradition, 1983.
Owen, Emily. Thomas E. Kilby in Local and State Government, 1948.
Owen, Marie Bankhead. The Story of Alabama: A History of the State, 1949.
Stephenson, Wendell H., and Coulter, E. Merton. A History of the South Vol. 10 The Emergence of the New South, 1913-1945, 1967.
Stewart, John Craig. The Governors of Alabama, 1975.
Summersell, Charles G. Alabama: A State History, 1955.