The fight to unionize the Southern West Virginia coalfields crossed racial barriers
TALCOTT, W.Va. — For decades — well before the magnificent and informational John Henry Historical Park opened here — I have been bringing friends and family to the The Great Bend Tunnel of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad. We were hopeful we’d be able to watch a train come or go through the “newer” tunnel in use. We often did. Other times, it was a stopping point while canoeing on the Greenbrier River.
Equally important, at every visit, we would be sure to visit the statue of John Henry — then on W.Va. Rt. 3 above the tunnels below. The statue has since been moved down to the new park. Nevertheless, a stop along this highway with our children — and now grandchildren — offers a teachable moment. The legend of John Henry — biographical gaps aside — point to an undeniable truth: black people played a critical role in the rise of unions in the southern West Virginia coalfields in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In his book, Thunder in the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine War 1920-21, (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1990) Lon Savage reveals several instances of black coal miners standing alongside their white colleagues as they attempted to unionize the southern coalfields of the Mountain State while lawmen like Don Chafin, sheriff of Logan County, serving at the will and pleasure of the coal operators, set aside any pretense of impartiality.
The coal operators were ruthless against union organizers and any miner that considered joining a union. Trains with machine guns blazing tore apart miner camps and bodies — miners displaced by coal operators who had evicted them from their homes as punishment for attempting to unionize. Finally, oppressed miners reacted with rage at the murder of Sid Hatified by Baldwin-Felts detectives at the McDowell County Courthouse in Welch on Aug. 1, 1921. Hatfield, a hero for standing up for miners against the coal operator strongmen, became an instant martyr, and his assassination the catalyst for the Battle of Blair Mountain.
Following the Civil War, many blacks migrated northward; by the time of the Battle of Blair Mountain, about one in five miners in southern West Virginia was black.
That does not mean that race relations were great. They were, in many instances, not. But the shared experiences of oppression and injustice were enough to overcome prejudices. Notes Savage, “Many were black, the children of former slaves who had come to the coalfields from worn-out tobacco farms and cotton fields, and they marched, as they had worked in the mines, alongside the whites.”
In fact, says Savage, “Blacks among the miners recruited men and raised money. A black miner had been among those who stood with Sid against the coal operators in Mingo County, and blacks, like whites, were in Mingo County’s jail.” A leader made speeches along the creek to the black miners.
Blacks risked everything and assumed leadership roles. At least one black man was shot. Also, writes Savage, “‘Red’ Thompson, a black from Opperman mine, led another force of seventy-five men up from Blair. Wearing khaki pants, leggings and shirt, and a broad brimmed white hat, Thompson led his men directly toward the shooting.”
Directly toward the shooting. A century ago. That is cause for pause.
Some years ago, musician Bruce Hornsby wrote, “The Way It Is.” Well, we must not accept that, in the United States, racism is just “the way it is.” We can make sure that we learn from history. We can teach our children and grandchildren to honor the contributions of blacks in the United States and around the world by showing them the way forward — once we make sure we’re honest about the past. This is a good month to cultivate that.
© Michael M. Barrick, 2021-22.