Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Unearthing the Coal Camps' Racial Legacy

11/21/2008
widen WVWiden, West Virginia, formerly a coal company town
Photo: Chris Dellamea, coalcampusa

The fact that Barack Obama (half white/half black) ran for President of the United States -- and won -- added many new dimensions to the 2008 campaign. The news media was in a frenzy for months trying to tie this election to the issue of race, concentrating its focus on rural areas where the African-American population generally is lower.

I am white, and come from a small, rural, coalmining town in West Virginia. Mingo County is one of the places reporters from papers like the Washington Post have targeted for opinion polls, a place where people may be more vulnerable to less than truthful campaign ads and less than fair news reports. In my opinion, the purpose of these out-of-the-way polls and the commentary that follows them is to create a sensation, attract readers and increase circulation.

History speaks for itself regarding racism in the coalfields of West Virginia. It was outsiders, coal owners/operators and big businesses, tha promoted racism in West Virginia, not the West Virginia coal miners. Proof can be found in the coal camps those businesses created, where segregation in housing, schools, churches and personal relationships were mandated by coal barons. The coal miners, no matter their skin color, lived in a form of slavery themselves.

I visited Widen Coal Camp in 2006. Patty Duffield wanted me to go to Widen to see the "Colored Cemetery." It was my first trip to Widen, only a 28 miles from my home but a world away, over mountainous terrain.

I pulled up as close as I could to the fence pales to talk to the woman sitting in the glider on the porch. She had curlers in her hair and wore a long, pink chenille bath robe. I rolled my window down and said, "Hello, my name is Betty Lewis. I am from Summersville. I work for the Board of Education but the reason I am here is not work related. Can you tell me where the 'colored' cemetery is located?"

She stopped the glider, got up and walked to the edge of the porch and said, "Hi, I am Ramona. That cemetery is right down the road," pointing in the direction out of town, around the curve. She told me it was hard to find.

She said, "Why don't you get out and come on in and I will have my boy take you down there."

I went inside, a coal camp house which had been refurbished. When I told Ramona I was interested in the history of the coal camp, she took down two family albums and we sat down together on the couch to look at family photos, taken mostly in Widen. Her 14-year-old son soon appeared on his 4-wheeler, and Ramona told him to take me to the "colored" cemetery. As I was going out the door she told me a visitor or two had come to the cemetery lately looking for relatives. Some of the weeds had been cut back and an item or two left. I got back in my Jeep and followed the boy on the 4-wheeler down through the streets of Widen Coal Camp. He soon pulled over and pointed to a steep hillside covered with briars and weeds. I got out, thanked him and got a tripod and camera out of the back.

I remember pulling a branch from a small tree and sticking it in the ground to help pull me up the steep hillside. I was scratched and scraped by the time I got to the fence. I climbed over.

widen cemetery

African-American cemetery outside Widen, West Virginia (Clay County)
Photo: Betty Dotson-Lewis

There were four rows of graves, eight in each row is the way I remember it - rough tombstones. On each tombstone a number, 1 through 32, was etched. That was all the information given. No names. No dates of birth or dates of death. This is where colored miners who worked for Widen Coal Company were buried by direction of coal camp owner. Two teddy bears were leaned up against stone number 23. A bunch of plastic flowers was tied to a tree near another stone.

The narrow hollows of West Virginia where the deep, rich seams of coal are mined hold many secrets. Coal mines were most often located deep in the remote hollows. Coal camps emerged by necessity. Black men were brought from the South to work in the mines. The operators had to provide everything miners needed in order to get workers to stay. This remoteness and the fact that the coal owners owned the camp and miners lock-stock-and-barrel kept information in and information out from the world beyond.

Widen Coal Camp, located on Buffalo Creek in Clay County, West Virginia was characterized as a model coal camp. Segregation was mandated. Whites lived on streets reserved for whites. Coloreds lived in a section for coloreds, across the railroad tracks. Schools were built for whites only. The coloreds had their school. Churches were separate "“ coloreds had a church and a Baptist and a Presbyterian church were built for whites. Interracial marriages were off limits.

Widen Coal Camp was the empire of one man -- J. G. Bradley. Bradley was a Harvard Law School graduate. He began his career in Dundon, Clay County, West Virginia, in 1904 as a railroad man and land developer for the family property. Abe Lincoln bestowed a 93,000-acre land grant upon Bradley's great grandfather, Simon Cameron, who served as Secretary of War for a short time. This appointment, in exchange for support of Lincoln at the Republican Convention of 1860, was short lived due to rampant corruption. Cameron was forced to resign his post in 1862.

J. G. Bradley himself was born into a wealthy New Jersey family. His tenure as president of the Buffalo Creek and Gauley Railroad and owner/operator of the Elk River Coal and Lumber Company, lasted over 50 years -- for half a century he reigned in the backwoods of West Virginia, governing over his railroad, his lumber and coal businesses and the miners who lived in the pint sized city of Widen Coal Camp.

Coal was initially discovered in 1898 at Dundon, Clay County, where Bradley and his wife made their home on a large estate. In 1911, a richer, finer seam of coal was uncovered 19 miles out of Dundon in Widen. The railroad was extended up Buffalo Creek, the Elk Coal and Lumber Company opened a coal mine and Widen coal camp was born. The coal mine at Widen became the largest non-union mine in the United States.

Towns like Widen were unincorporated and everything and every body in it was owned by the coal company. A sheriff would not come into the town on a law-related matter except to serve a warrant. Coal company bosses and superintendents had their own way of dealing with drunks and Saturday night brawls.

scripConsolidated Coal Company Scrip, for purchases at the company store in Coalwood, WV
Photo: Coalwood, West Virginia

As many as 3000 people lived in Widen at one time. Houses were all alike -- four rooms, painted red and white on the outside -- except for the superintendent's house, which was bigger. Rent and a doctor's fee were deducted from the miner's wages. They were paid with a non-transferable currency called "scrip" good only at the company store, where all transactions were made. Ramona told me that if any small item, even a chicken, were brought in by one of the miners, the bosses would confiscate it and that miner would be penalized.

Coal operators set wages for miners at non-union mines. Often black coal miners were paid a lower wage than white miners and assigned the most dangerous jobs.

Bradley practiced "welfare capitalism," running high quality private schools by giving teachers higher salaries than the public school system could afford. He built a tennis court and swimming pool. He built a nice Club House: No 'coloreds' allowed. That was where he stayed when he came to Widen to check on his coal operation. Boarders received the best of services at the club house. Harry Taka, from Japan, was chief cook. Bradley had so much power and influence in 1941, at the outbreak of WWII, that when all the Japanese were rounded up and sent to confinement camps out west, Harry Taka and his two oldest children were allowed to stay in Widen under Bradley's supervision. Bradley arranged for Taka's wife and younger child to return to Japan.

Labor problems developed in the early '30s and '40s when the United Mine Works of America (UMWA) stepped up union organizing efforts. Union sympathizers fired high-powered rifles from the tops of the mountains down on the town while company men guarded the mine. In one battle, Joe Groves was killed on the streets of Widen. After the killing, the union backed off for a few years, but in 1952 the bitterest mine strike in modern West Virginia history took place in Widen.

Bill Blizzard was sent to organize. What started as a walkout snowballed into a small war. When miners walked out and picket lines were set up, coal operators used every tactic available to ward off unionization. African-American miners were used as strikebreakers (scabs). Operators knew the pitting of two groups of workers against each other weakened the attempt to organize.

The organizing miners called it off after Charles Frame, a company man , was killed in a drive-by shooting. Bradley won but the price of victory was too costly. He would not compromise. Bradley preferred closing the mine to unionization. Men who had participated in unionization efforts were blackballed and had to leave the area. Some of the miners went to Farmington and were killed in the mine explosion there November 20, 1968. Seventy-eight miners were killed.

Bradley's 50 year baron-like reign came to an end when he could no longer control the miners. The mine was sold to Pittston Coal Company and seven years later the mine closed, leaving Widen a ghost town.

Ramona told me that her daddy had taken the family out of Widen after two gun shots were fired through their car. He was worried about the safety of his two young girls, his wife and an unborn child. She moved back after 15 years.

obama in roanoke

Barack Obama speaking at the Civic Center, Roanoke, Virginia, 10/13/08
Photo: Betty Dotson-Lewis

On October 17, I had the opportunity to attend the Society of Environmental Journalists Conference at the Hotel Roanoke in Roanoke, Virginia. During a break I took the time to go over to the Roanoke Civic Center to see Barack Obama in a campaign appearance. Thousands of people filled the center, black and white, standing there together. Music filled the air: "Only In America." Obama walked on stage and told the crowd that he, a black man, wanted to be President of the United States.

Barack Obama's link to the coalfields may be on a steep hillside outside the nearly deserted coal camp of Widen, in Clay County, West Virginia, a graveyard with 32 markers: black men good enough to mine the coal and die from mining accidents and black lung or other reasons but not good enough to have their names on a tombstone. Whose graves are they? Whoever left these flower knows. Maybe that secret, too, will be told soon.

Comments

Widen history

Mr. Bradley was revered in the town for decades, and his dedication to the mine, the community, and it's people were key to its prosperity.  He paid his workers union scale.  It wasn't about a fiefdom or control.  It was about the ability to mine coal profitably.

reply

If you are in uncomfortable position and have got no cash to go out from that point, you would have to receive the loan. Just because that will aid you emphatically. I take consolidation loans every year and feel myself good just because of this.

Your visit to my "home town" WIDEN in 2006.

Dear visitor to a town dear to my heart.

Late each year (usually the last weekend in July) the remaining WIDEN survivors gather to share the news of the the passing years as we humans (both Black, White, Spanish descent and immigrants) meet for that one SATURDAY to "celebrate" the TIME spent in this lonely little mountain side community.

I am a 71 year old retired "construction superintendent and senior field engineer" who spent 35 years working WORLDWIDE for a large family owned corporation based in San Francisco, CA with only a high school diploma from WHS (Widen High School, Clay County, WV) as the basic education tools to pursue the opportunities to EXPLORE and ENJOY the countries of this little globe.

NEVER was any WIDEN resident aware of the term "coal camp". 

There was a street for back residents but NOT across the railroad tracks. There were many small cottage type buildings built for the foreign immigrants, many of them just newly arrived from Ellis Island, NY who were NOT Engliah speaking but were "laborers" hired to go inside the mines to set the posts to support the "roof" and then to "blast" out the coal and then "load" the product (COAL) into small pony pulled wagons to travel outside the hillsides to an unloading TIPPLE for delivery to the employees below to sort out the various sizes fo COAL for loading into BC & G railroad cars for delivery to the B & O lines at Dundon, WV about 20 miles away.

On this trip the coal train passed through SWANDALE, WV and CRESSMONT, WV which were also Elk River Coal towns ...with the firstly named town being the "lumber" operation and the other town was the "dairy" farm location for all the employees of that comapany.

Please note that in the 1920s and 1930s the lcoal men and women along with immigrants and traveling workers from all over the USA came to WIDEN trying to make a small pay check to...."take care of my FAMILY". Please note that a great friend of mine helped out to recognize the small cemetary down Buffalo Creek which was used for ALL burials for local men (all races) and their family members.

As far as this writer (D. Hamrick) knows this cemetary was used in the first few years of WIDEN operations, While my own father (1921 to 1994) and my own mother (1920 to 1995) do NOT remember that graveyard being used the DEPRESSION era was the best situation covering that terrible ending.

One other thing - (WIDEN HIGH SCHOOL, CLAY COUNTY, WV) was the first school in the entire USA to intergrate and the annual meetings of the WIDEN DAY celebration are attended by the sons and grandsons and wives of "immigrant", black, ASIAN and all other WIDEN citizens of the 1920 through 1964 period. In retrospect, many stories and TV shows and movies have been MADE by younger people who interviewed many persons who NEVER were citizens of this small coal town....

By the way.....just today this old construction retiree took a DRIVE through WIDEN and took a sad look at a town now DEAD but the living warm memory comes back. No one was left to recognize the Old Man in his white Corvette with the "HAMRICK" license plate.

This message is meant to inform so many present day readers to be aware - my own parents were there - and their parents .... lumber men at SWANDALE and then on to WIDEN to lay track for the underground operations and to maintain the small company owned railroad. The grandmothers were local girls and for the 12 boys and girls of the two hillbilly families went on to college and became just a part of the AMERICAN dream....so it is better for this old man just to inform the general public that WIDEN is now just an old memory and HISTORY is never a kind reminder of what actually WAS.

By the way, my previous WIDEN next door neighbor who was instrumental is establishing the old graveyard visits me at leas tonce a month.

 

CHEERS

 

D.S. Hamrick (WHS clas of 1959) GO BUFFALO GO