Unearthing the Coal Camps’ Racial Legacy
Betty Dotson-Lewis looks at how coal camp life and union-busting business practices left a seam of racism behind.
Widen, 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.
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.
Consolidated 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.
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.