A Proper West Virginia Education
Perspective by John Doyle
I came to Montgomery, WV from Maryland in 1978, when Social Security hired a bunch of city kids to take claims for the new Black Lung Compensation benefits, recently enacted by Congress. During ten years in Montgomery, I interviewed many coal miners, widows, orphans, bosses, union folks and witnesses to the Appalachian struggles of the 20 th century.
I was befriended by an old Black man named James McGee, who had a taxi cab stand and a phone box on the lamp post outside the office I worked in. Sometimes when I got a break and walked outside he would hail me. He’d call “Hey, Easy Money!” (My favorite and only honorary title I ever possessed.) I would stop and shoot the bull with Mr. McGee and I learned a lot. When he was a boy in the days when the Hawks Nest Tunnel was being built, he worked as a “water boy”, leading mules into the hole, packing water for the workers. He was eye witness to one of the worst and most deliberate exploitations of industrial workers in U. S. history. Worst, that is, if we don’t count slavery.
The tunnel, which went almost right under my house near Ansted, rerouted New River water from Hawks Nest to the power station just above Gauley Bridge, which made electricity for the steel mill in the valley. That tunnel was cut through almost pure silica and the precautions against inhaling it were non-existent. This was at the height of the Great Depression. Most of the workers were desperately poor Black men who heard of the project and hopped trains from the deep south to come here and work. Their loved ones probably never knew what became of them. Hundreds of them died of silicosis and accidents and were buried in unmarked graves along US 19, south of what is now Summersville Lake. How did I get through school without hearing that history?
I was privileged to come across two used volumes of “The West Virginia Encyclopedia”, collected and edited by Jim Comstock who ran “The Richwood News Leader” weekly paper and the “West Virginia Hill Billy” news, (which used to put ramps 🌱 in the ink every year in April.) Talk about hometown pride! Phew!!! My 2 volumes of the encyclopedia were “West Virginia songs and stories”, and a transcript of the U. S. Senate hearings concerning the Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster. My neighbors, Peter and Brucella Jordan created and managed a local African American history museum at Ansted. I gave the Hawks Nest Volume to the museum and still have the songbook. There were other unsung heroes and heroines that I met over the years who told me amazing stories in the process of a Social Security office visit or during one of many outpost interviews and home visits.
Once I interviewed a lady from Paint Creek, WV who was a little girl in 1920. Her family was thrown out of their coal company house during a strike. The only way down from the coal mine land to a place they could set up a camp was along the tracks or along the creek bed. She related how her mother led her through the water by the hand while company guards stood above on the railroad and shot rifles over their heads as a good-bye gesture.
There was a brutal strike soon after I arrived in Montgomery and it went on for three months or so. It was another setback for the United Mine Workers, who never had the best footing this far south and who have been in decline ever since those days. The union also had internal troubles. Their famously corrupt president, Tony Boyle, ran for re-election against a reform candidate, Jock Yablonsky. Suddenly the contender and his whole family were murdered in their home. Boyle went to jail for the crime.
The miners then elected Arnold Miller to run the union. He was a simple miner who fought hard for the members and rose through UMWA ranks, but he was no match for the huge resources and lawyers of the Bituminous Coal Operators Association. He worked himself into a heart attack and retired. I was posted down to the Charleston office the day he came in and filed for Social Security Disability and Black Lung Benefits. I was given the interview and while telling his work history and his medical history, he related some family and community history. I got one hell of an education in a very short time.
Lately, there has been a great deal of interest in the Mine Wars. They were 100 years ago, in 1921, and my buddy, Wess Harris, and others have done a lot recently to focus attention on them. The WV Public Schools and the WV Dept. of Culture and History have always white-washed the stories or ignored them all together.
I was fortunate enough to have a position in the community and to make friends who welcomed me in and taught me the history that school would have never provided.
John W. Doyle
BBG is proud to share this perspective for our column: Ghost of John Brown. We welcome your contribution to this unique column. Please submit 600 words or less to crystal@ blackbygod.org
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