All posts by american-epistles

“They hit me and threw me down.” (Mine Wars, Part 2)



“Mother Jones was then about 80 years of age.  Her hair was snow white, but she was yet full of fight.  With that brand of oratorical fire that is only found in those who originate from Erin, she could permeate a group of strikers with more fight than any living human being.  She fired them with enthusiasm, she burned them with criticism, then cried with them because of their abuses.  The miners loved, worshipped, and adored her. ” — Autobiography of Fred Mooney

The problems that had been brewing in West Virginia coal fields came to a violent boil during the Mine Wars. For years, WV mine operators had employed guards from the Baldwin-Felts detective agency. The guards were often “clothed with some semblance of the authority of the law, either by being sworn in as railroad detectives, as constables or deputy sheriffs.”* They were accused of harassing, beating, and even killing miners with impunity.

Like workers all over the country during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, WV miners railed against long hours, low pay, and what some called un-American living conditions. And like many laborers during this tumultuous period, they found comfort and courage in the fiery words of Mary Harris Jones, aka Mother Jones.

This second episode in a three-part series focuses on the Paint Creek and Cabin Creek Strikes, during which martial law was declared three separate times. At least 20 people were killed.

I referred to several sources, including the following–

Autobiography of Mother Jones

Conditions in the Paint Creek District, West Virginia Hearings Before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Education and Labor, U.S. Senate


“The worst of the explosion occurred in the No. 8 mine.” (Mine Wars, Part 1)



Trapper Boy, Turkey Knob Mine, Macdonald, W. Va. Boy had to stoop on account of low roof, photo taken more than a mile inside the mine. Witness E.N. Clopper. Location: MacDonald, West Virginia
Trapper Boy, Turkey Knob Mine, Macdonald, W. Va.
Image credit: Library of Congress

“My first work in the mines was at Borderland, WV, and I was 13 years old.  Back then, people think now, when you say you were 13 years old and start in the mines, they think something funny about it. Back then, there was no such thing as a social security card.  All you had to do was be big enough to do a days work.  I went to helping my Daddy on the track and I was kind of thin and  he told me to put on extra pair of pants and on an extra shirt to look big and we worked on the outside the first day I started to work.  I got hot and started shedding the pants and shirt.” — Frank Brooks, Retired Coal Miner at age 71, 1973

The West Virginia Mine Wars were violent conflicts between mine workers and mine owners, that took place between 1912 and 1922. In all there were five armed battles over that 10-year period:
Paint Creek-Cabin Creek Strike
Battle of Matewan
Battle of Tug
Miners’ March on Logan
Battle of Blair Mountain

One violent exchange took place on February 7, 1913, during the Paint Creek battle. Coal operator Quin Morton and Kanawha County Sherriff Bonner Hill rode an armored train through a miner’s tent colony at Paint Creek. Guards opened fire from the train and killed Cesco Estep, one of the miners on strike. Later, miners attacked an encampment of mine guards. In the ensuing battle at least 16 people, mostly mine guards, were killed.

This first episode in a three-part series focuses on the history of the mining industry, and the conditions that led up to the Mine Wars.

I referred to several sources, including the following–

Black Coal Miners in America: Race, Class, and Community Conflict, 1780-1980, by Ronald L. Lewis

The Devil Is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom, by James Green

Oral History Interview:  Frank Brooks

West Virginia Archives and History

Written in Blood: Courage and Corruption in the Appalachian War of Extraction, edited by Wess Harris


“We lived with constant fear.” (Encore: Freedom Summer, Part 2)



Image Credit:  The Guardian

John Robert Lewis was born on February 21, 1940, in Pike County, Alabama. As he learned during a filming of Finding Your Roots, his great-great-grandfather, Tobias Carter, registered to voted in 1867, 2 years after the abolition of slavery.  But almost 100 years later, Lewis, his sharecropper parents, and thousands of other descendants of enslaved people were prevented from voting.

Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Montgomery bus boycott, Lewis organized non-violent protests such as sit-ins, and joined the 1961 Freedom Rides. He assumed leadership of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1963.  In ’64, SNCC and other civil rights groups led an effort to educate African Americans in Mississippi, and register them to vote.  Reflecting on it in 1985, Lewis wrote,

“The Mississippi Freedom Summer was an attempt to bring the nation to Mississippi, to open up the state and the South and bring the dirt of racism and violence from under the rug so all of America could see and deal with it …
During the summer many churches were bombed and burned, particularly black churches in small towns and rural communities that had been headquarters for Freedom Schools and for voter registration rallies. There was shooting at homes; we lived with constant fear. We felt that we were part of a nonviolent army, and in the group you had a sense of solidarity, and you knew you had to move on in spite of your fear.”

Lewis’s advocacy for the disenfranchised, marginalized, and oppressed continued beyond Freedom Summer into the rest of his life.  He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives (GA-5) in November, 1986.  His numerous awards include the Medal of Freedom, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Non-Violent Peace Prize, and the John F. Kennedy “Profile in Courage Award” for Lifetime Achievement.  Congressman Lewis died Friday, July 17, 2020.

This episode was originally posted on September 7, 2019.

Many letters and narratives in this series were read with permission from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the University of Southern Mississippi.  The letters of Cephas Hughes are accessible via the Miami University Libraries Walter Havighurst Special Collections and University Archives.

The following sources were also used:

Finding Your Roots:  John Lewis and Cory Booker

Freedom Summer, Mississippi 1964, snccdigital.org

Freedom Summer:  The 1964 Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi, Susan Goldman Rubin

Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC

Letters from Mississippi, Elizabeth Sutherland Martinez

Mississippi Freedom Summer–20 Years Later, Dissent Magazine

Mississippi Freedom Summer Events, Civil Rights Movement Veterans

Freedom Summer, Bruce Watson


“We have to be shot down here like rabbits.” (Encore: The Great Migration, Part 1)



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“The Migrants Arrived in Great Numbers,” Jacob Lawrence
Image credit:  Museum of Modern Art

“…the slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” — W.E.B. duBois

The Civil War was supposed to mean the end of slavery and the beginning of freedom, franchise, and full citizenship for African Americans. And in the decades after the war, many blacks did make legislative, educational, and financial gains.  But as we learned in the first episode of American Epistles, many more formerly enslaved people and their children faced limited economic opportunity and the constant threat of violence.

With the outbreak of World War I, immigration to the United States decreased and production demands increased.   Low unemployment in the North meant that African Americans had a new opportunity to escape life in the South.

Men and women, the young and the older, regardless of education level, wrote letters to the Chicago Defender newspaper, the Chicago Urban League, and other organizations.  The following letter was one of many that expressed their desperation:

Macon, GA
April 1, 1917

Dear Sir:

I am writing you for information. I want to come north east, but I have not sufficient funds, and I am writing you to see if there is any way that you can help me by giving me the names of some of the firms that will send me a transportation, as we are down here where we have to be shot down here like rabbits for every little [offense], as I seen an [occurrence] [happen] down here this after noon when three [deputies] from the [sheriff’s] office [and] one Negro spotter come out and found some of our [race men] in a crap game. And it makes me want to leave the south worse than I ever did when such things hapen right at my door, hopeing to have a reply soon and will in close a stamp from the same.

This was the first episode of a three-part series on the Great Migration.

Recommended Reading
The Warmth of Other Suns:  Isabel Wilkerson took 15 years to write this book, and it shows. The book is THOROUGH. Think of it as Everything That You Didn’t Know That You Didn’t Know About the Great Migration.

The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow:  Richard Wormser covers a lot of ground in a relative few pages.  It opens with Reconstruction and ends at 1954.

I referred to several sources, but used the following most heavily–

Black Workers and the Great Migration North,” Carole Marks

Blowing the Trumpet: The ‘Chicago Defender’ and Black Migration during World War I,” James R. Grossman

The Civil War:  The Senate’s History

The Great Black Migration:  A Historical Encyclopedia of the American Mosaic, Steven A. Reich

Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration,” James R. Grossman

The Other Black Wall Streets

Race, Class, and Power in the Alabama Coalfields, Brian Kelly

Separate is Not Equal:  Brown v. Board of Education

Slavery by Another Name, Douglas Blackmon


“His Intelligence from the Enemy’s Camp were Industriously Collected…” (James Armistead Lafayette, Mini Episode)



JAL
James Armistead Lafayette (image credit:  Virginia Historical Society)

“This is to certify that the bearer by the name of James has done essential services to me while I had the honor to command in this state. His intelligence from the enemy’s camp were industriously collected and most faithfully delivered. He perfectly acquitted himself with some important commissions I gave him and appears to me entitled to every reward his situation can admit of.” — Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, 1784

In the spring of 1781, General George Washington sent the French general, the Marquis de Lafayette, to Virginia to thwart the advancing British army.   An enslaved man by the name of James Armistead responded to the marquis’s call for spies.  Serving at the table of British General Charles Cornwallis, Armistead overheard valuable information that helped the Americans win the Revolutionary War.  Armistead was eventually granted his freedom for his service.  Once a free man, he added “Lafayette” to his name.

This episode is dedicated to Belmont Station Elementary’s fourth grade classes, who studied Virginia history this year.  You are STARS!

Recommended Reading

Young listeners to today’s episode might enjoy Black Heroes of the American Revolution.


“The more I read, the more I fought against slavery.” (Slave Narratives and the Pursuit of Literacy, Part 3)



old grimes_001
William Grimes authored the first book-form slave narrative printed in the United States.  (Image credit:  New Georgia Encyclopedia)

“It was my great desire to read easily this book. I thought it was written by the Almighty himself. I loved this book, and prayed over it and labored until I could read it. I used to go to the church to hear the white preacher. When I heard him read his text, I would read mine when I got home. This is the way, my readers, I learned to read the Word of God when I was a slave. Thus did I labor eleven years under the impression that I was called to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, the ever-blessed God.” — Rev. Peter Randolph, 1855

For enslaved Americans, literacy was a path to freedom.

Those who could write forged the “tickets” that both enslaved and free blacks needed to move about.  Some of these tickets took enslaved people all the way to free states, and even to Canada.

Literacy provided spiritual freedom.  It enabled people in bondage to read the whole Bible, and not just the sections that enslavers quoted.  The Bible represented liberation, both on earth and in eternity.  Enslaved Christians identified with the Israelites, whom Moses led out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.

And in sharing their stories, people who had escaped slavery hoped to awaken sympathy in their fellow Americans and achieve freedom for all enslaved people.

This is the final episode in a three-part series on enslaved Americans’ pursuit of literacy. I have relied on several sources, but used the following most heavily–

Bly, Antonio T. “Slave Literacy and Education in Virginia.” Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 24 Jun. 2019.

Cornelius, Janet. “‘We Slipped and Learned to Read:’ Slave Accounts of the Literacy Process, 1830-1865.” Phylon (1960-), vol. 44, no. 3, 1983, pp. 171–186. JSTOR.

Monaghan, E. Jennifer, “Reading for the Enslaved, Writing for the Free: Reflections on Liberty and Literacy,” American Antiquarian Society, 2000.

Williams, Heather Andrea. “Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom,” University of North Carolina Press, 2009

Additional Sources:

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938

University of North Carolina’s North American Slave Narratives Collection


“It was only by trickery that I learned to read.” (Slave Narratives and the Pursuit of Literacy, Part 2)



Webster's Blue-Backed Speller
Noah Webster’s Blue-Backed Speller 
Image credits:  worthpoint.com and historyisfun.org

Very early in life I took up the idea that I wanted to learn to read and write. I was convinced that there would be something for me to do in the future, that I could not accomplish by remaining in ignorance. I had heard so much about freedom, and of the colored people running off and going to Canada, that my mind was busy with this subject even in my young days. I sought the aid of the white boys, who did all they could in teaching me. They did not know that it was dangerous for a slave to read and write.” — Rev. Elijiah P. Marrs, 1885

Throughout the South, it was illegal for white people to teach black people–enslaved and sometimes free–how to read.  Some whites taught blacks anyway: at times motivated by kindness, other times by self-interest.  But even without the assistance of white people, enslaved Americans learned to read and to write.  Facing the threat of whippings and worse, they learned under cover of night, and in “pit schools” in the woods.  They hid books in their dresses and under their hats so they would be ready for a lesson at any moment.

Today I am continuing a series on enslaved Americans’ pursuit of literacy. I have relied on several sources, but used the following most heavily–

Bly, Antonio T. “Slave Literacy and Education in Virginia.” Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 24 Jun. 2019.

Cornelius, Janet. “‘We Slipped and Learned to Read:’ Slave Accounts of the Literacy Process, 1830-1865.” Phylon (1960-), vol. 44, no. 3, 1983, pp. 171–186. JSTOR.

Monaghan, E. Jennifer, “Reading for the Enslaved, Writing for the Free: Reflections on Liberty and Literacy,” American Antiquarian Society, 2000.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself

Williams, Heather Andrea. “Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom,” University of North Carolina Press, 2009

Additional Sources:

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938

University of North Carolina’s North American Slave Narratives Collection


“I would take my child and hide in the mountains.” (Slave Narratives and the Pursuit of Literacy, Part 1)



Bethany Veney
Bethany Veney; image credit:  Public Domain

The next thing I recall as being of any particular importance to me was the death of my mother, and, soon after, that of Master Fletcher. I must have been about nine years old at that time.

Master’s children consisted of five daughters and two sons. As usual in such cases, an inventory was taken of his property (all of which nearly was in slaves), and, being apportioned in shares, lots were drawn, and, as might chance, we fell to our several masters and mistresses.

In 1740, the colony of South Carolina passed a law making it illegal to “teach or cause any slave or slaves to be taught to write,” punishable by a fine of “one hundred pounds, current money.” Within 100 years, at least twelve states would pass statutes proscribing the literacy or education of enslaved or free blacks.

Nevertheless, untold numbers of enslaved Americans did learn to read and write. At times, they had the support and sanction of the white people closest to them. That was case with poet Phillis Wheatley, the first African American to publish a volume of poetry.

Sometimes, they learned from other enslaved or free people of color.

And others had to scheme and strategize their way to literacy. Perhaps the most famous person to do this was the internationally acclaimed orator and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, whose memoir became a bestseller.

Bethany Veney’s memoir is much less famous, but still an important contribution to our understanding of slavery.  She is featured in today’s episode, the first in a series on enslaved Americans’ pursuit of literacy.

Links:
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself by Harriet Jacobs on Apple Podcasts

The Narrative of Bethany Veney: A Slave Woman

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself

University of North Carolina’s North American Slave Narratives collection


“We are afraid to speak for our rights.” (Freedom Summer ’64, Part 2)



testing
Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner; Image credit:  CBS News

July 16, 1964

Dear Mr. Nelson,

As you probably already know, there have been many arrests in Greenwood … Tomorrow I expect to be there to picket the jail house. This means almost certain arrest.

Yours in freedom,
Cephas

During the summer of 1964, thousands of young people from across the United States enlisted in the battle for democracy in Mississippi.  The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and other organizations had already been fighting for the civil rights of African Americans in the Magnolia State.   However, most of the rest of the country was unaware that black people were literally losing their lives for trying to vote.  The organizers of the Freedom Project hoped that the involvement of young–and predominantly white volunteers–would draw national attention and lead to Federal intervention.  In the very first days of the program, three volunteers–two of them white–disappeared.  It made national headlines.

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Fannie Lou Hamer; Image credit:  AP

America’s lesson in Mississippi politics continued until the Democratic National Convention in August. Before national news cameras, Fannie Lou Hamer testified of losing her home and being beaten for trying to exercise her civil rights. Sympathetic calls flooded the White House. And President Lyndon Johnson feared for his re-election chances.

Many letters and narratives in this series were read with permission from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the University of Southern Mississippi.  The letters of Cephas Hughes are accessible via the Miami University Libraries Walter Havighurst Special Collections and University Archives.
The following sources were also used:

Freedom Summer, Mississippi 1964, snccdigital.org

Freedom Summer:  The 1964 Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi, Susan Goldman Rubin

Letters from Mississippi, Elizabeth Sutherland Martinez

Freedom Summer, Bruce Watson

Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC

Mississippi Freedom Summer Events, Civil Rights Movement Veterans


“Mississippi is going to be hell this summer.” (Freedom Summer ’64, Part 1)



Freedom Summer volunteers sing, hand-in-hand, next to a bus
Freedom Summer Volunteers; Image Credit:  Civil Rights Movement Veterans

The Freedom Carrier
Greenwood, MS
July 16, 1964
It is felt that the state of Mississippi has the worst educational system in the entire United States. As degraded as the white education is, the Negro has the worst half of the worst. A need to try to fill the gap was felt. Therefore COFO initiated the idea of Freedom Schools as an attempt to supplement the present system of education.
The first Freedom School to be established was open on July 6. The school will operate on a six weeks basis with a break after the first three weeks. Emphasis is being placed on Negro history and citizenship. English, Sciences, foreign languages, and creative writing are also being offered, as special subjects. Students are able to take two special subjects. In the afternoon, typing, art, drama, and journalism are offered to those interested. The Freedom Carrier is put out by the students in the journalism class. The students are responsible for the makeup of the entire paper.
Students are also being taught how to lay out leaflets and how to run office machinery. Students also participate in folk singing workshops and work with voter registration in the distribution of leaflets throughout the community. For more information on the Freedom Schools you may call the office.

The organizers of the Mississippi Summer Project aimed to bring national attention to the violent suppression of African Americans’ civil rights in the Magnolia State. Later called Freedom Summer, the project had four major components:
(1) Freedom Schools, where volunteers taught black Mississippians reading, writing, science, and math, as well as history, including black history, and their rights as American citizens
(2) Community centers, known as Freedom Houses, where residents could study subjects such as art and dance
(3) Helping black Mississippians to register to vote
(4) Collecting signatures in an effort to seat a delegation at the Democratic National Convention, which would be held in August.

The summer of ’64 did not mark the beginning of civil rights work in Mississippi. But it was a turning point for the state, and for the nation.

Many letters and narratives in this series were read with permission from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the University of Southern Mississippi.  The following sources were also used:

Freedom Summer, Mississippi 1964, snccdigital.org

Freedom Summer:  The 1964 Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi, Susan Goldman Rubin

Letters from Mississippi, Elizabeth Sutherland Martinez

Freedom Summer, Bruce Watson

Mississippi Freedom Summer Events, Civil Rights Movement Veterans