In case you haven’t noticed, I’m fond of having themes among the posts on this blog–the continuity is nice, and it’s somewhat inspiring when faced with a blank page to have a theme to fall back on. The idea of the setting on Coal sneaked up on me from two directions: last week, the student-operated TV station from my alma mater and hometown university, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, ran an excellent documentary made Dr. Jim Dougherty, called The Struggle For Our American Way of Life, that I was fortunate enough to stumble into. Produced and researched locally, I learned a lot that I should have known, such as the level of hostility local political leaders and media had for the miners of the time–our ancestors treated the predominantly Italian and Eastern European immigrant workers just as badly as we treat our immigrant laborers today, even as so much of our wealth is harvested almost directly from their sweat and blood, as it was then.
I learned that my hometown, a clean and thriving University community that was, at the time, the headquarters of the Rochester & Pittsburgh Coal Company, was also a bastion of economically and socio-politically motivated ethnic bigotry, and a bastion of the Ku Klux Klan which, in these parts, was not closd to content with terrorizing black black people–they were equally at war with Italians and Eastern Europeans, particularly Catholics–often murderously so.
That’s a hard pill to swallow. I’m a guy who still regards the American South with suspicion, 150 years after the civil war, which makes it pretty shocking to see headlines on the local paper–the same paper I read daily today and often link to on this site–crowing about rallies of 35,000 Klansmen being held on a farm two miles south of town. This isn’t particularly shocking news–a few years back some yahoos burned a cross in the front yard of one of my wife’s students, and a few years before that some other friends of ours found a swastika spray painted on their Obama campaign sign outside their farm. Of course, it’s easy to take a deep breath and consider the likelihood that those sorts of things are the acts of a few marauding idiots.
35,000 hooded, hateful cretins is a whole different ballgame.
You don’t grow up here without connections to coal. My wife’s family all arrived here in the early 20th century–Italians, Slovaks, and Czechs–and most of the men worked in the mines, lived in company-owned towns, shopped at company-owned stores. My father-in-law, whose career took him to the natural gas fields, is an articulate, quietly dignified man, who didn’t begin to speak English until he was six years old–not that you could tell from meeting him. My father was raised at the end of a red dog road in the small mining town of Hollsopple, PA, though that side of our family was less intertwined in the mines–my grandfather was a steelworker for Bethlehem Works. Most of my fraternal kin were farmers. Some still are. Others are professionals, musicians, college professors–all of us owing back to the hardscrabble backbreaking labors of past generations.
It’s on my mother’s side where things get interesting. It was very different over there, where several different ancestors made their way here in the 17th century, and just about all of them had crossed over by the French and Indian War. That side of my family settled in Cambria and Bedford counties, particularly Windber, PA, where my great-grandfather (with whom I share a middle name), was “Burgess”–or Mayor–for a string of years in the 1930s, and was well-respected as a local leader. I was raised to worship this fellow who died before I was born. He “got the streets paved” in Windber, among other accomplishments, and was rather infamous in refusing to accept a nomination to run for Governor, but what shook me was the discovery that my Great Grandfather’s lofty accomplishments had been born primarily from his position as a manager in the Berwind-White Coal Company (Berwind = Windber, get it?), as was that of all the town government, and the Burgesses who both proceeded and followed him–yep, the great Patriarch got his power from being a dutiful lackey. Worse still, in his capacities as both a mayor and a company manager, he had been instrumental in the brutal–and successful, sadly–efforts to prevent the immigrant miners in town from unionizing. The historic campaign, the second of two infamous and historically important pro-Union strikes in Windber, was steeped in conflict and violence.
It’s a strange thing, to grow up hearing tales of a great ancestor, only to learn that the man you were raised to admire was on the wrong side of history, and a villain to those who have my sympathies. Union-busting is, in my mind, a heinous row to hoe–but that was the guy, or at least one of them, for whom I was named.
*Opps! This was a draft that I accidentally posted when I’d meant to save it, but since it’s been up for several hours I’ll leave it. The errors will, eventually, disappear, but the abrupt ending will remain. I’ll continue it at a later date–maybe next Thursday.
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