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Reparations or Celebrations? The Virden Mine Riot of 1898 (Part I of a 2-part article)

Dennis Gallie

Every year, October 12 is more celebrated as Indigenous Peoples Day, than as “Columbus Day”. This is because the true nature of patriarchy and its genocides has become widely known. But there is a less famous October 12 holiday, still celebrated by some, which may deserve attention: Virden Day, or Miners Day.

Virden, Illinois was a coal mining town where several thousand striking white miners opened fire on a trainload of African-American men, women, and children on October 12, 1898. The mine operator had recruited strikebreakers in Birmingham, Alabama, and was trying to get them into his mine. Seven of the attacking union miners and five armed guards were killed in the ten-minute battle.

The Pana Riots, some 45 miles away, were related, but not celebrated as widely. Carterville, further south in Illinois, had similar conflicts during the strike. Five strikebreakers died in each of these other confrontations, with many injuries. In fact, there was strike related racial violence all over the state of Illinois, before and after the Virden incident. There was a lynching at Lacon, Illinois.

At the Union Miners Cemetery in Mount Olive Illinois, there is a yearly celebration honoring the Virden coal miners who are buried there. Mother Jones and Eugene Debs came to celebrate in different years, and Mother Jones is buried there. They, and some labor historians, have portrayed the Battle of Virden as a key victory for the Illinois district of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), for the U.S. union movement generally, and for the world working class.

This conflict did actually result in a union victory because, after the battle, the Chicago-Virden Coal Company finally had to pay the 40-cents-per-ton rate that had already been agreed to by the other Illinois mining companies. The UMWA was now recognized widely by the operators, and an 8-hour day was established. Had the company prevailed at Virden, this would be at risk for the entire Illinois district. But while whites celebrated a boost in worker power and living standards, blacks mourned a nakba, a catastrophe of the people.

It is my contention that these violent confrontations were paramilitary white riots, with the blessings of the state. The fact that they were combined with strikes and picket lines makes the working class tragedy much deeper. The Virden/Pana/Carterville hostility was just another thread in the historical narrative of American racism that began in 1619. But likewise, it was a monumental self-inflicted defeat for workers and their organizations. The working class was a house divided by white racism, and the rolling defeats of workers organizations have continued to this day.

A peaceful migration of black labor from the South, into the Illinois coal mines was prevented by these decisive incidents. We also lost the attendant racial integration, upward mobility for oppressed African-Americans, and working class solidarity. Actually, Virden and Pana both became “sundown towns” exactly at this point. (A sundown town is one that, by ordinance or strong unwritten sanction, does not allow any African-Americans to remain after sunset) 1. A combined labor front of black and white was unfortunately never built in the UMWA. Instead, the Illinois coal fields were made safe for whites, and many thousands of coal jobs went to European immigrants instead.

Taking a longer perspective, the Virden Riot was a turning point between two historical moments in race relations. The first moment was the broken promise of “forty acres and a mule” right after the Civil War. Radical Reconstruction was soon completely overthrown. The formerly enslaved, we know, were not farmers because they owned no land, and they were not industrial workers because they had little industry around them. Without land, there was no concrete economic emancipation to match the formal political emancipation of the Fourteenth Amendment. So they were set adrift, and could not begin a new life in the South, because they lacked the only means that would have enabled it: the parceling out the Southern plantation lands, without compensation to the former slaveholders.

The second historic moment came with the race riots in East St Louis, Tulsa, and many other Northern cities, which were occasioned by the final northward Great Migration of black labor at the time of World War I.

Virden stands midway between these two moments. Had the UMWA truly unified in 1898, perhaps the inevitable northward flow of African-American workers could have entered all the big industries and emerging unions more naturally, allowing us to have greater racial solidarity and union power. I am saying that Virden bottled up the explosive pressure of African-Americans seeking work and a decent life in the North; not by itself, of course, but as a part of the virulent racism in the North. That pressure was diverted by the white workers back on the black workers, splitting the class itself. The Great Migration was not welcomed, accommodated, and integrated into the class struggle.

So, what happened at Virden? There was an unsuccessful UMWA mine strike in 1894, four years after the union's founding. It failed, and decimated union membership. Another national strike was called in 1897 and the 40-cents-per-ton rate was agreed to by all Illinois coal companies and the state district of the UMWA in January, 1898. Then, the Chicago-Virden Coal Company abrogated the agreement. President J. C. Loucks and manager Fred Lukins decided to run the Virden mine with African-American miners recruited in Birmingham, Alabama. Likewise, the owners of some mines at Pana and Carterville, Illinois tried to run the mines with ”imported” black labor.

On September 25, 1898, weeks before the decisive battle, a trainload of Birmingham miners headed to Virden. A stockade around the mine entrance had already been constructed next to the railroad tracks. About 300 armed striking miners from central Illinois had congregated in the town expecting the train. They were organized and financed by the UMWA. The train slowed down near the station, but then the plan was aborted, and the train sped past the station and the mine, and went on to Springfield, Illinois, without trying to land the miners in the stockade. The diverted train was met there by a crowd of angry miners and John Hunter, President of the Illinois UMWA, who brought the Birmingham miners to the local union hall. There, he and other leaders convinced them to return to Alabama, without having another go at Virden. The next morning, they departed for Birmingham, with the union paying the fares.

The organized UMWA miners were still patrolling the tracks around Virden, and their numbers swelled to two thousand. The mine owner made another run with a load of Birmingham miners, their families aboard, on October 12, 1898. Shooting started as the train sped past the depot and stopped at the nearby stockade. A pitched battle ensued. Thiel Agency detectives from St Louis on the train-car platforms, (hired by the company) and Chicago detectives in the stockade (hired by the company) were on one side of the battle. Armed union miners in a field opposite the stockade were on the other side of the battle. Seven UMWA miners and five guards were killed, with as many as thirty individuals wounded, including a Birmingham miner. The whole conflict lasted about ten minutes. The strikebreakers and families were not armed, and sheltered on the floor and under the seats, as every window in the five coaches was blown out. The company-store manager, Jacob Eyster, tried to run from the stockade to get medical help, but was shot and then beaten by miners. He survived.

The train engineer was wounded in the arm, and he sped out of Virden, on to Springfield, Illinois.

Without getting too deeply into “What if...” scenarios, it seems that this riot could have been much more protracted and deadly, if the train engineer had been either shot dead or not wounded at all. Then, the train might have sat there on the tracks indefinitely, while the battle raged.

At Springfield, the injured and dead guards, as well as the injured Birmingham miner, Ervin Ryan, were taken off the train. The rest of the Alabamans were promised care and transportation by the UMWA, and were taken to the union hall. Note that city and county civil authority was not present at this point, and the UMWA was the de-facto administrator of these prisoners.

The Sangamon County Historical Society quotes the Illinois State Register newspaper of Oct 13:

“Shivering and hungry in the third story of what is known as Allen’s hall are huddled together about 106 negroes, men, women and children, practically prisoners of war, and in danger of their lives if they should attempt to assert their liberty. They are without anything to eat, and after today (Oct. 13, the day after the Virden battle – ed.) will be without a roof to shelter them, and are in danger of their lives if they get far from the hall. …Yesterday the mine workers’ officials served notice that they would neither protect nor provide for the negroes after 6 o’clock, and soon afterward it began to be whispered about town that several of the negroes, who were with a former load that was taken from the train several days ago, would be lynched. An angry crowd, requiring the efforts of the police to restrain, surged about the door of the hall throughout the greater part of the day threatening mob violence.”2

A pair of men tried to make a break from the union hall to the train station, but were caught by the white miners and badly beaten. A lynch mob gathered at the hall about that time, but the mayor of Springfield calmed them down and got the finances to send the Birmingham miners to St Louis on the train. There, they were abandoned without money, food, or warm clothes.

State troops were called in to Virden at this point, and there was no more violence. Governor Tanner instructed the troops not to allow any more trainloads of replacement workers to land at the mine.

Inquests and investigations were conducted. Charges were filed against both company managers and some striking miners, but nobody was convicted.

The company acceded to the contract demands, and the mine re-opened shortly with UMWA workers.

Virden became at this point a sundown town.

Over at the Pana mine, other Birmingham miners had started working in September, 1898, and were living nearby in a stockade camp, but not in town. By October, 700 were working.

In November, 1898 there was a major clash in Pana, between the Birmingham miners and local union men. The sheriff, at this time was a supporter of the operators. Henry Stevens, the leader of the strikebreakers, challenged a combined force of the police and some union men who were trying to convince some of the strikebreakers to go home. Nobody was killed but a few strikebreakers were injured. Troops were called in by Governor Tanner, and kept the peace for a while. In November, a pro-union sheriff was elected. Mine production continued until March of 1899.

In March 1899, a resolution at the UMWA convention resolved to petition Tanner to “remove the State troops, disarm all Negroes in Pana, and force said operators and miners of Pana to make…a settlement.”3 Tanner did not act on that request.

The miners from Birmingham actually organized their own union organization and made an urgent appeal to Governor Tanner for protection, but it was not answered. That same month, local residents of Pana requested the troops be withdrawn, and Tanner complied. On April 10, striking miners attacked again and killed 5 Alabamans and wounded 28:

“In mid-April (Henry) Stevens led the black miners after a riot broke out following the accidental shooting of one of the union miners (by one of his friends, ironically, not by a black miner). The violence left five blacks and two whites dead, and at least six blacks wounded. The only white fatalities were the above-mentioned accidental death (at the hands of a white policeman) and the shooting of the son of the sheriff, most likely by a white man as well. In other words, the riot was really a minor massacre of Pana’s black miner population.”4

Some of the Birmingham miners left Pana at this time. The state troops were called back in. The mine operated until June, 1899 with African-Americans working. The mine was sold at this point, and the new owner settled with the UMWA on union terms, and the members were re-hired. All Birmingham miners were let go, and a minority went back home at this time, but most went on to Weir, Kansas, to work in another struck mine. This latter fact gives the lie to the notion (in Hicken, Keiser, and Feurer) that the strikebreakers were innocent or ignorant about the labor situation. If workers had just survived a horrible experience such as the Pana Riot, why would they then have another go at it? There had to be a desperate incentive here to avoid going home to the conditions of the South, even if it meant “taking your chances in the world.”

A few holdouts stayed in town, but were soon driven out and had to migrate to Springfield, as Pana became a sundown town.

In Carterville, 60 miles north of Cairo, mine owner Samuel Brush imported black strikebreakers from Sweetwater Tennessee. They arrived May 20, 1898 in the all-black company town named Dewmaine, next to all-white Carterville. Some white miners worked as strikebreakers too, and production continued until May 1899, when Brush tried to import 40 of the Birmingham strikebreakers, with their families, that had been ejected from Pana. The train was stopped at Cambria, and fired upon by UMWA strikers. Anna Karr, wife of one of the strikebreakers, was killed and 20 others on the train were injured. Nine men were accused but none were convicted at trial. In July, 1899, there was fighting between whites and blacks in Carterville, with no dead and a few wounded. The governor called in troops. On September 11, troops were removed, and on September 17, a party of blacks with an armed escort tried to walk to the train station on personal business. They were met at the station by 30 armed whites, and they retreated down the tracks toward home.

“One of the black men fired at their pursuers, and the miners responded by returning fire. Five of the blacks died instantly, and several others were injured. The remaining group made it back to the mine, and nearly 200 blacks stormed the mine’s storehouse, where there were guns, but Brush’s son prevented them from arming themselves.”5

Troops were called back in. Three whites were charged, none convicted.

Production continued until 1906 when Brush sold the mine to the Madison Coal Co, which recognized the UMWA, and most African-American miners became members.

By this time, the predominantly black Dewmaine camp had actually become a livable town, with a post office, school, and a doctor. Children were educated, and lives were lived. A normal, if not prosperous, culture was established, as in any small white town. The death-knell came in 1923, however, when Madison Coal closed its mine.6

We can see a clear pattern in Pana, Carterville, and Virden regarding the State of Illinois and the governor. Local authorities and the armed militia organized by the UMWA are given free rein to wreak violence and expel the blacks, strikebreakers or not, for a period of time. Then the state militia is sent in. Then it is removed again, until the expulsion is complete.

It would be false to counter pose the usual governmental scab-herding to this situation. The usual pattern is for local, state, and national governments to side with the employer, and use any and all violence necessary against strikers, to keep strikebreakers in the mine, mill, or plant. But here, there was no serious challenge to the property of the mine owner, and production was resumed shortly. The killing was mostly within the working class. The racial hierarchy was maintained, and the strikers were given a temporary pass. As long as the white miners did not exercise their organizational and physical prowess against the mine and the railroad assets, they were protected by the governor and the courts. White supremacy was maintained.

Where does this leave us in the aftermath of the riots? What were the demographics of coal in Illinois afterwards? David Markwell examined some official Illinois records (which record-keeping, ironically, was mandated by the Illinois legislature as a direct result of Virden.7) The new law required every Illinois coal miner now to be registered and demographically tracked. In “A Turning Point: The Lasting Impact of the 1898 Virden Mine Riot”, Markwell writes:

“The Macoupin County Coal Miners Application Book of 1908 lists the names, nationalities, physical characteristics, and years of service in the mines of 3,123 miners in the county. Over 1,500 miners are listed as being from eastern and southern European countries. Of all of the miners, only one African-American is registered. One yearns to learn more of how this sole African-American lived in these times, in this industry, in this place.”8

Macoupin County, Illinois includes Virden, and the document was compiled ten years after the riot. So, if there is one African-American miner left in the entire county, we may ask: who benefited from the 40 cents per ton contract, and the secure establishment of the UMWA? This substantial advance was not for union members in general, but for white workers in particular.

Those who characterize Virden as a labor victory will cite the UMWA constitution, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race. But this provision was only progressive by comparison to most other union constitutions at the time, which expressly prohibited African-Americans as members. Indeed the UMWA had black members in Illinois, Ohio, and other northern states, but it was a small minority. They were working in the mines long before the UMWA was founded in 1890. The union had no choice but to be formally inclusive. In the 1890 and 1900 census, of all Illinois coal miners, only 2 or 3 percent were black9. In Birmingham, the UMWA organized substantial numbers of black miners. But North and South, African-Americans were not treated equally within the union, and most importantly, were not allowed, by 1898, to voluntarily migrate en masse to the Northern coalfields to live and work during times of labor peace. The fact that a small number of African-American miners in Illinois were working union members cannot be conflated into saying that there was “black and white on both sides” of the Virden conflict.

As for the presence of blacks in the Northern coalfields, and in the UMWA, we must have a realistic and nuanced perspective:

“But blacks did not receive equal treatment with whites even in the UMW. Many complaints surfaced in the union's paper, the United Mine Workers' Journal, regarding the inadequate representation of blacks at all levels of leadership. Also, negroes complained that they were discriminated against in the skilled and better paying positions. Promotion was a slow if not impossible process, and they charged that white union officials often ignored their grievances. Moreover, black and white miners frequently were segregated into separate locals especially in the South. Segregation also extended inside the mines, where the two races worked in separate sections, and often changed clothing in different wash-houses. In most mining communities, housing, education, and other public facilities were segregated as well.”10

The reason I am characterizing the Virden event as a white riot, on the occasion of a labor dispute, rather than a victory for all of labor (with some racial overtones), can be explicated from four glaring facts:

1. Opening fire on a trainload of men, women, and children can never be characterized under any circumstances as “labor solidarity” or preserving a picket line.

2. When the trainload of Birmingham miners, which was blasted out of Virden on October 12, went on to Springfield, Illinois, they were nearly lynched on October 13 by the UMWA miners in a secondary white riot, far from any picket line.

3. Collaborating with the state government, the local press, and the courts almost guarantees a labor organization failure, if its mission is to independently lead the working class. If the governor is on your side, you must be doing something wrong.

4. Were it strictly a conflict of labor and capital, the two thousand men gathered in Virden could have burned down the mine stockade. They could have organized to interfere with the construction of the stockade when it was first built. They could have tried to organize the Birmingham miners. They could have torn up the railroad tracks. The UMWA could have used its influence in Birmingham to bring African-American strike supporters up to Virden, with the prospect of settling some of them in Illinois after the strike were won.

Herbert Gutman did not address Virden in detail, but he devotes a whole chapter in his book, “Work, Culture, and Society”, to Richard L. Davis' letters to the editors of the United Mine Workers Journal, the official union publication. The editors of the UMWJ gave Davis a free rein to update the membership about happenings in his corner of Ohio whenever he saw fit, and he did write frequently. He was, after all, a working organizer (sometimes a board member) for the union organization, was unique in presenting an African-American point of view, and his loyalty to the organization was uniform.

Gutman analyzes the many letters of Richard Davis and concludes that the UMWA was eminently successful in integrating blacks into the union11, and congratulates Davis for his patience with all the trials and tribulations of being a black miner, and also his patience with the white leadership.

But Gutman is nearly silent on one spectacular exchange of seven letters between Davis and a white contributor named Glasgow. Davis had made a plea for more black leadership in the union, and especially more paid positions. (Gutman does quote from one of Davis' letters in this series, from June 1, 1893, and surmises: “That his plea was answered affirmatively is known. Davis's election to national office and that of other Negroes to lesser offices is a matter of record.”12) Glasgow responded, accusing Davis of “special-pleading” for his race, and even self-promotion. They then commence an extremely heated, but polite exchange, with all of its Victorian formality. Glasgow at one point asks Davis to please let us take time to “examine the condition of your race”, a slam which exults in the degraded position of African-Americans. Davis tells him that he has had all the time he needs. Davis makes an eloquent case for affirmative action within the organization and for a cessation of second-class treatment of black members in the mines. Now, every newspaper or magazine cannot publish every letter, so it is an editorial decision as to which letters should appear. The editors also have the call on which letters are published in counterpoint to a given contribution. The editors of the United Mine Workers Journal consciously permitted this debate, probably under a policy of “fairness”-- fairness for both a racist, and for one of their own organizers, who piped up a little too much.

Gutman also does not explain why an integrated organization could be less than sensitive to its black members, as it jokingly describes the Virden riot in song:

“On The Banks of the Railroad

(To the tune of “On the Banks of the Wabash.”)

Away down in our homes in Alabama,

Us coons we were contented to stay.

'Til Mr. Lukens come and told us what he would give us

If we would come with him to Virden far away.

When we arrived in Virden Sunday morning

We found that things were not what Lukens say,

The miners were all lined up along the railroad

And you bet us coons was glad to get away.


The moon is shining brightly along the railroad,

And the miners are situated there to stay

The candle lights are gleaming in the stockade;

Mr. Lukens thinks he's having things his way.

He told us the miners were all in Cuba,

And there wasn't only eight men there to stay;

He didn't tell us what a pen he'd put us into,

When he got us down to Virden far away,

Then goodbye to Mr. Lukens, we are bound for Alabama there to stay;

If Mr. Lukens ever comes to Alabama

We will show him what us coons will do that day.

United Mine Workers Journal, October 13, 1898.”13

Getting back to the Virden situation, R. L. Davis actually commented on it in one letter. He writes: “I have been a constant watcher as to the welfare of the U.M.W, of A. and noticing the troubles now existing in the Sucker State among our craftsmen, prompts me to say a word at least. I am indeed sorry to see the State of affairs as exists there, and yet it teaches us that one lesson seemingly so hard to learn by a great many of us, viz., to organize, I do not mean to organize against the black man, as they are now doing, for that will do no good nor will there any good results accrue from it, and fight it as you may the result will be the same, I have watched it in the past and have never known it to fail. I would advise that we organize against corporate greed, organize against the fellow who, through trickery and corrupt Legislation, seeks to live and grow fat from the sweat and blood of his fellow man. It is these human parasites that we should strive to exterminate, not by blood or bullets, but by the ballot, and try as you may it is the only way. You can't do it by trying to exterminate the negro or big black buck niggers, as they were referred to a few weeks ago through the columns of The Journal. I assure anyone that I have more respect for a scab than I have for the person who refers to the negro in such a way, and God knows than a scab I utterly despise. The negro North has no excuse, or very few excuses, for scabbing, but the negro South has lots of them, and while I give the North a great deal of credit, I fear that I make a mistake, for in many places even in the North, no matter how good a union man he may be, he cannot get work only as a blackleg. And in the South he can work almost anywhere provided he is willing to be the other fellow's dog, and I don't mean the employer alone, but the white laborer as well.”14

The “Sucker State” is Illinois, and a “blackleg” is a strikebreaker. The last sentence in the quote refers to the practice of white miners in the South actually hiring desperate blacks as subcontracted workers, for next to nothing (post-bellum). Davis goes on:

“I dare say that you seldom or never hear of negroes being brought into a locality to break a strike in which both white and black worked together, and even if they were you always found the negro on the side of right. Hence, I say treat the negro right and he will treat you right. I earnestly hope to see the miners of Illinois win their battle, for I suppose they are like miners elsewhere. Their pittance is already too small.”15

So, Davis is loyal and diplomatic to the very end, but he does say that the union should not “organize against the black man, as they are now doing.” This was his opinion of the situation in Virden, dated October 10, 1898, two days before the final conflagration, and published one day after. He put it bluntly in an earlier 1894 letter: “Now if there is anything I do despise it is a blackleg, but in places in this country that they will not allow the negro to work simply because of his black skin, then I say boldly that he is not a blackleg in taking your places. He is only doing his plain duty in taking chances with the world.”16

It is interesting to see what Gutman makes of these comments from Davis. He quotes much of the above and puts an asterisk after it. In his note he begs us to contrast with Davis' conclusions “those of certain other contemporaries concerned with the relations between Negro and white workers.” He counter-poses a Chicago newspaper editorial opinion (“not a race fight at all, but a labor fight”), and the fervent wish of a clergyman (that the white workers of Virden would learn from their mistakes) 11. One would have expected Gutman to present countervailing facts that show Davis to be wrong.18

Herbert Hill sums up Gutman's use of R. L. Davis:

“Hence, during a period of racial occupational eviction with organized white labor displacing blacks in many trades and industries, the ambivalence that characterized the position of Davis and other blacks in the UMW, torn as they were between the hope that black loyalty to the organization would result in equal treatment and the constant need to protest against the racist practices of the white working class and the union itself. This ambivalence, (although hardly reflected in Gutman's selection), is manifest in Davis' letters, which accurately describe the racial tensions in the coal fields and in the union. Those black miners, who had given much to the UMW in the hope that it would become an effective force for racial justice, were to become increasingly disappointed as the first years of the twentieth century passed.” 19

One can get a fair idea of the relationship between Richard L. Davis and the United Mine Workers, by contrasting his personal trajectory with that of his boss, Michael D. Ratchford, National President of the union in 1897-1898.Both were born in poverty (Richard in Roanoke, Va., Michael in County Clare, Ireland), and both began working at an early age (Richard at 8, Michael at 12).

Richard was a member of the Rendville local and did some organizing work for the national organization in Ohio, West Virginia, and the deep South. Michael mined in Ohio and was elected President of his local in 1890. He did organizing work in Ohio beginning 1893.

Richard was elected to the Executive Board of District 6 in 1890, but was still a rank-and-file working miner up through 1896. Michael became President of District 6 in 1895. Later that same year, he was elected national UMWA President.

Richard was elected to the National Executive Board in 1896 and 1897 for two one-year terms, the first African-American. Still, he was a working miner. (After 1900, there would not be another of his race on the National board for 76 years.) He died at age 37 in 1900, in poverty, of “lung fever”. He had been blacklisted for over a year. He disagreed with many of his African-American co-workers over the prospect of forming a black local, which he vehemently opposed as a loyal UMWA member.

Michael resigned from the union in 1898 to serve on the United States Industrial Commission, and in 1900 (the same year Richard died) he jumped to become Ohio Commissioner of Labor Statistics. He jumped from there to become Commissioner of the Ohio Coal Operators, 1909-13. Then he jumped again to be Commissioner of the Illinois Coal Operators, 1913-27, sitting across the bargaining table from his former friends. He died in 1927 at age 67. Compared to Richard, Michael got about 30 more years of life, a great deal more comfort, and the opportunity to undo whatever service he had rendered to the UMWA20.

Much writing on Virden originates with Victor Hicken's “The Virden and Pana mine wars of 1898”, published in 1959. It is a short, simplified account which ignores race altogether: “To the [union] the issue which arose was one which scarcely involved color; instead, it was centered on the simple economic fact of imported cheap labor.” Any time you hear somebody use the term “cheap labor” you know you are dealing with a racist. Labor has no inherent price, and can be performed by any race. Inaccurately, Hicken limits the captivity on October 13 of the strikebreakers to the train sitting on the tracks in Springfield, skipping their later captivity in the union hall, with the lynch mob outside.21

John Keiser wrote the classic piece on the nineteenth century Illinois mine wars, “Black Strikebreakers and Racism in Illinois, 1865-1900”. It is absolutely typical of the great majority of academic and activist opinion:

“It is the contention of this article that racial antagonism in Illinois between 1865 and 1900 stemmed, to a large extent, from the use of black strikebreakers.”22

For Keiser, this chicken-egg controversy is resolved clearly: black strikebreaking came first and racial antagonism was the result. Pervasive northern racism, as a psycho-socio-economic apparatus, presumably did not mediate these particular fights. He conveniently offloads the racial responsibility from the UMWA by treating the operators' strikebreaking actions as racially-based aggression in the labor-management arena, to which the organization would naturally respond. Then, since African-Americans were complicit in the strikebreaking, the UMWA would also respond to the black race as a whole, statewide. But this is faulty logic, because an organization cannot hold an entire race responsible for the actions of a specific set of people.

Keiser gives the following example of his logic in the case of an earlier mine conflict:

“In February, 1874, for example, some three hundred striking white miners went to the mine of Robert W. Lemen in St Clair County to persuade twenty-five black miners to stop working. The strikers were demanding four cents a bushel and the blacks were working for three cents. The white miners responded by destroying the shanties and belongings of the black miners and driving some of them from the county. On February 21, 1874, Governor John Lourie Beveridge sent one hundred rifles and ammunition to be used to prevent further violence.”23

Keiser recites this precursor to Virden as just another example of racial antagonism in the local coal mines, without even realizing that the black miners, in this case, were merely un-organized local workers who were set upon. Keiser does not acknowledge the racism on the ground in Illinois which effectively kept black miners from peacefully and gradually migrating from the South as individuals over the preceding years.

This essay is continued in Part 2. There, we can consider a few more conventional treatments of the mine wars of the late 1800’s. Then, I will expound on a few more modern and scientific treatments that encompass the racial dimension of these events.



1 Loewen, pp 157-165, describes Virden and Pana in particular. Loewen notes in his comprehensive book “Today my estimate for the number of sundown towns in Illinois alone stands at 507. That is two-thirds of all the towns in the state! A similar proportion went sundown in Oregon, Indiana, and various other northern states.” (p. vii)

2 Sangamon County Historical Society, paragraph 30.

3 Markwell, "The Best Organized..." p. 72.

4 Lenstra, p 23.

5  Lupton, main page.

6 Roderick, “Ghost Town: The Rise and Fall of Dewmaine”

7 Markwell, "The Best Organized..." pp71-2, pp90-91.

8 Markwell, "A Turning Point..." p. 224

9 "In the 1890 census, the first in which black coal miners were listed in their own category, five hundred fifty six African-American male residents of Illinois were listed as coal miners. This represented 2.5% of the total miners in the state. In the 1900 census, 1,368 African-American male residents of Illinois were listed as coal miners. This represented 3.6% of the total miners in the state." Markwell, "The Best Organized ...", page 57, note 40, from US Census data.

10Foner and Lewis p. 118.

11 Gutman, p.192. Many of Richard Davis's letters to the United Mine Workers' Journal are collected in Foner and Lewis, pp119-176.

12Gutman, p 152.

13 Reproduced in Foner and Lewis, p 217-8.

14 R. L. Davis to the United Mine Workers' Journal, October 10, 1898, reproduced in Foner and Lewis, p 175.

15 ibid, p 175.

16 Davis to the editor, UMWJ, cited in Gutman, p. 153.

17 Gutman, Noted by asterisk on page 179-80.

18 A definitive critique of Gutman's assertion of a well-integrated UMWA is to be found in the Herbert Hill article cited below. It generated a symposium of comment and a final rejoinder from Hill.

19 Hill, p. 168.

20 For Ratchford: Wikipedia,, accessed 1/25/2020, for Davis: Gutman, pp 121-208, and Foner and Lewis, p 176.

21 Hicken, main page paragraphs  31 and 14.

22Keiser, p. 315.

23ibid, p. 315.



Biggers, Jeff,,Accessed 5/10/2020.

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Dennis Gallie ( is retired from auto assembly, sheet metal, and office work, and is concerned with the intersection of patriarchy and global imperialism.