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

Dennis Gallie

Part 1 of this essay described the events in Virden, Pana, and Carterville, Illinois, that encompassed the mine wars of the late 1800’s, reviewing some commonly unchallenged views. We critique a few more conventional views in this concluding Part 2, and then explore an alternative view that illuminates our labor history in the dimension of race, and helps us comprehend the virtual defeat of our labor organizations today. Finally, we will explore the lynching at Lacon, and re-pose the initial question: are reparations or celebrations in order? 

Rosemary Feurer's “Remember Virden! The Coal Mine Wars of 1898-1900” is more judicious than Keiser, but holds to the same historical characterization. We are still asked to regard Virden as one of the greatest labor victories of all time, albeit marred by the inconvenient admixture of racial conflict:

“Despite the radicalism of the miners, black miners continued to be excluded with the complicity of the miners union. But the 'Victory at Virden,' as the miners termed it, was marred by the vicious racial conflict that was also a legacy of these events. Soon after 1898, Virden and Pana became "sundown" towns, and African-American unionized miners were threatened despite the UMWA's official integrated status. Further, the racialized memory of the events was conflated with the class conflict story. In fact, in popular memory, the key efforts of African-American unionized miners in bringing about the victory were forgotten, and eventually their role was completely erased, replaced by conceptualizations of the events as a solely racial conflict. Did the racialized retelling of this story limit the radicalism that flourished in the area, or did it strengthen white workers' determination to use the power of the state to build their unions and white workers' power? While the numbers of African-American unionized miners climbed steadily in the first decade of the century, we need to know more about how those African-American unionized miners sought to open up the union to their full inclusion.”24

Four things about this quote:

1. Why should we believe that the story of Virden only became racialized in the re-telling? Mr. Eyster was treated poorly by the striking miners, but not killed. Mr. Lukins and his mine were not harmed. But the working families on the train were almost blasted off the face of the earth. Sometimes historians get into a post-modern habit of equating one “story” with another, abandoning the facts. Virden is indeed a story of class struggle, and also a story of color; it's just a question of which color of the working class broke ranks first.

2. Feurer is conflating one simple (un-cited) datum, the membership of seven African-American miners in the Virden local, with something far more significant: widespread loyal, enthusiastic participation of black union miners in this riot. I call this the “myth of black shooters on the tracks” because I have never seen any evidence of it. Feurer reproduces a photo of a group of people, standing outside the temporary morgue in Virden, and there is a black face among them. Was he a shooter? Was he even a miner? There is just no evidence of forgotten or unacknowledged “key efforts of African-American unionized miners” in this riot. No African-Americans were among the dead and wounded on the union side. If there were black shooters on the tracks during the Virden riot, they effectively blasted away their own jobs and homes.

3. There are two rhetorical questions about radicalism, collaboration, and racism posed by Feurer in this quotation. They should be answered. But they only seem a puzzle because Feurer assumes that these tendencies cannot co-exist.

4. Markwell's statistics on the Virden area, cited above, answer Feurer's plea for more knowledge about the prevalence of black miners after the riot: they disappeared.

David Markwell has his own analysis, similar to Hicken, Keiser and Feurer:

“The primary significance of the incident at Virden is that it marks the beginning of the end of the feudalism that characterized the Illinois coalfields and the late nineteenth-century industrialism in general.”25

“The Illinois perspective was solidified by the events in 1897 and 1898. The people of Illinois during this era took actions which enabled the UMWA to become the largest and most powerful labor union in the nation.”26

“Through the next several decades, the incident at Virden grew to be a larger than life occurrence for Illinois miners. They saw direct correlations between the miners that fell that day and their higher standard of living.”27

“...the events in Virden had national implications and solidified the gains made by the UMWA during the 1897 strike...”28

Markwell is unique in purveying an idealist notion of the “Illinois perspective”, an entity which presumably lives off in Platonic heaven somewhere, but has concrete influence on real people and events. Likewise, most historians would not confuse feudalism with 19th century American capitalism.

The power and the economic gains that accrued to the UMWA after Virden were not from deep and long-lasting solidarity across racial boundaries; they resulted from the effective use of paramilitary force. The challenge to the rights of private property was conditioned on a temporary alliance with a Republican governor, and did not last. The union advantages secured by Virden, Pana, and Carterville were not to be enjoyed by the loyal African-American unionists who were ousted from Illinois.

The brittle patriotic masculinism within the organization could not stand up against the left-right disputes of later years, nor could it stand up against the bureaucratic dictatorship of John L. Lewis.

Another of this celebratory Virden treatment worth mentioning is Jeff Biggers article titled “Oct. 12, 1898: The Battle of Virden” which is a page in the Zinn Education Project website. Biggers takes the same position:

“For most historians, the defiance of union coal miners at the Virden Massacre marked the turning point in the labor movement, impacting the lives of untold thousands of laborers over the next century.”29

Surprisingly, he notes without comment:

“In her memoirs, civil rights activist and educator Helen Bass Williams, who grew up in the segregated black coal camps of Dewmaine and Colp near Carterville, recounted the constant attacks by racist mobs when African-American miners joined the union. Houses were burned to the ground; whole families hid in the woods.”30

The historian's job here is to untangle the strands of racism and unionism. Biggers chooses to conflate, confuse, and speculate:

“The absentee coal operatives also played this divisive race card in nearby and Carterville. The United Mine Workers had been founded as an integrated union — one of the few in the nation at the time. And although African-Americans eventually took leadership roles in southern Illinois and accounted for nearly 15 percent of the union ranks by 1900, the overall effect of the deceitful political ploy and subsequent infusions of outside Klan operatives would have repercussions for decades to come.”31

Finally, there is the Mother Jones Museum website.32 It deals with Mother Jones' life more generally, but also links to a “Virden Mine War Tour”33 which guides the viewer through the town of Virden, explaining various sites of the riot, while describing the events. It is authored by the Mother Jones Heritage Project. It describes the Virden Memorial, dedicated in 2006, which is a bas-relief panoramic depiction of the battle. The tour narrative takes a familiar tack:

“The 1898 Virden mine war was an epic in the history of struggle for union rights. It became a miners union triumph in Illinois after almost 40 years of effort to secure a union contract.”34

As to the racial character of the battle, this story conflates and glosses:

“African-Americans in Illinois continued to struggle to gain access to jobs in mining. Most mine owners in central Illinois continued to prefer to hire immigrants and the other battles, particularly in Pana, brought out more racism than solidarity. In 1900 there were still 6 African-American mining families living and most owning their homes in Virden; by 1910 most were gone. But overall, their percentages in mining jobs in Illinois increased.”35

Coded and cryptic language again approaches the possibility of black shooters on the union side:

“Seagraves [artist of the bas-relief] also placed an African American unionist as part of the battle. It's also fitting that in Seagraves' depiction, the African American miner seems to be assisting and looking over his shoulder, but not the center of the struggle for justice. In the end, the commemorations made African-Americans into victims and strikebreakers, not protagonists of the story.”36

The African-American miner in the memorial is helping to carry a wounded white comrade from the battlefield, and has no gun. But why criticize previous commemorations for failing to acknowledge black shooters, if the effect of the riot was to expel black miners from the local coalfield? It is widely acknowledged that Virden became a sundown town at this point in time. It was not a struggle for justice, and without citations, we cannot accept that African-American protagonists were at the center of the union assault.

As with race, so with gender:

“While guns and blood might be thought of as a particular male legacy, women in the Illinois coalfields also felt they were part of the legacy of the Virden mine war. By the 1930s, women's auxiliaries formed the heart of a militant struggle for democracy in the coal fields of Illinois.”37

As we jump 30 plus years into the future, we are asked to forget that this 1898 battle was strictly a white male enterprise.

So, what about Mother Jones herself? Why would she make a public request to be buried, when her time came, with the Virden “martyrs” who lay in the Mount Olive, Illinois Miners cemetery? This website is quite facile on this point: “Mother Jones did not know the story of Virden in detail.”38 No citation is given, and we would be credulous to believe that Mother Jones did not know exactly what took place at Virden and its effect on African-American coal miners. It may seem unwise to challenge an icon of the labor movement, but Mother Jones put herself in the company of those who opened fire on a group of African-American men, women, and children. Solidarity with the attackers promoted a whitewashing of the real history of the Illinois coalfields.

As late as October 12, 2019, Virden was still being celebrated by the Illinois Labor History Society. An Amtrak train from Chicago was organized  to make a special stop at Virden, Illinois, for a “Battle of Virden” Oct. 12 Labor History tour 39  of labor sites in that town and Mount Olive, Illinois, where the Union Miner's Cemetery and Mother Jones Museum is located.

A more realistic model for Virden, compared to all of the above, is this: the increasing general racism in the late 1800's, North and South, led to greater cohesion within local black communities, and a breakdown of the popular sanction against strikebreaking. Black strikebreaking is the result, and not the cause of racial exclusion in the community, and conflict at work. Strikebreaking was a natural part of the African-American resistance to the oppression from the larger white community. This model shows greater explanatory value in the work of Whatley and Ward.

Whatley finds that the failure rate of strikes from 1890 to 1929 was strongly correlated to the volume of immigration into the United States. African-American strikebreaking was positively correlated to the general level of strikes and inversely related to immigration, suggesting that blacks were used when immigrants were unavailable40. These results play out against a background of the following facts: most black strikebreaking was: 1) in the North, 2) at the time of Virden, was in a few industries, 3) spread to other industries after 1910, and 4) was a factor in almost every major US labor-management conflict 41

Relevant to the Virden scenario, Whatley notes “The fact that most strikebreaking by African-Americans occurred in industries that had southern branches suggests that African-American strikebreakers were arbitraging the split between northern and southern labor markets.”42

Whatley observes that:

“ estimated 30,000 to 40,000 African-American strikebreakers were used to defeat the nationwide steel strike of 1919...According to the Interchurch Report, 'the successful use of strikebreakers' was a main cause of the failure of unions, and these strikebreakers were 'principally Negroes'. (Commission of Inquiry, Interchurch World Movement 1920:177).”43

This crescendo of racial failure within organized labor organizations culminated in the disaster of the steel strike. In the words of George Rawick,:

“... one of the central issues facing the working class movement from the end of the Civil War to the turn of the century was the question of the unity of the working class. While there were moments of successful joint struggle, and blacks played prominent roles at times in the union movement, these efforts were to fail, and blacks were to be excluded from the union movement. It is also clear that this exclusion of blacks was crucial in limiting the development of the movement.”44

Ward likewise feels the necessity to explain the strikebreaking of African-Americans, rather than treat it like a personal preference of the individual workers and exogenous to history:

“The contention here is that the process of racializing labor during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries affected not only the type of labor black people could procure, it also systematically eliminated them from the larger labor movement and virtually forced them into “anti-labor” roles such as strikebreaking. As the labor movement gained significant momentum throughout Illinois, black workers faced with the decision to be a part of the labor movement was not easy—while other workers contended with nineteenth century labor issues such as unionization, better working conditions and the eight hour work day, black workers were also entangled within a struggle for citizenship, voting rights, and the right to work and live where they chose. ”45

The historic nadir of black power at this time was especially difficult for rural Illinoisans:

“Once welcomed in smaller locations throughout Illinois, by the last decade of the nineteenth century “troublesome” African Americans were demonized, and through a variety of means (mostly extra-legal), black populations left for urban environments where they were likely to find supportive black communities.”46

Ward and Whatley try to explain black strikebreaking as a dynamic variable in American social history, along with the mutually determined variables of union power, employer power, and the role of the state.

So what is the historical dynamic of class and race that drove the conflict at Virden? Which narrative is more fruitful: the unscrupulous racist operators being pushed back by a righteous and heroic union-organized action (admittedly with some racial problems of “the times”), or white riot in collaboration with the state and ruling white culture, which expelled blacks from the area, and achieved no lasting power for the workers? (I say “no lasting power”, because this masculinist solidarity model of labor action would come home to roost in 1932, when internal UMWA political violence would rend the organization, while the operators laughed all the way to the bank. But that is another story.)

Maybe if we look at a lynching that took place at Lacon, in north central Illinois, shortly after the Virden incident, we can parse the relationships among white supremacy, masculinism, union power, and class-consciousness. This article appeared in the Chicago Daily Tribune on November 8, 1898, less than a month after the mine riot:




“Lynchers Take a Prisoner

From Jail in the Illinois

Town and Quietly

Execute Him.




“Determined Men from Toluca

Batter Down the Doors

of the Marshall

County Jail.




“Lacon. Ill. Nov. 7 -[special.]- The first

lynching in central Illinois in many years took

place here early this morning, when a hundred

miners from Toluca, a mining town a short

distance east of here, broke into

the county jail, took out F. W. Stewart, a

Toluca negro, and hanged him to a tree.

“The work was done quickly and quietly.

Only a few late stragglers noticed the

number of strangers who kept driving into

town from the east. They were well

organized, however, and shortly after mid-

night marched in a body to the jail, broke

in the doors after a short parley with the

Sheriff, dragged the negro from his cell,

carried him to a tree a mile from town,

where the remainder of the party awaited them.

“Stewart's crime was assault on Friday

evening upon Mary O'Brien, the daughter of

one of the Toluca miners.

“Although many in Lacon deplore the lynching,

there is a general impression that the

negro was punished as he deserved, and no

special effort is being made to discover the

identity of the members of the mob.

“The Coroner's jury this afternoon returned

a verdict that Stewart came to his death

at the hands or persons unknown, and the

Sheriff seems to think public sentiment

would not justify him in making strenuous

efforts to capture the lynchers.

“Punishment Not Probable

“The people of Toluca are clannish, and

any attempt to arrest men for what is generally

agreed to have been an act of retributive

justice would, it is feared, be resented

by the miners. The grand Jury may take

action later on, but nothing is expected to

come or it.

“Toluca is a mining town on the Santa Fé

road, a place of recent and rapid growth,

with mixed population of turbulent

disposition. There are many foreigners and

some negroes. Against the latter there has

been considerable antipathy, which has

been heightened by the events

at Pana and Virden. The white miners

grew more bitter against the colored men

as they heard how the negroes were being

imported from the South, and many colored

men were forced to leave town because

feeling was running so high. Among those

who persisted in staying, however, was F.

W. Stewart, a man of bad character and the

victim of mob law today.

“Bloodhounds on the Trail

The O'Brien girl could give no more than

a vague description of her assailant, but a

bloodhound was secured, and being put on

the scent started off on what appeared to

be a hot trail. A hundred miners followed,

and when the bloodhound finally led them

to a shanty where Stewart was found it

was with difficulty that the hotter heads

were prevented from wreaking their vengeance

upon him.

“Stewart protested his innocence with such

earnestness, and apparent sincerity that

many were persuaded against their wills

and his life was spared. He was locked up,


“The authorities became alarmed by the

mutterings of the miners, smuggled Stewart

into a carriage, and hurried him to the

county jail of Marshall County, at Lacon,

ten miles west of Toluca, on the Illinois

River, at the terminus of a spur of the Alton


“When the miners found on Saturday morning

that Stewart had been put where he

was believed to be safe in case he was

found to be guilty, public sentiment grew so

bitter that the Mayor and City Marshal at-

tempted to allay it by promising to visit

Lacon to see if a confession could be extorted

from Stewart. The result was a complete

confession that sealed his fate.

“Plans for the Lynching.

“When the Mayor and the Marshal returned

to Toluca and announced that Stewart had

confessed his guilt there was no outbreak,

but instead a silence that was more ominous.

“A few men, friends of O'Brien, took charge

and the plans were soon made. At 10 0'clock

a hundred men, driving in all kinds of

vehicles, set out for Lacon. The people in

Toluca saw them go, knew their mission,

and yet sent no word of warning to the

authorities at the county seat.

“The party halted in a pasture near the

Toluca road about a mile east of Lacon and

there completed their plans. It was decided

that it would not be wise for all of them to

enter the town, even though it was then

midnight, and accordingly fifty men who

could be relied upon were selected to storm

the jail and bring back their victim, while

the others awaited them at a tree which had

been selected for the gallows.

“The storming party tied black masks over

their faces, entered the town quietly, and

proceeded to the jail, a two-story building

standing just back of the courthouse, and

pounded on the doors for admission.

“Sheriff Paskell came to a window in the

second story and demanded to know what

they wanted. A shout went up, “We want


“Mob storms the Jail.

“The Sheriff replied that Stewart was under

protection of the law and that they must

await the course of justice. His answer was

the crash of a heavy sledge against the

doors. The miners had brought their picks,

sledges, and heavy coal hammers to assist

them in the work they knew was before


“The doors did not long withstand the blows

rained upon them, and in a few minutes the

mob was inside the jail. Sheriff Paskell con-

fronted them and attempted to argue with

them, but he was covered with a dozen

revolvers and hurried into side room, where

he was locked in.

“The mob then made a rush for the cells,

and the other prisoners pointed out the cell

occupied by the man they were seeking.

“Stewart crouched and whimpered in a

corner as a sturdy miner swung his heavy

sledge upon the lock of his cell, until finally

the door gave way and the mob pounced

upon its prey.

“Stewart was jerked to his feet, dragged

out into the corridor, where a rope put

about his neck, and, surrounded by the mob,

was hustled outside, the cries of his fellow-prisoners

sounding a harsh requiem.

“Hanged to a Tree.

“The negro was hurried through the silent

streets to the pasture where the remainder

of the crowd was waiting. As he stumbled

along he begged for mercy, but his captors

were pitiless.

“The other lynchers were waiting in grim

silence beneath a white oak tree in the

pasture. The end of the rope which had

been about Stewart's neck was thrown over

a limb and without giving him any opportunity

to make a statement a dozen men

seized it and hauled him into the air. The

crowd lingered until it was sure that Stew-

art was dead and then returned to Toluca

as it had come.

“As soon as the mob had left Lacon Sheriff

Paskell aroused the Mayor and with a few

citizens followed the crowd to the scene

of the lynching. When they got there the

members of the mob had gone.

“They did not cut the negro's body down,

leaving it until morning, when it was cut

down and brought back to town. The body

is still in the city hall here, awaiting orders

for its disposal.

“Stewart had a penitentiary record, having

been sentenced from Peoria County two

years ago for burglary. He was released

on parole about four months ago, and had

been working in and about Toluca most of

the time since.” 47

Certainly this was not near a picket line, even though the actors were coal miners. The racialized and sexualized victimization is clear. The reader is actually encouraged to accede in the lynching. However, Stewart was a just a black worker who would not get out of town during the miners' race fever at this time. He probably wasn't even a miner. Somehow, the bloodhounds appeared at his house. The journalist reasonably relates the lynching to Virden and Pana, but is very cavalier about the prospect of justice, in either legal or moral terms.

There is no chicken-egg controversy over which came first, black actions or white actions. There is no employer in the equation, no question of rank-and-file militancy. There is only an effectively organized group of white miners, not redressing labor's grievances, or challenging exploitation. The men had the co-operation, active or passive, of the police, the sheriff, the governor, the legislature, the courts, the press, and the union leadership. They were organized on the basis of male whiteness, and took violent racial action.

Instead of commemorations and celebrations of Virden, reparations are called for. That process would probably have to be initiated by African-American organizations or ad hoc social media groups.48

Illinois District 12 of the UMWA organized and financed a paramilitary white supremacist militia at Virden, which violently ejected African-Americans from the local mining industry, and effectively kept them out for 20 years. This period of great coal industry expansion was made safe for European immigrants to the exclusion of black laborers migrating from the American South. Europeans from 5000 miles away were accepted as co-workers in an improved work environment, while African-Americans from 500 miles away were subject to pogroms.



24 Feurer, p 14.

25 Markwell,  "A Turning Point...", p 211.

26 Markwell, "The Best Organized...", p 74.

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

28 Markwell, "The Best Organized...", p 73.

29 Biggers, main page of article.

30 Ibid, main page.

31Ibid, main page.

32 Mother Jones Museum Website

33 Mother Jones Heritage Project, Virden Mine War Tour.

34 ibid, Stop 2, paragraph 1.

35 ibid, Stop 9, paragraph 7.

36 ibid, Stop 9, paragraph 8.

37 ibid, Stop 9, paragraph 9.

38 ibid, Stop 9, paragraph 10.

39 Illinois Labor History Society,  pp 12-13.

40 Whatley, pp 540-42.

41 ibid, p 529.

42 ibid, p 538.

43 ibid, p 527.

44 Roediger and Smith, p 127-8.

45 Ward, p ii.

46ibid, p 262.

47 Chicago Daily Tribune, Nov. 8, 1898.

48 Only suggestions would be appropriate in this essay. The United Mine Workers of America could lead the way by apologizing to the African-American community for its paramilitary racist actions at Virden, Pana, and Carterville, and for characterizing these actions as labor solidarity. Also, the lynching at Lacon should be acknowledged. The union should be the first to ask labor organizations to stop celebrating Miners Day on October 12. The union should direct most of its future organizing efforts towards communities of color, and fund several history scholarships for children of members of color. The Illinois State Labor History Society should stop sponsoring historical tours of Virden, and correct the record in its publication The Reporter. The city of Virden, Illinois should take down its inaccurate Battle of Virden Monument, and artist David Seagraves could offer a replacement honoring African-American labor. Financial reparations are more difficult to assess at this time.



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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.