"Joining the ranks of the enemy": The Kansas Coalminers' strike of 1893
In March of 1893, the American Citizen, an African American newspaper edited in Kansas City, Kansas, by C.H.J. Taylor, warned the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers and other labor organizations that their failure to admit African Americans to membership would only lead to other examples of what had happened during the great Homestead Strike of 1892 against Carnegie steel mills, when the company brought in 1000 black workmen break the strike: “So long as we are prevented from sharing the benefits accruing from membership in Labor Unions,” wrote Taylor, “we can not do otherwise than join the ranks of the enemy.”
Taylor’s prediction was promptly born out when Kansas coal miners, mainly in the state’s southeast, began striking for higher wages. The United Mine Workers’ Union, recently created by consolidation of a Knights of Labor Trade Assembly and the National Progressive Miners’ Union, officially banned discrimination by race in admission to membership, but white union leaders resisted admitting black members. There were few black members of the UMW when strikes began in the mining towns of southeastern Kansas early in 1893.
Matt L. Walters, a Populist and president of UMW District 14, traveled to mining camps in Missouri, and Kansas urging a bi-state coal mine strike. The union was reported to be organizing strikes in the Indian Territory, Arkansas, and Colorado in sympathy with Kansas miners, who were threatened with a 30 percent reduction in wages. They were already paid 20 percent less than miners in the eastern states and 35 percent less than those in Colorado: “Last year,” reported one paper, “the men averaged only $1.05 for each working day in the year and the companies proposed to reduce them still lower. This meant starvation to the miners.”
Miners in Missouri promised to strike in sympathy if mine operators had not settled by July 15, but it was apparent most mine owners had no intention of settling at a time when the economy was entering a prolonged depression and laid off miners in other states could easily be brought in to replace the strikers.
Operators were offering miners 54 cents a ton for “mine run,” unsorted coal, year round, rather than paying winter work at a higher rate, and believed they had the upper hand. “It is just possible,” commented the Kansas City Journal, a Republican paper unsympathetic to the strikers, “that the workmen will presume further than the present financial condition of the country, the Missouri and Kansas coal market and the present crisis in local affairs will justify, and one of these days the mines may be occupied by colored miners from Alabama.”
Evidence of some operators’ intention to bring in black miners from the distressed South was apparent in construction of wooden stockades surrounding mine property as well as of housing to accommodate strike breakers, although there was disagreement between operators about hiring black miners . The manager of the Central Coal and Coke Company, John Perry, suggested that “negroes are like white men in the mines. Some are useful and some are worthless,” but another coal executive thought that African Americans “are not a race of miners […].” In addition, suggested the Kansas City Star, importation of black laborers would roil Kansas farmers, backbone of the state’s new Populist government.
By the last week in July, however, the die was cast for one of the largest mining outfits, Central Coal and Coke Company: “It is our intention,” announced Perry, “to import new men to operate the mines as soon as we are ready to receive them,” although Perry was evasive about where the “new men” would be coming from or about the company’s plans by the company to arm them, perhaps aware that the Populist governor, Lewelling, had warned of “serious trouble” if the operators replaced the striking miners with African Americans.
Nevertheless, two days later newspapers reported that Perry’s company and the Kansas and Texas Coal Company, another large operator, had both brought in black miners : “An armed guard accompanied the negroes,” reported the Kansas City Star, “and another guard met them on their arrival at the mines. It is estimated that nearly 200 men armed with Winchesters were in the field for the sole purpose of protecting the imported miners.” The Journal reported that two of the black miners stated that they and others had been misled as to the situation and had no intention of “going to work as blacklegs,” but the Company insisted that the two were secretly members of an African American miners’ union who’d arrived separately from the Alabama contingent. The strikers made attempts at Weir City and Litchfield to talk to the black miners, but were repulsed by company guards.
The same day, over a hundred shots were exchanged between strikers and guards at a Kansas and Texas Coal Company mine, resulting in several injuries, though no fatalities. One paper reported that most of the shots were fired by the owner of the strip mine, his son and a man named “Big Dick Reed.” “The only thing that causes any apprehension now,” commented the Journal, “is the fact that a few of the worst of the foreiners [sic]” – referring to Belgians, Germans, and other European immigrants who were routinely portrayed as anarchists – “are known to be manufacturing dynamite bombs […] As many of the women go armed with pistols tied up in their aprons, it is realized that they can easily carry bombs and thus make themselves more dangerous than the men.”
A resolution of the Pit, Slope and Gin Shaft Operators’ Association deplored what it claimed was the strikers’ practice of placing women “as the advance guard of an assembly,” with the implication that women were being exploited in an “unmanly and un-American” fashion.” Women, however, appear to have been at least as militant as male strikers. In the fracas in Weir City, “the women entered boldly into the fight and fought with as much ferociousness as the men,” went one report. “They wielded their clubs with vigor and precision, and many a sore head to-night has its cause in the clubs in the women’s hands.” At Litchfield, when guards refused to allow a delegation of strikers to speak to the strikebreakers, women attempted to tear down a wire fence surrounding the stockade.
The day after the Weir City attacks, the companies tried to create a “business as usual” impression: blacksmiths were sharpening tools, the Kansas City Times reported from Weir City, and work was beginning on the coal face, though no coal was coming up. The main sign of trouble was the piles of Winchester rifles stacked around the property, a hundred at the pit top alone, “from which vantage place,” the paper reported, “a murderous fire could be concentrated upon any point outside the stockade.”
The paper described the black Alabaman miners as “fully up to the average coal-diggers in intelligence and morals,” and even “superior to a very large portion of the foreign miners, notably the Italians, French, Belgians, Huns, and Poles […].” They were portrayed as being so satisfied with their situation that they engaged in what the Times reporter patronizingly called a “regular negro hoe-down.” “They will fight to the death if assailed,” predicted the reporter. “So sure as the strikers are rash enough to make an attack on the stockade death will reap a bountiful harvest.”
There was another, contrasting narrative describing the number of black miners who were refusing to work, saying they had had been induced to come to Kansas by false presentations and that their confinement within company stockades was false imprisonment. Newspapers tended to play down such claims, preferring the image of hoedowns. As the end of July neared, the Journal was predicting the strike would soon end. Several thousand miner families were out of work, coal was being mined at the various shaft, slope and strip mines around Weir City, and the black miners were “here to stay.” The paper was sounding the same note in early August as additional train loads of black miners arrived from Alabama and striking miners began individually to return to work: “No one doubts that the backbone of the strike is completely broken,” it said. Even the smaller operations with only one or two mines had begun to bring in black miners to break the strike, claiming that they were losing business to the big companies. The arrival of a trainload of black miners from Alabama in Leavenworth in the northern part of the state was said to put strikers “on the ragged edge of despair.”
On August 7, shots were fired in Weir City at strikers’ homes by guards seeking, it was thought, to create a riot. Miners in Rich Hill and Lexington, Missouri, were striking in sympathy with Kansas miners.. Increasingly, however, there was division between union leadership and miners who were returning to work after signing individual agreements with the operators, bypassing the union. On August 20, Chairman Walters gave a militant speech in Frontenac, Kansas, threatening to bring 2,000 men to the Santa Fe mine there and drive strikebreakers from the mines. Reported the Chicago Tribune, Matthews threatened trouble unless companies dealt with the union. In the event, Matthews appeared with about 400 strikers to attempt to prevent miners from going to work; they were confronted by a deputy sheriff and a posse of forty deputies, described in the Times as “prominent business men” from Pittsburg, Kansas, “who volunteered their services last night for the purpose of protecting the miners who were willing to go to work.” Racism was also causing conflict. One mine owner threatened to burn the mineworks if the mine’s lessee “depreciated” the property by bringing in black miners. In Leavenworth, striking miners threatened to dynamite an operator's home if he allowed black miners to enter the mine, and in Leavenworth, a black miner, threatened by a crowd of two or three hundred strikers, drew his revolver and fired into the air. With strikers and black miner exchanging shots, the miner retreated into the company stockade. Rocks were thrown at miners attempting to enter the mines and local police were reluctant to intervene. Someone described only as a “prominent Democrat” described the strikers as “cut-throats who want to attempt to prevent men from earning a living […],” without thought that the strikebreakers were preventing the striking miners from earning a living.
The next day non-working miners in Leavenworth held a meeting where they were addressed by the editor of the Echo, a union newspaper, who declared, apparently without authority of union leaders, that the strike was off in Missouri and Kansas and that everything would soon be “amicably settled.” It was apparent, however, that mine operators would not meet union wage demands. A union committee in Leavenworth was reduced to asking for the best price the company would pay. It was offered a flat 80 cents a ton, with no seasonal differential. At Kirkwood the Wear Coal Company’s offer of “50 and 56” was accepted by vote of the miners. It was the “threatened negro importation,” commented one paper, that prompted the miners to ignore pleas from the union leadership to turn the offer down.
Conflict continued for several days in some areas. The Times reported that a group of black miners at a Kansas and Texas Coal Company mine in Pittsburg who had gone to Litchfield to shop at the company store were attacked by strikers. Shots were exchanged and one striker wounded. The black miners returned to the company stockade while strikers gathered, promising an assault. At another K. and T. mine, in Scammon, two white strikebreakers were ambushed by strikers; a woman was shot in the ensuing melee.
President Walters of the Miners’ Union continued to resist abandoning the strike in the Cherokee mining district. One local paper reported that he was promising to bring 3,000 men to drive strikebreakers out of the Frontenac mines, since mine operators had reached agreements only with individual miners, not the union. Walters appeared to have had no more than fifty men on hand, with 300 said to be “on their way” to join him; mine operators called for armed guards. Whether or not Walters’ threat was a bluff, a new agreement was reached with the miners at Frontenac, and Walters was quoted as declaring the strike at an end.
After almost three months of a sometimes brutal strike, Kansas miners had gained little or nothing. As C.H.J. Taylor predicted, racism crippled the union’s efforts, allowing mine operators to play black laborers – themselves driven from the South by economic decline – against white laborers facing similar conditions in Kansas.
December 24 2015