‘A Picture of American Freedom in West Virginia’ by Mother Jones from International Socialist Review. Vol. 2 No. 3. September, 1901.
SOME months ago a little group of miners from the State of Illinois decided to face the storm and go to the assistance of their fellow-workmen in the old slave state of West Virginia. They hoped that they might somehow lend a hand to break at least one link in the horrible corporation chains with which the miners of that state are bound. Wherever the condition of these poor slaves of the caves is worst there is where I always seek to be, and so I accompanied the boys to West Virginia.
They billed a meeting for me at Mt. Carbon, where the Tianawha Coal and Coke Company have their works. The moment I alighted from the train the corporation dogs set up a howl. They wired for the “squire” to come at once. He soon arrived with a constable and said : “Tell that woman she cannot speak here to night; if she tries it I will jail her.” If you come from Illinois you are a foreigner in West Virginia and are entitled to no protection or rights under the law—that is if you are interested in the welfare of your oppressed fellow beings. If you come in the interest of a band of English parasites you are a genuine American citizen and the whole state is at your disposal. So the squire notified me that if I attempted to speak there would be trouble. I replied that I was not hunting for trouble, but that if it came in that way I would not run away from it. I told him that the soil of Virginia had been stained with the blood of the men who marched with Washington and Lafayette to found a government where the right of free speech should always exist.
“I am going to speak here to-night,” I continued. “When I violate the law, and not until then will you have any right to interfere.” At this point he and the constable started out for the county seat with the remark that he would find out what the law was on that point. For all I have been able to hear they are still hunting for the law, for I have never heard from them since. The company having called off their dogs of war I held my meeting to a large crowd of miners.
But after all the company came out ahead. They notified the hotel not to take any of us in or give us anything to eat. There upon a miner and his wife gave me shelter for the night. The next morning they were notified to leave their miserable little shack which belonged to the company. He was at once discharged and with his wife and babe went back to Illinois, where, as a result of a long and bitter struggle the miners have succeeded in regaining a little liberty.
Up on New river last winter I was going to hold a meeting when the mine owner notified me that as he owned half the river which I had to cross to get to the meeting place, I could not hold the meeting. I concluded that God Almighty owned the other half of the river and probably had a share or two of stock in the operator’s half. So I crossed over, held my meeting on a Sunday afternoon with a big crowd. The operator was present at the meeting, bought a copy of “Merrie England,” and I hope has been a fairer and wiser man since then.
One of the saddest pictures I have among the many sad ones in my memory is that of a little band of unorganized miners who had struck against unbearable conditions. It was in a little town on the Tianawha where I spent an Easter. When the miners laid down their tools the company closed their “pluck me” store and started to starve them out. While they were working the poor wretches had to trade at the company store and when pay-day came their account at the store was deducted from their check. The result was that many a pay-day there was only a corporation bill-head in their pay-envelope to take home to the wife and babies. Enslaved and helpless if they dared to make a protest or a move to help themselves, they were at once discharged and their names placed on a black list.
Ten tons of coal must go to the company each year for house rent; two tons to the company doctor who prescribes a “pill every five hours” for all diseases alike. You must have this corporation doctor when sick whether you want him or not. Two tons must go to the blacksmith for sharpening tools ; two tons more for the water which they use and which they must carry from a spring half-way up the mountain side, and ten tons more for powder and oil. All this must be paid before a penny comes with which to get things to eat and wear. When one hears their sad tales, looks upon the faces of their disheartened wives and children, and learns of their blasted hopes, and lives with no ray of sunshine, one is not surprised that they all have a disheartened appearance, as if there was nothing on earth to live for.
Every rain storm pours through the roof of the corporation shacks and wets the miner and his family. They must enter the mine early every morning and work from ten to twelve hours a day amid the poisonous gases. Then a crowd of temperance parasites will come along and warn the miners against wasting their money for drink. I have seen those miners drop down exhausted and unconscious from the effects of the poisonous gases amid which they were forced to work. The mine inspector gets his appointment through a political pull and never makes any thing but a sham inspection. He walks down “broadway” with the mining boss, but never goes into “smoke alley” where men are dropping from gas poisoning. Then he walks out to the railroad track and writes his report to the government telling how fine things are.
I sat down on the side of the railroad track the other day to talk to an old miner. “Mother Jones,” said the poor fellow, “I have been working in this mine for thirty-three years. I came here when it first opened and have worked faithfully ever since. They have got every penny I ever made. There has never been a ray of sunshine in my life. It has all been shadow. To-day I have not a penny in the world. I never drank. I have worked hard and steady.” Just then he suddenly rose and walked away saying, “Here comes the superintendent. If he saw me speak to you I would lose my job.”
As I look around and see the condition of these miners who produce the wealth of the nation, and the injustice practiced on these helpless people, I tremble for the future of a nation whose legislation legalizes such infamy.
The International Socialist Review (ISR) was published monthly in Chicago from 1900 until 1918 by Charles H. Kerr and critically loyal to the Socialist Party of America. It is one of the essential publications in U.S. left history. During the editorship of A.M. Simons it was largely theoretical and moderate. In 1908, Charles H. Kerr took over as editor with strong influence from Mary E Marcy. The magazine became the foremost proponent of the SP’s left wing growing to tens of thousands of subscribers. It remained revolutionary in outlook and anti-militarist during World War One. It liberally used photographs and images, with news, theory, arts and organizing in its pages. It articles, reports and essays are an invaluable record of the U.S. class struggle and the development of Marxism in the decades before the Soviet experience. It was closed down in government repression in 1918.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/isr/v02n03-sep-1901-ISR-gog-Princ.pdf