“Solidarity” in West Virginia’s Kanawha Valley’ by Lucille Kohn from Labor Age. Vol. 20. No. 9. September, 1931.

‘These members of the Eskdale Actors’ Club, after brief coaching by members of the L.I.D. staff, wrote their own plays. which they performed in the Eskdale Theatre. Two of the plays these young miners wrote and performed thruout the region are “The Decota Chain” and the ‘‘Logan March.” These plays, for which they won the prize, deal with intimate happenings in their own lives.’
“Solidarity” in West Virginia’s Kanawha Valley’ by Lucille Kohn from Labor Age. Vol. 20. No. 9. September, 1931.

THE Kanawha mining camps are echoing with ‘Solidarity Forever” as men, women and children flock together on the picket line, at strike meeting or study class. It is the League for Industrial Democracy Chautauqua that has introduced the note of song into the West Virginia Mine Workers’ strike—the note of song as well as many other constructive notes.

On July 7, fourteen men and women from New York, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh and other cities, under the aegis of Mary Fox and the New York L.I.D., pitched camp in Charleston to conduct an experiment unique in the field of workers’ education. When the program was planned in the spring, the Chautauqua group was to be a part of the organizing campaign of the West Virginia Mine Workers. When they arrived on the scene, it was to carry on in the midst of a strike. That naturally necessitated a complete realignment of activities.

Instead of nightly classes for adults rather carefully planned with “Your Job and Your Pay” to be used as text book, the tense strike atmosphere called for a very different approach, which the Chautauqua met in a way that seems to have solved many a knotty problem with a rare degree of success.

Whitesville, Cedar Grove, Prenter, Dry Branch and Eskdale were chosen as strategic points for headquarters, in view of the fact that they were central to four or five satellite camps. In these centers two large public meetings were held each week, one a lecture meeting and one a Chautauqua meeting of entertainment, in which all members of the staff participated. At the lecture meetings topics of special interest to workers such as “Causes and Cures for Unemployment,” “The Role of the Worker in History,’ “Debs,” and “The Present Day Status of the Mining Industry,” were handled by Josephine Colby of Brookwood, Joel Seidman of John Hopkins, Winifred Chappell of Methodist Federation of Social Service, William Nunn of New York University, Maurice Schneiroev, and several union representatives. Although speeches were the main feature of these meetings, they were always supplemented by some sort of pro- gram arranged for the children and by impromptu talks and singing on the part of the audience. From week to week this singing increased in volume, originality and fervor, and the size of the audience kept growing.

The special Chautauqua meetings began with labor plays and animated cartoons prepared and acted by the staff, but before long the miners groups, under the skillful direction of Victor Wolfson who had his training at the Wisconsin Experimental School, developed plays drawn from their own experiences, and there were vivid portrayals of picket-line, state police, company gunmen and all the other familiar strike manifestations, done by the miners themselves. All over the field they composed songs with splendid local tang, and got as much kick in singing them as the audience derived from listening.

The Chautauqua song book is a dramatic historical story of the current strike in West Virginia and the psychological reaction of the strikers to the new set-up. It was inspiring indeed to hear a group of Negroes at Ward singing, “The New York people has decided, we shall not be moved,” in a crowded Negro school house, when evictions were threatening thick and fast on every front.

When it became apparent that classes, as such, were not compatible with a strike atmosphere, the Chautauqua staff modified its plans to meet the situation. So, gradually, classes be- came “‘clubs,” but the educational program was never discarded, and twice a week men and women met to discuss in an informal way the most elementary problems of the workers’ world.

Much of the day-time work of the Chautauqua leaders was devoted to children. That, according to the consensus of parent opinion, was extra- ordinarily successful. Time and again a mother in the crowd would say, “There is no keeping my children home when they see their teacher,” or “If we can’t have her here, we sure want somebody else like her.” The youngsters had baseball games, plays and picket-lines all of their own with labor songs aplenty. They built play villages “without company stores,” as they eagerly explained.

The Chautauqua also brought in some special features in connection with community life. Dr. Ruth Fox, of the Fifth Avenue Hospital, made a carefully supervised social study of over fifty families. In Charleston itself the Chautauqua tried to function as auxiliary to the union. Shortly after the outbreak of the strike, they drew up a ringing statement on the situation in the Kanawha field mines with an appeal for funds, and broadcasted this statement through the city.

On the whole, as a strike auxiliary, the Chautauqua performed a most valuable service. It brought life, laughter and singing into the hungry and sometimes homeless communities. It reinforced union meetings with its own songs and it knit the camps together, animating them with a common interest.

‘Miners and their families marching from Ward to Cedar Grove to attend an L.I.D. meeting.’

It is difficult to evaluate the Chautauqua as an experiment in workers’ education, because the strike made the whole situation an abnormal one. However, there are certain conclusions that may be drawn from the six weeks’ activity of the L.I.D. in Charleston. Unquestionably the communities are eager to welcome and cooperate with an educational program brought in to them from the outside world. Unquestionably the children are waiting for such an adventure as the Chautauqua offered them, and a fertile field lies open for enterprising groups interested in education with a very definite workers’ slant. It has been demonstrated too that a labor culture can be developed among the adults in the coal fields, for the Chautauqua in just six weeks gathered a whole book of songs and plays that really were made by the miners themselves.

The great problem that the occurrence of the strike left pretty completely unsolved is how much formal education can be given to the miners and in what way should classes be conducted. Certainly an entering wedge has been made; mass education has been inaugurated, and a technique is being developed by which workers can learn on their native heath, without the danger involved in a complete environmental change.

Labor Age was a left-labor monthly magazine with origins in Socialist Review, journal of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. Published by the Labor Publication Society from 1921-1933 aligned with the League for Industrial Democracy of left-wing trade unionists across industries. During 1929-33 the magazine was affiliated with the Conference for Progressive Labor Action (CPLA) led by A. J. Muste. James Maurer, Harry W. Laidler, and Louis Budenz were also writers. The orientation of the magazine was industrial unionism, planning, nationalization, and was illustrated with photos and cartoons. With its stress on worker education, social unionism and rank and file activism, it is one of the essential journals of the radical US labor socialist movement of its time.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/laborage/v20n09-Sep-1931-Labor%20Age.pdf

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