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REVIEW

Faith, Power, and Conflict 

by Carletta A. Bush

 

Miner preachers and the United Mine Workers of America in the Harlan County mine wars, 1931--1939. Graduate theses, 2006, West Virginia University. 

Carletta Bush answered a question I've had since I was a child in Evarts in the fifties.

My mother took us to church every time there was a service, usually Wednesday evening and twice on Sunday. Ours was an all-white church, but one evening there were Black people in attendance.

 

Evarts was segregated. The schools were segregated, neighborhoods were segregated. The Roslyn Theatre required Black people to sit upstairs. But here they were, a dozen or so Black people among the thirty or so regulars. How did that happen?

That revival went on for a few days and my mother became friends with one of the visitors, Sister Meeks. She came to our house a time or two and we visited her at least once.

I never asked my mother about that and had mostly forgotten about it. But then I read this: 

"...it was not uncommon to find, for example, more than one Church of God, in the same coal camp or town. This was the case in the commercial town of Evarts. Evarts had two Church of God (Cleveland) churches: one white and one “colored.” Typically, the members of white and black congregations frequently attended one another’s revival services and other special meetings."

Mystery solved. And this relatively progressive stand on race was matched by pro-union sentiment by some of the churches, a stand that repeatedly led to trouble from the companies and their gun thugs.

 

How did unionism survive in a county that regularly beat, imprisoned, and killed union workers, that fired and blacklisted them by the thousands? Bush says it was the toehold that union miners kept in the Holiness churches that kept the fires of unionism banked.

The parallel rise of the Holiness churches and unionism led to several preachers leading the union movement at critical times. Coal camp churches were usually built by the coal companies and they often paid the minister's salary. Not surprisingly, union-minded miners stayed away, but they were welcomed at the Holiness and Pentecostal churches that miner-preachers built outside the coal camps.

 

Bush writes that by 1931, "...the towns of Ages, Harlan, Highsplint, and Twila were homes to both churches belonging to the Church of God (Cleveland) and local unions of the United Mine Workers of America."

The fury of the coal operators was directed to those preachers and churches. In 1931, after 2,000 miners held a rally, spies reported the names of miners to the companies and hundreds were fired. 

In Alva, the Black Star Coal Co. fired 60 workers and they began holding union meetings at the community church. Soon after the meetings began, the church was burned. Other churches were dynamited, but the miners always rebuilt.

In the spring of 1933 a preacher/miner named Marshall Musick was a union officer at Cornett-Lewis Coal Co. in Louellen and began holding union meetings at his Black Bottom Baptist Church.

"After a thwarted bombing of the church, the local moved its meetings to the nearby Closplint Church of God. Within days, the church was destroyed by dynamite."

By 1937 Musick had been beaten twice and arrested for "criminal syndicalism." But the worst was yet to come. Warned that his life was in danger, Musick left his home in Evarts to stay with a friend, telling his son Bennett to take care of the family. That night shots were fired into the house forcing the family to lie on the floor. Nineteen year old Bennett was shot and killed.

It was that murder that finally spurred Congress to act and the La Follette Committee’s investigation began. That did not end the troubles in Harlan County but did place a spotlight on the crimes committed there.

Carlotta Bush has rescued a nearly forgotten part of the mine wars.

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