In Jeff Biggers’ new book, Reckoning At Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal In The Heartland, he quotes a friend: “The abuse of the land is always connected to the abuse of the people.” This theme resonates throughout as Biggers entwines family history with industrial, labor, native and environmental histories of Southern Illinois.
This abuse came with the relentless drive to extract coal from the region. Mining shovels stripped away not only farmland and homesteads but also “ripped out the roots of invaluable historic sites and stories, such as the secret black slave cemetery that had helped to give birth to the coal industry, and churned them into unrecognizable dust.”
I was delighted that Jeff chose to include a mine war image that I unearthed to open chapter 1. The photograph depicts the strikebreaking Illinois state militia protecting Peabody Mine Number 7 in Kincaid. Even better, the picture introduces a chapter that speaks to contemporary government coal policy, including recent corporate welfare extended to Peabody Energy paid for by Illinois taxpayers. The juxtaposition suggests Peabody’s reliance on government support hasn’t changed much in the last 80 years.
However, I don’t fully agree with Biggers’ characterization of the Illinois Mine War. On the contract election which incited the District 12 split, he writes, “When ballots for the vote on the new accord disappeared in Illinois, throwing the union into disarray, Lewis invoked his authority and signed the agreement.”
There is evidence that the ballots didn’t just disappear, but instead were stolen by a Lewis loyalist when it became clear that the election was lost. District 12 Vice President Fox Hughes (who also played a cowardly role in the Herrin Massacre ten years earlier) was seen driving off with the ballots. Lewis seized this moment and usurped the legitimate authority of the ballot box to replace it with his own autocratic rule. Democracy didn’t return to District 12 for decades.
Later, Biggers writes, “the most tragic ‘war’ was not between the miners and the coal companies, but between the miners themselves.” This is a common generalization about the mine war which is incomplete, and does an injustice to the idealistic founders of the Progressive Miners as well as to deny us an understanding of Lewis’ actions. While I’m sure this isn’t true in Biggers’ case, such a characterization can leave one believing that the Illinois Mine War was simply a factional dispute within the UMWA, ignoring the role of the government and most importantly, the role of the coal operators.
During that period in Illinois, the UMWA functioned essentially as a company union for Peabody Coal. Lewis led his loyalists to cross picket lines and break lawful strikes. Strikebreakers and thugs were recruited under auspices of the UMWA during that time to protect heavily fortified Peabody mines in Harrisburg and the Midland Tract in Christian County. Far from a simple factional dispute, Peabody Coal worked with Lewis to protect its dominance in the Illinois coal industry. FBI records show that when a picket line couldn’t be broken, Lewis funneled UMWA funds to a mine operator in order to withstand a PMA strike. And when it was eventually broken, the remaining workers fell under the control of the United Mine Workers.
That being said, one needs to remember that most of the discussion of the Illinois Mine War is accurate and part of a much broader historical mosaic. Biggers’ ties to the Mine War run deep too. Joe Colbert, a distant family relative, was the first casualty of the conflict. Further the profile of Agnes Burns Wieck and subsequent discussion of the inspiring role of women in the PMA organizing and activism is a great read.
For me Reckoning At Eagle Creek helps redress “historicide, a problem discussed in the book. The term, “historicide”, was coined by anthropologist Jonathan Hill and refers to the process of separating people from their histories. Jeff Biggers capably restores much of that history. Bravo.
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