a patriotic pro-labor post from Matewan, WV

Get ready for a long one today… I didn’t plan it this way, I swear, but here it is the 4th of July, so let’s talk history, shall we?

I was so honored and grateful that (thanks to some connections!) the staff at the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum helped me out by making a special allowance for Hops. It’s been a few days of triple digits here lately – too hot to even run into a gas station to pee with Hops in the van, for sure. Being allowed to bring him into this museum made all the difference to us. And this was an important stop for me.

The Battle of Blair Mountain and the Matewan Massacre are ubiquitous stories here in my soon-to-be-temporary-home-state, and I come from labor organizers myself, so this was a thread I wanted to follow. The treatment of mine workers in these parts has been egregious throughout history, but the 1910s and 20s saw some of the most violent labor conflicts we’ve known. This humble museum offers a wealth of information on these events, which have been largely hidden from history by government inattention (to put it mildly) and the reluctance of those involved to share their stories, for fear of retribution.

I will give my best shot at a brief sketch, but I’m very new to learning these stories.

Working conditions in coal mines were terrible; miners and their families lived in company towns (I read as many as 90% of them), and were paid in company scrip that they had to spend at company stores; they had to buy their own equipment, including shovels, dynamite, and canaries. They were policed by mine guards with guns. They organized to ask for improved conditions, including fair and transparent weighing of coal, the removal of mine guards, and payment with, you know, real money. Offered a wage increase and reduction to a nine-hour work day, they refused and went on strike. The company brought in scabs and evicted miners from their homes, and so the miners, and their wives and children, set up tent cities. It was an increasingly tense situation, obviously. In Matewan, a private detective agency was sent in to enforce evictions; the mayor stood up for the miners; the agents wound up in a standoff with the mayor and sheriff and a few miners, and a gunfight ensued that left 10 people dead on the main street in town. Four bullets remain embedded in the building that now houses the Mine Wars Museum.

The mayor was killed in this massacre; the sheriff later faced charges, and when he appeared for trial, was assassinated along with a friend on the courthouse steps by other agents of the same detective agency. The murders of this pro-labor mayor and sheriff were some of the inciting events – along with continuing poor working conditions, strikes, and evictions – that led to the march over Blair Mountain toward Matewan, in what would become known as “Bloody Mingo” County. The United Mine Workers of America were organized, armed, and ready to do battle for labor rights. As the miners made their way toward Matewan, the United States Army sent out troops against them. General Bandholtz met with the miners and was reassured that they were turning home; but news of union activists shot near the town of Sharples apparently turned them around again (or else they were not actually intending to turn back at all?) – the miners continued to march for Matewan.

Their route took them through Logan County, where anti-union Sheriff Don Chafin held office; he organized an army of his own. At this point, both sides were armed and ready for battle. Guerrilla warfare was ongoing for a time in Mingo County and on Blair Mountain in Logan County; the miners tied red bandannas around their necks so they could tell one another apart from the enemy (a strategy that cuts both ways, of course), and became known as the Red Neck Army. This is said to be the origin of the usage, ‘redneck.’ Sheriff Chafin hired private planes to drop pipe bombs on the miners. It was truly a battle, said to be the largest armed uprising in this country since the Civil War. The museum has documented that the US Army intended to drop bombs on the miners as well, but bad weather grounded their planes. That would be the only time our military has planned to bomb its own people. Scattered fighting continued for months, but the main bulk of the miners surrendered or fled when federal troops came out again.

This is an important event in labor history, but functioned as a defeat for the miners on the ground, and for the UMWA, whose membership was decimated after the battle. Casualty estimates vary widely, from dozens to a hundred or more, but some claim the number is much higher than that. Victors write histories, and the US has habitually suppressed the history of union activity and organized resistance.

The above summary is my own understanding of events from minimal research and my visit to this museum, which is simple and small but very well put together. You shouldn’t take me as an expert, by any means. My next few steps in learning about this story include the movie Matewan, the documentary The Mine Wars, and the book The Devil Is Here in These Hills: West Virginia‚Äôs Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom. Consider these for further investigation. Also, please check out the museum link, above, and watch the 4-minute video to see a basic shape of what this museum means to its local community.

Now for pictures! I didn’t take as many as I should, but here you are.

a day in lovely Richmond, Virginia

It was a long day – 12 hours round-trip – but it was worth it.

Hops and I got up early for some yoga and then headed into the city. I had errands to run: fuel for the stove, dog food, oil for the van, boring things like that. I accomplished everything pretty easily in the outskirts, and then into the city center via Monument Avenue, which reminded me very much of Houston’s Heights Boulevard, with its width and broad esplanade, its old stately houses, and its public art and statuary. Several intersections felt so familiar that I felt a little disoriented. I walked around (the outside of) the Holocaust Museum and Edgar Allen Poe Museum, and a bit of the floodwall at the James River, including the site of Libby Prison, where Union prisoners of war were held during the Civil War in apparently horrendous conditions. The prison is gone – moved to Chicago where it served as a war museum until it had to give way to a coliseum – but there remains a plaque, “re-erected 1980 by Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.” One wonders about the motivations of the two groups.

Then I made my way to the state capitol grounds for the Virginia Civil Rights Monument, which was my main goal.

For a destination, this is a diminutive thing, and one of 8 monuments and statues on the capitol grounds. I made a walk of it, seeing these beautiful grounds and all 8 monuments. You should go read more of the story here, but the monument honors Barbara Johns, who at 16 led a student walkout from a criminally underfunded Black high school in Farmville, Virginia, as well as the other students, activists and lawyers involved. While the civil rights monument is well done, I was left with a sour feeling, the feeling of tokenry: there’s the civil rights monument, a monument to women and one to Native Americans; the rest are old white men, including George Washington, several Confederate “heroes,” a doctor, and Edgar Allan Poe. Martin Luther King, Jr. gets a tree. It all feels a bit out of proportion, as if white men have done 85% of the work of Virginia and women, Native Americans and Blacks added a little bit here and there. I do appreciate the civil rights monument.

And I want to pull out the women’s and “Indian tribute” pieces as well.

Mantle is an earthwork monument by Mohawk artist Alan Michelson, based on the deerskin mantle in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, catalogued as follows in 1656: Pohatan, King of Virginia’s habit all embroidered with shells, or Roanoke. Historians believe the 34 embroidered shell disks, each sewn in a spiral pattern from which the shape of the tribute derives, may represent the nations of the Powhatan Confederacy, whose traditional homelands, Tsenacommacah, include this site.

One of nature’s fundamental forms, spirals are present not only in shells but also in the growth pattern of plants and trees. The tribute’s terraced design and elemental materials, including indigenous stone and plants, honors the land now known as Virginia and its original inhabitants and keepers of the land – the Indian nations – and celebrates their active presence and enduring culture.

Visitors are invited to follow the winding path to the fountain at the center, inscribed with the original names of Virginia waters.

Echoing the indigenous spiral sense of time, from which one may look backward to the past and forward to the future, Mantle is a welcoming space inviting contemplation of the four “r’s” of the indigenous worldview – respect, relationship, reciprocity, and responsibility.

And here’s the rest of the stuff.

From there I went on to see my buddy Beasa from my MFA program and their partner Diane. It was a great visit! We hung out in Foxy and had wonderful Jamaican food for dinner, and Beasa and I sat and talked and I could have done it for hours and hours more because they are wonderful, but Hops and I had to make the drive back to our riverside oasis.

I love these people so much. Foxy never looked so good!

Columbia complications

As always, I have really enjoyed the down time, and use of a house: laundry, showers, electricity, wifi. I’ve been reading and writing and catching up.

And having a lovely time with Brad. We took a rainy walk around downtown Columbia, visiting the state capitol building and grounds. Recall this is the site of one of our most recent & contentious (& nationally visible) takings-down of the Confederate battle flag. Brad tells me the flag once flew from the top of the capitol building’s dome; upon complaints, the “compromise” was that they moved it down to ground level in front of the building, where it was many times more visible. The flag finally came down only after the murders at Charleston, SC’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015. Brad worked across the street at the time, and tells me his whole office turned out to see the flag come down. There is an African American History Monument on the same grounds – dedicated in 2001, one year after they moved the flag from the dome to the street level. The South is a complicated place.

The grounds are beautiful, but the statues are conflicted. There’s Benjamin Ryan “Pitchfork” Tillman, George Washington, a Confederate Soldier Monument, a Liberty Bell replica, and much more. I only took a few shots.

From here we wandered on to a delightful underground dive bar: a very fine dinner and drinks.

Columbia has been everything I love and some of what I don’t. Beautiful, lush, and verdant, with kudzu, azaleas, wisteria. Friendly and humid; excellent barbecue and a complicated history. I love complication; I do not love an ongoing argument about the legacy of the Confederate battle flag. Any place that makes me think of mint juleps on a veranda will also make me think of plantations and slavery. I haven’t figured out the answer yet.

Memphis

I left T.O. Fuller early in the morning without much observation, but it was a nice enough place. As an aside: I’ve been using three sources to find campsites/parking places. They are freecampsites.net, the Campendium app/website, and the iOverlander app. I’ve been writing reviews, fairly faithfully, on the first two sites. I figure I may as well give back. Not that anyone will care, surely, but my handle on those sites for reviews is foxylikeaturtle.

In Memphis I headed first to the Bass Pro Shop in the Pyramid, which used to be a basketball stadium, and was suggested as a possible spot for overnight parking, although I decided against it. I was told it was an oddity not to be missed, and I suppose that’s true, although my feelings are certainly mixed. I paid $10 (plus tax) to ride an elevator to the top of the thing: the tallest freestanding elevator in the country, we are told, and its walls are floor-to-ceiling glass. Fun fact: I am scared of heights. This was possibly the most horrifying experience I’ve ever paid $10 for. At the top there’s a bar/restaurant with amazing views, including observation decks you can walk on outside; these have GLASS FLOORS, you guys, and they CREAK underfoot. Definitely the most horrifying experience of my trip to date. I do it for you, though. Here’s a picture I took from up there of the Hernando de Soto Bridge across the Mississippi.

I also wandered around the interior of the Bass Pro Shop, which is a weird shrine to commercialism and a brand of outdoorsiness that I guess is not the one I was brought up in (although I could certainly have indulged in some of the gear). There’s a swamp in the middle. It has fish in it – bass, I assume? and some truly enormous ones I’m told are sturgeon. There are ducks – live ones – as well as live ALLIGATORS, you guys. In the middle of the store. Also taxidermied deer, elk, pigs, bears, more ducks, and who knows what. It’s… a scene. There is an “old timey” store selling fresh-made fudge, and a lodge, an archery and pistol range, a museum, and an aquarium, apparently, right in there too. Very strange.

And on to the other end of the spectrum: the real reason I’m in Memphis (which was out of my way, generally speaking) was to visit the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot.

This was, what, my fourth major civil rights museum/memorial in the last week; and I confess there is a diminishing return. This experience is emotionally exhausting. And I say that with apologies, because I feel the weight of guilt for not having had to live any of the horrors that I’m reading about and viewing. But it’s the simple truth, that as I take in these atrocities – murders, criminal justice and other systemic failures, disrespect, mutilations, denials of basic rights – the parts of me that feel horror get worn out. And I feel less at the fourth visit than I did at the first.

Which is not to say I feel nothing.

I am feeling more and more familiar with some of the stories told in each of these museums: Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycotts; the Freedom Riders and the several places where they were most badly abused; lunch counter sit-ins; the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham. Slavery and Jim Crow. Partly because of my (shameful) exhaustion, and partly (in this case) because the place was mobbed by school groups, I moved quickly through those exhibits. I was glad to find some unique content, though. For one thing, the Memphis museum follows the civil rights movement out of the 1960s and into Black Power and the Black Panther Party.

I appreciated that. And, unsurprisingly, there was a focus here on the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike, which is what MLK was in town for when he was killed. This was not a story I’d encountered at any of the Alabama museum sites, so I was glad to slow down and take it in.

And then there is the feature of this location: the restored and maintained rooms that MLK and his associates occupied on the fateful night of April 4, 1968.

I took several pictures because, I guess, it felt so big. It also felt like voyeurism. Is it okay that we are all peering into this room, with its unmade bed, cigarette butts in the ashtray and dirty dishes, half-drunk cup of coffee sitting there as if someone will return for it at any minute? (This is a reconstructed scene, of course.) I felt a little dirty and a lot guilty, but I looked.

Across the street, the museum’s second building occupies the boarding house where the shot that killed MLK “allegedly” (they still have to say this?!) came from. We get to see the view of the balcony that the shooter saw.

the shooter’s view

I am exhausted, you guys. It’s too much. And again with my guilt: I’m exhausted just by looking? Shame on us.

back to Montgomery

I had to make a major backtrack when I realized my grave error: I’d passed through Montgomery without visiting the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.

–Martin Luther King, Jr. (on a wall at entrance)

This was one of the very first landmarks I put on a list, before I made a map, before I bought the van, when I first started thinking about taking this trip. There was no question, when I realized my mistake, that I’d go back to Montgomery.

This is the new lynching memorial that opened last year, and naturally it is also just a few blocks away from those other monuments and landmarks I visited a few days ago. (I’m still pretty frustrated with myself.) I did find the practicalities quite a bit more daunting, though. It’s a new place; they’re still figuring some things out, like signage. Because it’s outside, I thought I could walk Hops through the memorial (we have so appreciated being able to do some of these sites together), but no. So back to the van to put Hops up. Then back to the front gate for my ticket. No, have to go back across the street (back to the van) to get the ticket at a different location (why no signage for this?). Then into a long line as a school group showed up, and metal detectors – they have metal detectors at the Civil Rights Memorial Center, too (though not at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, for whatever reason). By the time I got in, twenty minutes or so had passed. Still worth it.

The memorial consists of metal pillars for each county in which a confirmed lynching took place between 1877 and 1950, along with the dates of the lynchings and the names of the victims (sometimes, unknown). These are hung (no coincidence, I’m sure) in a grid that encircles (ensquares?) a central square space, reminiscent of the kinds of public spaces where some lynchings took place: courthouse lawns, city centers, parks. You begin by walking among the pillars, but eventually the earth drops away, the monuments elevate, and you crane your neck upward to read them. County names are also etched underneath.

A few sculptures punctuate the experience, arranged around the main monuments but inside the security perimeter. A “Monument Park,” likewise within the perimeter, lays out a duplicate of every county’s monument, in the stated hope that those counties around the country will claim their own history and display these pieces on their own ground. So far, all appear to remain here in Montgomery. We need to own this, y’all…

As you see, there’s also a beautiful and sweet-smelling flower garden, this time outside the security fencing (and accessible to Hops), presumably to refresh the senses.

Again, a somber thing, a difficult thing to contemplate. But we must!

Birmingham

Birmingham’s main draw was another landmark: the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. This is a newish museum dedicated to the civil rights movement generally, with an emphasis on Alabama’s role, and Birmingham’s in particular. I appreciated a number of timelines that put in perspective events in Alabama alongside national and international events – mostly within the realm of the movement, but with a few outliers, too. I recently wrote something about the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to education and, well, to life. This fit what I was thinking about.

Featuring heavily were certain local events: the Children’s Crusade, in which thousands of minors marched and were arrested, and had dogs and water hoses turned on them. MLK’s arrest and subsequent “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” And the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church, when four little girls were killed, one lost an eye, and many more were wounded – two boys were killed that day on the streets of Birmingham, too, in the aftermath.

The museum was lovely, and nicely multimedia, with lots of audio recordings available as well as pictures and captions and artifacts and sculpture. It was a bit overwhelming, though (especially with different audio tracks going simultaneously). After nearly two hours, I was relieved to head outdoors. Across the street is Kelly Ingram Park, where the Children’s Crusade marchers were attacked. This city block is filled with sculpture – a rich museum in its own right, and outdoors (so, dog-friendly).

Catty-corner from the park, and so across the street from the Institute, is the 16th Street Church. Down another street, behind the Institute, is the Gaston Motel, an early model Black-owned business and center for the local movement, where MLK took up residence for a time while strategizing. The motel, unfortunately, is boarded up and falling down; but it is part of the National Monument, and hopefully they’ll figure out how to save it.

I don’t know what words to add to these pictures. Please visit sites like these yourself when possible. If you want to do more, a decent start might be giving some money. I like the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Because every day is mixed, I had to step out of my museum-goer mode at one point to sit in the van (while parked for free! at Kelly Ingram Park, with free! city! wifi!) and conduct an author interview via Skype, for work. (Check out pagesofjulia for that sort of content.) It was a delightful interview, and I’m so grateful to get to do this sort of work while on the road. I’m a lucky woman.

To book-end my day of reading about small children bombed and water-canoned and attacked by dogs, I am reading a book (also for work) about domestic violence and intimate partner homicide and familicide, and the dire state of such things in this culture. It’s an excellent book, and the civil rights monuments are terribly important. But, whew. So…

Cheers, y’all. Let’s try and do better.

Montgomery’s richness

After Tuskegee, I hit Montgomery. The main goal here was civil rights monuments and memorials. My parents took me on a road trip the summer I turned ten – between fourth and fifth grades, then? – all over: my father’s notes say “Alabama, Appalachia, DC, Plymouth, Boston, Caper Hill July 4 reunion, VT etc., Port Gibson.” It was a full and rich outing, but perhaps too much for me to take in: I remember a small number of events/people very clearly and have forgotten much of it. But one of the lasting images I have is of the then newly-opened Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery. It was designed by Maya Lin, who also designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and improbably I recall knowing that detail at the time, too (we visited the latter memorial on the same trip, of course). I remember the flat marble table-top with its carved names and running water, and the water-wall with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words inscribed. It’s odd what we remember. Clearly, this place made an impression.

The Southern Poverty Law Center describes the memorial:

A circular black granite table records the names of the martyrs and chronicles the history of the movement in lines that radiate like the hands of a clock. Water emerges from the table’s center and flows evenly across the top. On a curved black granite wall behind the table is engraved Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s well-known paraphrase of Amos 5:24 – We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

So I returned, nearly thirty years later. I left Hops in the van catty-corner to the memorial center. I started out outside, at the Lin-designed memorial I remembered: it seems smaller now, because I’m bigger, and the names are harder to read; there are chinks and chips in the lip of the table-top. But it’s the same, still there. I walked up a short walk to enter the memorial center, which I don’t remember at all, although surely we would have gone inside when I was small? My two-dollar entry fee was waived because I am a member of the Southern Poverty Law Center, like my father before me (he remembers our fees waived back then, too), so I made a small donation instead.

The forty-one names that are inscribed on the memorial – forty-one men, women and children killed for their civil rights work, or simply for being Black – are given a bit more backstory inside, on plaques. There’s a short film (twenty minutes?), which is well worth watching, about those deaths and others, and the continuing need for movement. There’s the opportunity to sign one’s name to the Wall of Tolerance.

It is a somber place to visit. Some of the names were familiar (Emmitt Till, Medgar Evers, MLK); some told familiar stories even if the names were not familiar (four girls killed at a Birmingham church bombing: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley. three civil rights workers killed and buried in an earthen dam: James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Henry Schwerner). A number of names and stories, of course, were new to me. And yet somehow not new: individual faces on a problem I’ve learned about before, since at least the summer I turned ten. It’s a problem we’re not done with yet. You can read all the names and brief stories here.

From the center, I wandered on through the neighborhood. Something else I did not recall from my last visit to Montgomery was how rich and densely-packed were the civil rights landmarks in this neighborhood. From the center (Hops and Foxy still waiting on that corner), I walked just a few blocks to the Freedom Riders Museum, in the former Greyhound bus station where Freedom Riders were attacked (closed, but with a very good stretch of educational signage outside that I’m most grateful for); Rosa Parks’s bus stop (on Court Square, once site of one of the largest slave markets in the South); Martin Luther King, Jr.’s church (now Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist); and the Alabama State Capitol (where the Selma to Montgomery march concluded). I was floored that all these major sites were packed so closely together. It was a heady little walk I took. I’ve made one photo gallery here for you of Montgomery’s richness (including additional historical markers, on practically every street corner, it seemed).

I’m left a little muddled in my impressions of this city, which was the first capitol of the Confederacy and the site of the start of the Civil War, as well as the birthplace of important parts of the civil rights movement. It’s a lot to take in.

I finished my day with a few artists: the graves of Hank and Audrey Williams, and the Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum, in a former residence (also closed, but I walked the grounds).

After a full day, Hops and I were grateful to crash out in this comfortable and comforting little space.

good night