Labor History in White County, Part IV

A Liberal Dose

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 This week I am going to conclude my series on labor history and coal mines, but will go outside the county line. I am speaking of the 1932 strike at the Wilder and Davidson mines, which employed about 600 men. The mines were located in the region where Fentress, Overton, Cumberland, and Putnam counties come together. The Wilder and Davidson mines (and company towns) were in Fentress County, and a couple of smaller mines were across the county line, in Overton. The Wilder mine, operated by the Fentress Coal and Coke Company, was named for the company’s founder, whom we mentioned in Part I of this series: Union general John Wilder, who was opening up mining operations in the Upper Cumberland at roughly the same time as White County’s Confederate general George Dibrell.

Like the miners in Bon Air, the Wilder-Davidson miners had formed their own local union and gone on strike in 1919 and 1924. As in White County, the miners came out of the 1924 strike worse than they had gone in. In 1931, they joined the national United Mine Workers of America, and, their local, 4467, negotiated a one-year contract with the owners, on July 8, 1931. When it expired, the owners refused to extend it and, instead, cut wages for the third time. On July 9, 1932, the miners went on strike. With the exception of one Danish immigrant, all the miners were Upper Cumberland natives, including their leader Barney Graham.

In essence, the situation got much worse than it had in White County but not as bad as in West Virginia - but, still, plenty bad enough. Workers were evicted from company housing, and new (non-union) workers were hired to take their places. Strikers, scabs, and company security clashed repeatedly over the following year. As the Tennessean put it on May 7, 1933, there were “barn-burnings, dynamitings, shootings from ambush, fights, and neighborhood coolnesses.” The National Guard was called in. Relief organizations from around the country sent food, medicine, and clothing to the miners.

On April 30, 1933, Barney Graham came into the company town of Wilder to pick up medicine for his sick wife. While he was walking down the street, two company guards, Shorty Green and Doc Thompson, approached him from behind and opened fire on him. Graham was shot in the back 10 times, and the back of his skull was crushed by rifle butts. Doctors determined that the head injuries alone would have killed him. The killing was ruled self-defense. The murder took the wind out of the miners and their determination to continue the strike, and it soon ended - but there were unforeseen consequences.

One was that Graham became a national labor hero. His daughter wrote a song about him, “The Ballad of Barney Graham,” which was later recorded by Pete Seeger. “Although he left the union he worked so hard to build,” the song concludes, “his blood was spilled for justice, and justice guides us still.”

The other consequence was the effect Graham’s death had on his good friend, Myles Horton. “If I wasn’t a radical before that,” Horton later said, “I became one then.” In 1932, Horton had established Highlander Folk School, in Monteagle. He was one of the people who came to the mines bringing relief supplies and reported on events throughout the strike. After Graham’s death, Horton re-doubled his efforts to make his school a place to train union workers in nonviolent organizing. In 1955, Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks - amid efforts to start a bus boycott in Montgomery - attended Horton’s classes, and Horton became an active participant in the civil rights movement.

I’ve told you these stories to show what a long history union organizing has had here and the struggles workers have gone through. It should never be forgotten. In my opinion, in the Upper Cumberland, we should start calling Labor Day Barney Graham Day.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.

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