Now, my first experience of loading coal was a number five shovel. Big Fist Shovel; that was the name of that shovel. Them things were about that wide. I never will forget it. When you get one of them brand new, and you’re shoveling on that slate, on that rock bottom, you know, you used to have to say you got to break it in. After you used it so much shoveling it on that rock bottom, it got slicker and you could just grab it, and shove it up in there and pull it back.
When my daddy first carried me in there, I wasn’t afraid. There was nothing but timber; there weren’t any roof bolts or anything like that. They set mining collars. I forget what the gauge of the track was, but they were longer than the gauge of the track. They came on both sides, and so they were setting collars and setting timbers to keep the slate rock from falling on you. When we got in there, they had what they called a auger, and this auger is about six or seven foot long. You were going to drill a hole in this coal and it had a little short thing, what they called a breastplate. You had to get over and put that breastplate under there, under your legs and hold the auger up, and you go to winding it, and it would cut a big round hole in that coal.
Now, before you could go to work for the company, you had to have a battery, and a shooting cable. They didn’t have any shot firemen; you shot your own coal. You had to have an auger and a breastplate. You had to have a slate bar, and you had to have a pick and a shovel. Let’s see, was there anything else? No, that was a set of tools. If they came around and saw you didn’t have a full set of tools, they would want send you home because they wanted everybody to have a full set of tools. Now a lot of guys, a lot of them in the mines would steal each other’s tools.
Dad had a chain, a long chain, that he would put all his tools on some kind of way. He’d have it where you couldn’t take it apart without you broke that lock and took that chain off. There was no one stealing his tools. Every man had to have a full set of tools. The reason I make mention of that is because years later, the company was required to furnish tools. It came in through negotiation with the United Mine Workers, an international union whose President was John L. Lewis. The company had to furnish tools for you, but now, when they went to furnish those tools, they quit paying attention to whether everybody had a full set. (Laughs)
When I first went to loading coal, my father asked me, said, ‘what hand are you? The hand you shovel with.’ I said, ‘well, I shovel this way.’ He determined I was left-handed because I picked the shovel up with the left hand. I pushed it with my right hand, but I picked it up with my left hand. And he said, ‘well, you get over there on the other side. You get over there on the right side.’ I said, ‘but you said I’m left-handed!” He said, ‘before this shift is over, you’re going to know how to shovel both ways, left-handed and right-handed. So, you start off right now. Get over there, and shovel with your right hand.’
Well, at first when I went to shoveling, it seemed like I was shoveling crossways. But when you really get used to it, you can shovel like this and you get a little tired, you can switch over to this way. You get tired shoveling right-handed, you can switch hands and shovel left-handed, that way you don’t have to stop to rest yourself, because what gets tired mostly is the hand that picks up the shovel full of coal. And the shovel, I’d hate to show you one of them because they're so big. After we loaded the first car, I didn’t think anything about it.
Every miner had a check. You put your check on your car when you load it. They’d put motors in the mines when I went in. There weren’t any mules in there then. They carried it outside and the motors took it to the tipple and they’d dump it, and then they’d take your check off of it, and that’s how they gave you credit for the coal you loaded.
The coal would be about twenty-three or twenty-four cents a ton. That’s what they paid a coal miner for loading a ton of coal after he shot it down. The cars would hold about five ton of coal, maybe four. Most of the time, it’s safe to say it was about four tons of coal. If you cribbed it up like they say, ‘you crib a car,’ you load the car until it’s level, then take the big lumps and put them it all the way round the car. Then you had some more room on top, so you could pitch the coal over that little ridge you made around the car so that you could get you another ton or a half a ton more. Give you more weight on your coal. So if you cribbed a car good, most of the time you could put five ton on them.
My father, he checked the first car, and I had my checks in my pocket. When they put the second car in there, I lit in on it like a tiger because this was going to be mine! As I kept shoveling, I started to catch on it really was just a slight to loading coal. It wasn’t easy, but it really wasn’t backbreaking like you might think if you hear people talk about it. You just get used to it, and most men that worked in the mines were strong. If you didn’t have a lot of grit in it, you couldn't work in there, you know? Some people were even afraid. I come to meet a lot of people who were afraid in there. They got claustrophobia, and couldn’t stand the closeness.
So, we got to put the second car in there. I went to get my checks and [dad] said, ‘No, you don’t check yet. I tell you when you check. You just keep on going to loading.’ I can’t say nothing back, you know, so I just said, ‘All right, dad. All right.’ I just went right back at it, and we got the second one loaded, and we put the third one in there. I thought, “now I know he’s going to let me check this one.’ And he said, ‘just go ahead on and load. I told you I’d tell you when you can check.’ Now we done loaded three. We loaded three, and now he got all three of them! I haven’t got any yet! Then he said, ‘well, I’m going to get you out of that suspense. When we load this one, I’m going to let you check it, but you ain’t putting as much in there as I am.’ And then he said, ‘then you are going to pay abode now, now since you’re working. You are going to have to contribute something to the house. Your abode bill is going to run you a dollar a day. Now you are through getting everything for nothing. Now you have to start to paying.’ He let me check the fourth one. We loaded six; I got two, he got four, and that’s the way it was the whole time I worked with him.
When I got my money, I didn’t have to give him any because he done already got it. (Laughs) I thought that, but I had just started getting around a little bit, and I think I had drawed $42. I left $20 there at the house, and I took $22 with me up to Cinder Bottom. Well, I spent that in no time. I came back home to get that twenty I left. I asked for it, and he told me, said, ‘now you done got started already. You are going to throw away every damn thing you get your hands on. Here you are, done come back, going back up there, hard as you are working, throwing your money away.’ And I said to myself, ‘now it’s mine. It ain’t none of his!’ He felt like everything was his, you know? I reckon he wanted me to have some nickels and dimes.
I’ve had people ask me about how it was in the mines then. Was I ever discriminated against? You know something? I’ve never known anything about discrimination the whole time of my life, long as I was down here in West Virginia. I’ve worked in the mines. When I retired, I got elected to three terms as Mayor of Keystone, and white always did outnumber the blacks when we worked in this section. When I worked in the mines, a lot of white friends I had, we all competed. If you wanted to run, you could run, you know. And I always won by a large margin, when the majority of them were white. Now, that doesn’t sound like discrimination to me. Some of the best friends I ever had were white. I live around them. I worked with them. I meet them every day, and I don’t know what people are talking about. But, I’ve told several different people coming from cities about that, and you know they’ll be talking about discrimination. I never had any discrimination. I never had it. I know that we worked together like a team, and at the mines, we all looked out for each other.
Since talking about that, when I was a boy there they had a big community building [in Eckman]. We called it the pop stand, and a lot of the miners used to come in there, hang around there, because they sold beer, and pop, and chewing gum, and candy, and all that stuff. And a lot of us kids, both black and white, we’d hang around in there. I remember the partition they had in it, and they said, ‘the whites come on this side, the blacks comes on this side. They didn’t have any sign or nothing up in there, but that’s what the company told them, you know. The president of the local was a fellow named Bob Cawley. He was a white fellow, nice man. He said, ‘this ain’t right.’ He got some of his committees with him and he went to the Superintendent. They told the Superintendent they wanted him to take that partition out from in that building. The Superintendent said, ‘are you sure?’ Cawley said, ‘we want it taken down. We work together, we’re going to assemble together.’ They took it down.
See, a lot of times companies discriminate against people. They’ll make things to get a difference between you. I was told this; I don’t know how true it was, but I believe it…they said when they first started bringing blacks in to work in the mines The Union had just started out, started getting organized. The companies figured that if the whites struck, they could get the blacks to keep working, so they put the word out everywhere that they were hiring. And that may be how it got down into Virginia, down in North Carolina, down in there where my Daddy come from.
That’s how a lot of people from the south started to come in here. But what they did was, blacks got to working with the whites. When the whites struck, the company was surprised. The blacks struck with the whites, because the blacks made the same money that the whites made. And when the whites said, ‘well, I ain’t going to work any more. I ain’t going to work for this,’ the blacks said, ‘well, I ain’t either.’ So they followed them all off. (Laughs)
I got drafted in 1944, and I went in the service and I stayed in there four years. I went to the Mariana Islands, in the south part of the South Pacific. I served about a year and a half on the island of Guam. I stayed a few months over in another small island that’s right over across the ocean from it. I forget what the name of it was, but after Japan surrendered, they sent me into Japan, and I stayed in Japan. I been there for two years, and I was there when they hung [Hideki] Tojo. Tojo was the War Minister for Japan. I think he orchestrated the war, the thing that caused them to bomb Pearl Harbor. They blamed him for it, but I was there when they tried him, and they killed him over it.
I saw natives over there with jungle rot. I’ve seen them with the holes, just eating their legs up. They’d have some leaves off of a tree, and they were laying that on it. That’s the way they would doctor it. They didn’t have food, didn’t have clothes, or hardly anything. American soldiers and the Marines went in there first and took possession of the island. I guess they just ate bananas and coconuts, and they had stuff like, fruit like that growing around on the island. But when it came to meat, you know, they fished. I guess they ate the fish, whatever they could, whatever thing else they could find, but they led a horrible life.
A lot of those Japanese, I guess they’re pretty decent now, but they were really bad about ravishing women. There were a lot of native women on there, but they told us plainly when we got there, that those women had some type of disease. They said, ‘don’t touch them because if you fool with them and you contract that disease, you’re going to stay on this island until they find a cure for this disease they got because you ain’t going back to America and carry any disease back there.’ That kept most of them from messing with those native women. (Laughs) I know I didn’t hardly look at them!
When I got to Japan, the war just had been over, and they were pitiful. Their country was tore all to pieces most of it, and the people…I had never seen people look like they was half-clothed. They had little wooden shoes and things fit between their toes, and they had these things wrapped on around them, and that way they were cold in the winter. The Army told me they want me to pick up a trade before I went back home, so they sent me to a little factory that they had there, where they, the Japanese were making things. They were still trying to build their industry back, you know, and they taught me how to weld. I learned how to arc weld on a piece of aluminum. They were really good.
I came away from [the military], and I went back to the mines. A lot of the mines had changed over the years. The mines had mechanized themselves. They put a lot of loaders in there that really loaded the coal, and they had big machinery and all that. I [couldn’t go] back to coal loading [because] they had done away with coal loading then, so I went to running one of their tram motors that brought coal out of the mines, to the tipple.
[I was never injured in the mines, but] I know of a tragedy that never left my mind. The boss’s name was Bill, and a lot of times the boss would come run a piece of equipment while you went to eat dinner. The men didn’t care cause he was helping. Bill was running that loader, and he had his hands on the gears that made this loader go backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards. Then slate fell, caught him and pinned his arms, both of his hands. Pinned them down where they were on that Joy. Slate was falling all around him.
They called to try to get a doctor inside the mines. They were going to have to cut him loose, because you couldn’t get up under that slate. It was going to cover him up and kill him. All of them were down there trying to do something and everything, trying to get him out. They couldn’t get him out. That piece of slate, that rock was just too much and he almost lost consciousness. After that, they said the doctor was on his way. They were bringing him in the mine. The men were scared that worked there. They were afraid that [the doctor] might not get there in time. Bill was going to get covered up. They took a knife and cut his wrists. Cut both his wrists and his hands off. They did that to save his life. They got him out, and as soon as they cut them off, and they got him out from up under there, they said the whole thing fell in. The only reason Bill didn’t get killed was because of that guy. They gave everybody a hawkbill knife for when you had to cut those cables. They say he cut [Bill’s hands] off with that hawkbill.
I got involved in union affairs. The mines had really grown from what it was when I first started, and we had around five or six hundred men right there working at the mine in Eckman. I started going to union meetings, and I got to be an officer in it all, and after a few elections I got to be the President of the local. I was on the committee that handled all the disputes that came up between the union and the company. The union was just so wonderful. I don’t see how working people would want to fight against the union, because I don’t think I could have worked in the mines without the union.
I don’t care how good a businessperson is. I know a lot of them have been successful, and I know a lot of them have had employees working for them. But we, the union, negotiated contracts where we could get a vacation pay, a ten day vacation, and we’d get five, six, seven, eight hundred, a thousand dollars vacation pay. That was negotiated, because you can believe this; I don’t care how much money a businessman makes. If he keeps making money and making money, do you think he’s going to wake up on morning and say, ‘well, people working for me have made us so much money, and we’ve been doing so good this year, I think I’m going to go down there and just give them all $1000 of vacation, and give them ten days off and pay them?’ Do you believe one would do that? (Laughs) I don’t care how much money he’s made now. He ain’t going to voluntarily give you anything.
Now, the union looks at it in a different way than other people do. The union actually causes companies to profit, because the union helps keep people working. They’ll agree to terms that you have to work, and if you miss certain days you get some type of discipline. Action will be taken against you, if you are not a good employee. They go along with discharging you for just cause. If you got a reason that you’re a bad employee, the union won’t stand there and try to protect you. They’ll just tell you, ‘well look, you done made it bad for yourself. You’ve got a bad record, and if we go to arbitration we couldn’t win this for you.’ If you want to go, they go on to arbitration and let an arbitrator settle the disputes.
I don’t believe any businessman in this country would look after their employees like a union looks out. Unions are not hard to deal with, because you know we’re representing the working people. I got to be a district official. I was a Coal Mine Safety Inspector. And then I got to be a member of the District Executive Board. I arbitrated cases like I’m talking to you about, and I settled disputes by meeting with the company. Like, if the company lays one of the employees off where they did something wrong, I’d meet with the company and we’d try to settle it in a peaceful way. We would agree if he had a bad enough record, they’d let him go or else we’d put him back.
I got laid off in the mines, back in the ‘60s. I stayed off for two years, and I went to the city and worked. I went to New York and then I went to Columbus, Ohio, and I worked up in there. I’d come home at Christmastime, and my local union, from when I worked with it in Keystone, they would bring to my house a basket with oranges, apples, ham, turkey. What the workingmen that was working had contributed to, as well as our local union, and they made it available to every one of us that had been laid off. They never forgot. Union people don’t ever forget each other. I always have had a lot of likeness and love in my heart for coal miners and their families. I always have.
[Speaking of Christmas], there was a lady that lived next door to me. I was grown then. And she got hold of a half a gallon of regular, corn liquor, made out of just runs out of the corn. She told me, ‘Buck, I got a half gallon of corn liquor. I’m scared to take that liquor home, because my husband will recognize it and get it. I’m going to let you carry it home.’ I was bringing her home from up Keystone in the car, and I said, ‘well, all right, I’ll keep it.’ Then, she said, ‘he told me he was going to give me another half a gallon. I’m going to give you that one when I get it, too.’
I carried the liquor on home the same day she gave it to me, to put it up, and Old William Foster saw me coming home with a bag. He yelled, ‘Hey! Hey, kid. What you got there?’ I said, ‘oh, nothing, Mary Liza gave me some liquor she wanted me to put up for her until Christmas Day. She is going to make some eggnog with it.’ Foster asked what kind, and I told him that regular, straight out corn. He said, ‘oh shew, we ought to take a little taste of it. It wouldn’t hurt. Come on.’ I said, ‘man, we better not…well, all right.’
Foster was hoggish, you know. I opened it and poured me some in a glass, and poured him some. We were setting out there on my porch. Him and me got to talking, and we drank that whole damn half a gallon up. I said, ‘well, daggone. What in the world am I going to tell that woman?’ And I said, ‘well, when she gives me that other one that she said she was going to give me, I’ll tell her that she can keep that, because I drank through it.’ (Laughs)
She never did send for it or anything. That Christmas Day, my Dad came over to my house. He said, ‘Mary Liza told me to come over here and get that half a gallon of corn she left over here with you because she wanted to fix eggnog with it.’ I confessed, ‘I done drank that liquor. I drank that up about three weeks ago.’ He said, ‘you oughta be shamed of yourself!’
(Laughs) Man, I was gone on that corn liquor. When I was drinking it, I could get drunk and lay down and sleep a few hours and get up, and I’d get started again. And most people, most guys that worked in the mines, they would be inviting each other from your house to mine, and his house, and ever house you’d go to had some liquor. Most of them would buy liquor for Christmas, just like they bought food. They would have a good time among each other just drinking.
When I was cut off I went to New York because a lot of my cousins were up there. I went up there and tried to get me a job, and I was going to work until I got called back. Every Saturday, when we sat down and got to drinking, we would end up talking about home and the mines. Don’t you know that when they had been up there so long, that when the mine jobs did open up and they could go back to work, they wouldn’t come back? They had gotten well-established, and most of them were working construction with the construction union.
Their construction union worked like this; if a crew, or a foreman, or a company needed five or six men, bricklayers, or whatever, he didn’t hire them. He’d go to the union, and he’d tell the union he needed some men and what he wanted, and then the union got the men. The union had a panel and they would get the men off of their panel. So, the union actually took care of all of the hiring. I don’t know what the name of that union they were in, but I knew they had a union up there, and they were making as much money as we were making working in the mines. And they wouldn’t come back.
I remember one of them coming back, but he wasn’t kin to me. He lived down there in the bottom, and he could have been back two or three years before he came. He come to the office there, and asked me when he could get his job back. I asked if they ever sent him a recall back. When he said no, I instructed him to go on over there, and tell them he wanted his job.
They had him to sign something that they would put him back to work, but they wouldn’t back pay him. He said he’d take the job then, and they just didn’t want to have to pay him all that back pay. If they had missed you on that panel, and put somebody else to work and you had seniority on them, you could have made them pay you for every day that you didn’t work.
[Eventually,] I got to be the director of one of the union’s field offices down at Welch, and I retired when I was sixty-two years old. I worked in the coalmines thirty-six years all total. I served three years as a Coal Mine Inspector, and then I served twelve years as a District Board Member. I never really met [John L. Lewis] personally, but I did go to Washington to the international office that they have, and I’ve got that far. I knew Sam Church personally. Sam came from District 28 right over in Virginia. I knew Sam real good, because Sam was vice-president of UMWA when Arnold Miller was president. (Laughs Sam was tough. He’d fight in a minute. Yes, he was a nice fellow, but you know you couldn’t talk to him any kind of way. But he was a nice, principled kind of guy. I met Tony Boyle. They say he hired people to kill Yablonski and his wife. I met Arnold Miller personally. That’s how I got to be an official with the union. I met him. And I met Richard Trumka.
You’ll see Trumka on the television a lot. Whenever they would have a ‘no lost time accident,’ they’d have a dinner for all the officials and all of the union’s personnel who was in safety. I was the first black to be a member of the United Mine Workers Safety Inspectors. I really met some nice fellows. You know, I’ve often thought of this, but I’ve had people to ask me this. I grew up down here in the coalfields, and am still down there. I still work with the union that I was in when I worked in the mines.
When the union got autonomy, and started to elect the officials, even though I got elected, the International sort of relaxed their grips on the men. You didn’t have any grip on the men, you know, because it got to be that sometimes the elections does the wrong thing to people. The elections almost got some of them like the way politics is around here. See, politics started getting into the union. Before they started electing officials in the union, if a District Field Officer told a guy, ‘well look, you got to do what the boss tells you, man. You know you got to follow the contract. We got a contract you work by, and you have to work by that. There isn’t anything I can do to help you.’ But see, when they got to electing them, most of the guys, you tell them about that, then you got to be elected, and they say, ‘well, he doesn’t want to see about it, I’ll remember him at election time.’
Politics got into it, and the men start feeling that, too, that freedom. You know, ‘I can put you in office, and I can take you out.’ But before politics got into it, the international officers appointed them. Then, the men couldn’t threaten you, and tell you, ‘I’m not going to vote for you,’ or something. That way, you had a little bit of edge on him, and you didn’t have to worry about, or really try to do something that you couldn’t, or be arguing about something, when you know you don’t have any arguments to come. You know the contract and he doesn’t.
Of course, I found out over the years contract words have got two terms. You got some people, men that go this way. In other words, some people can read a sentence and get one understanding about it, and it sounds right. Another one can read the same thing, he’ll get a different opinion from you, and it all relates to the understanding of the words. You might read it and it might tell you one thing. I read it, it’ll tell tell me something else. They have words that describe the difference in them; It’s ambiguous and unambiguous, and that’s what really, that’s what it hangs on. That’s how the union got all balled up and they didn’t have control over the organization, like they had before they gave them autonomy.