Virden Massacre

Circular to bring African Americans as the strike breakers

Following the Civil War, Illinois was still not a welcoming place for African Americans. Although the Illinois Black Codes were repealed when the 13th Amendment ending slavery passed, the legislation does not immediately change hearts. Generations of prejudice keeping African Americans out of Illinois meant the ratio of whites to blacks was overwhelmingly in favor of the white population – African Americans in the state were confined to small areas, and often local ordinances persisted that did not allow them outside those areas after dark.

In the south, the former Confederate states had large numbers of African Americans now free, but with no jobs, few skills, and desperate poverty.

Freed slaves seeking work

By the late 1800s, the rise of factories in the industrial revolution, combined with the lack of any labor laws brought the situation between white workers and white industrialists to a boiling point. The workers wanted safety, higher wages, and job security. The owners wanted to increase profits and had little incentive to meet their workers’ demands. Unions rose up, where workers banded together and called strikes to force owners to listen. The owners, however, simply accessed the large pool of unemployed African Americans, bringing them in on trains from Kentucky and other points in the south. Because any job is better than no job, the African Americans would often work long hours for lower wages, breaking the strikes.

This influx of African Americans into a labor dispute, in an area previously highly prejudiced against them, set the stage for violence. White workers regarded the newcomers as scabs, undesirables, and taking bread from their families, particularly in the coal mining industry, but also in meatpacking and other areas. They began attacking the strikebreakers – who were also looking for bread for their families.

“On October 12, 1898, another northbound train pulled into Virden, loaded with about fifty African-American potential strikebreakers. The train had brought the recruited workers from Birmingham, Alabama via East St. Louis. There it had taken on detectives from the Thiel Detective Service Company, who were armed with Winchester rifles and orders to protect the strikebreakers. It stopped on the C&A RR tracks just outside the minehead stockade. As the strikers attempted to surround the train, the guards opened fire. “

The governor of Illinois brought out the National Guard, not to defend the African Americans, but to prevent any more from entering the state. He swore that if more strikebreakers came in by train, the Guard would shoot the cars to pieces with Gatling guns.

The African Americans had come armed. They were told, however, that the white workers had voluntarily left their jobs to fight in the Spanish American war. The violence of their reception was a surprise. The gunbattle in Virden resulted in seven African Americans killed, forty wounded. Guards for the white owners suffered four killed and five wounded. The battle lasted only twenty minutes, with the train eventually pulling away from the station, seeking a safer place to offload the workers.

Virden Massacre

Governor John Riley Tanner admitted he had no legal authority to prevent the workers from coming to Illinois, but contended he was acting in accordance with the will and best interests of the people. The towns of Pana, Lana, and Carterville had similar conflicts, with more violence and death. Attempts to bring charges against those who attacked and killed black workers were fruitless – juries acquitted the accused in every case.

Within seven years, the holdout Carterville coal operator declared bankruptcy and negotiated with the union. When black workers attempted to stay and join the United Mine Workers and other unions, they were met with prejudice and violence. Houses were burned to the ground; whole families hid in the woods. 

Remember Virden: The Coal Mine Wars of 1898-1900” by Rosemary Feurer from Illinois Periodicals Online , Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1908-1984)
Vol. 65, No. 3 (Autumn, 1972), pp. 313-326 (14 pages)

With time, the African Americans were accepted in the union ranks, and legislation, as well as cooperative strikes, resulted in improved conditions in the mines, though miners still deal with black lung disease and other health issues from mining.

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