Academic journal article Western Folklore

Red Necks and Red Bandanas: Appalachian Coal Miners and the Coloring of Union Identity, 1912-1936

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Red Necks and Red Bandanas: Appalachian Coal Miners and the Coloring of Union Identity, 1912-1936

Article excerpt

"They shot one of those Bolsheviks up in Knox County this morning, Harry Sims his name was. . . . That deputy knew his business. He didn't give the redneck a chance to talk, he just plugged him in the stomach. We need some shooting like that down here in Pineville." So Malcolm Cowley, writing in The New Republic in 1932, recounted a local coal operator's response to the murder of a nineteen-year-old Young Communist League union organizer in eastern Kentucky (1932:70). The contempt and ruthlessness in this comment will scarcely surprise readers familiar with the history of the violent, bloody suppression of the American labor movement, but seeing the pejorative terms Bolshevik and redneck used interchangeably may. For more than a century, the epithet redneck has chiefly denigrated rural, poor white southerners, especially those who hold conservative, reactionary or racist points of view (Huber 1995:146-48). During the 1920s and 1930s, however, another one of its definitions in the northern and central Appalachian coalfields was "a Communist." And during the first four decades of the twentieth century, redneck also referred more broadly to a miner who was a member of a labor union, particularly to one who was on strike. This last, now-obsolete meaning of the word provides insight into how local leaders and organizers of the United Mine Workers used language and symbols to foster union solidarity among racially and ethnically divided miners.

The following essay explores how the United Mine Workers of America (UMW) and rival miners' unions appropriated both the term redneck and its literal manifestation, the red bandana, in order to build multiracial unions of white, black, and immigrant miners in the strike-ridden coalfields of northern and central Appalachia between 1912 and 1936. The origin of redneck to mean "a union man" or "a striker" remain uncertain, but according to linguist David W. Maurer, the former definition of the word probably dates at least to the second decade of the twentieth century, if not earlier (1936:19). The use of redneck to designate "a union member" was especially popular during the 1920s and 1930s in the coal-producing regions of southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and western Pennsylvania, where the word came to be specifically applied to a miner who belonged to a labor union. For example, the term can be found throughout McAllister Coleman and Stephen Raushenbush's 1936 socialist proletarian novel, Red Neck, which recounts the story of a charismatic union leader named Dave Houston and an unsuccessful strike by his fellow union miners in the fictional coalfield town of Laurel, Pennsylvania (1936:151, 155, 246, 304). The word's varied usage can be seen in the following two examples from the book. "I'm not much to be proud of," Houston admits to his admiring girlfriend Madge in one scene. "I'm just a red necked miner like the rest" (ibid. 155). In another scene, a police captain curses Houston as a "God-damned red neck" during a fruitless jailhouse interrogation, before savagely beating him with a sawed-off chair-leg (ibid. 304).

As far as can be determined, the earliest printed uses of the word red-neck in a coal-mining context date from the 1912-1913 Paint and Cabin Creeks strike in southern West Virginia and from the 1913-1914 Trinidad District strike in southern Colorado.1 But it remains unclear whether the term originated in the Appalachian coalfields, the Rocky Mountain coalfields, or elsewhere. UMW national organizers quite possibly transported redneck from one section of the country to the other. Then again, its popularizers may have been agents of the Baldwin-Feltz Detective Agency, an industrial espionage and mine security company headquartered in Bluefield, West Virginia, who worked as company guards and spies in both the West Virginia and the Colorado strikes. What is relatively certain, however, is that it originated as an epithet. Apparently, coal operators, company guards, non-union miners, and strikebreakers were among the first to use the redneck in a labor context when they derided union miners with the slur. …

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