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Sixteen Tons Of Dark Downstate History

"Mother Jones once proclaimed Illinois to be 'the best-organized labor state in America,' and the people of the Illinois coalfields - where Kevin Corley's enjoyable new novel Sixteen Tons takes place - were always at the center of the action," David Markwell writes for Labor Notes.

At the beginning of the nationwide coal strike of 1897, only 400 Illinois miners were members of the United Mine Workers of America. By the strike's conclusion, the number stood at 30,000.

The following year owners of the Chicago-Virden Coal Company brought in non-union miners from out of state. The effort to land them prompted a confrontation known in popular local history as the "Virden Mine Riot." A number of security guards and striking miners were shot dead, and many more were injured.

But the non-union miners never got off the train, and the gains made by the 1897 strike (higher wages, union recognition) were solidified. At her request, Mother Jones was later buried in the only union-owned cemetery in America, with the striking miners who died at Virden.

Illinois miners later grew dissatisfied with what they saw as the autocratic rule of United Mine Workers President John L. Lewis. They and their families formed the breakaway union Progressive Miners of America in 1932 to get grassroots control over union decision-making.

Sixteen Tons is grounded in this historical context. Beginning in the aftermath of the 1897 strike, the book traces several decades of trying times for the Vacca family, Italian immigrants to Illinois.

Click through for the rest of Markwell's review.

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"Sixteen Tons carries you down into the dark, dirty and dangerous coal mines of the early 1900s, as Italian immigrant Antonio Vacca and his sons encounter cave-ins and fires deep below the earth's surface," publisher Hardball Press says.

"The dangers above ground are equally deadly, as the men and women battle gun thugs, corrupt sheriffs and crooked politicians at Virden, Matewan and Ludlow in an epic struggle to form a union and make the mines a safer place to work.

"Historian Kevin Corley has fashioned a unique novel by interviewing retired miners, their wives and children across the country throughout Illinois. He has used these oral histories to fashion an honest, accurate portrait of life among the coal mining families. You will be moved by the dramatic events in the novel, which are all the more moving and inspiring, given their foundation among real individuals who walked through history."

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"History is not just about kings and queens and presidents," Corley says on the book's website.

"It is about the anonymous men and women who made events happen. Lest we forget the sacrifices our working class ancestors made, let us all do everything we can to honor and remember them.

"As a teacher of history I was always pleased when students were able to understand how the organization of labor during the industrial age had effected their own families.

"I taught in central Illinois where many of the student's parents and grandparents had witnessed or sometimes even took part in gun battles, bombings and assassinations in the war to gain the right to have collective bargaining and union representation. Memories of the coal mine wars of the first half of the 20th century still linger in many of these communities.

"Fighting forward through working class studies is dependent on keeping these histories alive. One way that we can do this is through oral history. Armed with little more than a tape-recorder students can preserve their families' heritage and at the same time learn the valuable history lessons that their elders would love to share."

You'll want to click through for the photos alone.

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Kevin Corley on Facebook.

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See also: Greg Boozell's MineWar.org.

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Sixteen Tons by Tennessee Ernie Ford.

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Sixteen Tons by Jeff Beck and ZZ Top.

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Sixteen Tons by Johnny Cash.

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Sixteen Tons by Tom Morello.

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Sixteen Tons by Merle Travis.

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Comments welcome.



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Posted on May 20, 2014


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