Blood Answers Blood- A Story From Harlan County
Based on a True Life Story
Ordinary people doing extraordinary things. If you sit down and ask someone to tell you about their lives, or their family's lives, you might be amazed and awed by what you hear. I was given the opportunity to sit down and talk to an older gentleman with a Kentucky drawl, a former miner, suffering from black lung, a very unassuming man. I discovered that he almost single-handedly was responsible for the creation of OSHA and workplace reform. While his national story was filled with victory, his personal life was filled with pain.
After hearing his personal story, I realize it is not just one man's story, but a generation of men-- himself, his father, and his son. The story is told in the voice of the latter of the three, his son, with whom he had a difficult relationship, and who ended up, in his father's point of view, paying for old family blood crimes. This story is based on a real life tale from Harlan County Kentucky, and Chicago,Illinois, where the family ultimately ended up.
(Photo from Clover Mine Museum)
Blood Answers Blood
This is a story about one man’s action, and how it came back and spoke generations later.
My granddaddy came up hard in Harlan County, Kentucky. A mining town. Lived in company housing, paid in company scrip which kept him there. In April of 1928, he went to get his pay, and the scrip writer said no. This was back in the Hoover days, he didn’t need a reason to say no. Granddad yelled about injustice, about working hard for barely nothing, and now for nothing at all. The scrip writer beat him with a pick handle, then pulled a gun and shot Granddaddy in the leg, to teach him a lesson. But Granddaddy carried a gun too, and got the best of the shootout. My Daddy was with him, witness to it at ten years old. It was an early lesson on winning the hard way.
Now it did start out as self defense when Granddaddy fired the first shot, that’s the truth of it. But three bullets later, there wasn’t much left to defend against, by the sixth bullet, it was just Granddaddy emptying out the rage he had about the pay, about work, about being in bondage to this company, who also owned the judge in Granddaddy’s trial. Even if it was self defense, Granddaddy went to jail. And his son, my daddy, went to work the mines because nobody else could afford to take care of him.
You might think that’s the end of the story, and it could be, if that was the story I was telling, but it’s not. Thirty years later, Dad’s married with nine children. Still mining. There’s no such thing as OSHA to control hazards. He’s lost three fingers from accidents on the job, and still works, but it’s getting harder because he can’t get enough air: Black Lung. It is what it sounds like, his lungs have turned black, and there’s no cure. All he can do is be someplace where he won’t breathe more dust to make it worse. He retires from the mine. The company kicks us out of housing the same day.
We followed the trail from Appalachia into Uptown, Chicago, because we heard there were jobs. There were, all hard labor. Dad tried one after another, but his lungs were so thick that he couldn’t work and breathe at the same time. He tried to file a claim with social security, but the person said no. Wouldn’t allow him to file. Didn’t give him a reason why, and though she didn’t carry a pick handle, he began to understand what Granddaddy felt that day in the scrip writer’s office. He walked out, knowing he was continuing a job that Granddaddy didn’t finish.
CABLA had recently formed-- Chicago Area Black Lung Association. People banded together to help each other with claims. Dad didn’t think he’d live long enough to get a claim, but he worked for this organization, believed in the good it was doing for his people. Barely able to breathe, he’d climb three flights of steps because a man up there might need benefits.
CABLA found lawyers like Jim Chapman to study up on the law and hold hearings. Letters and proof affidavits were written for folks who had work records in the mines. They gathered information and laid the material on the desk of social security, knowing they had all of the information the law required to make their claims.
The social security agent said “no”, once again. If I’m starting to sound repetitive, imagine how these people felt, who were only trying to get what was entitled to them. But social security gave a reason this time- they needed more data. Miners came back with that data, and the rules changed again.
CABLA organized an event for the mining community. Lawyers were slated to speak and convince everyone to join the fight, but they were late. To keep people there, Dad and Mom sang traditional mountain songs, and then Dad told stories about the coal fields. By the time the lawyers arrived, no one needed convincing. This storytelling, this pride in heritage, ignited something in the families who’d listened to him that day. They were ready to demand legislative changes.
You have to understand, the idea was to ask the Federal Government to take responsibility: To protect and compensate miners; To win amendments to the law. Before this, not even one claim had ever been won.
Dad scheduled a people's public hearing and got Congressman Yates to come. He’d never made a speech in public, except for storytelling, but CABLA asked him to be their spokesperson, because he’d influenced so many. Dad had a hearing aid, speech difficulty from breathing, clawed hands, and huge thick accent. He knew he’d be laughed at, and prepared for it. Then, he spoke.
“There is a terrible lack of help. The Social Security rules are designed to force people to drop claims. Doctors are making prejudicial statements against miners. We have other doctors who counter testified against these terrible diagnoses, and we still can’t get the help we need. Politicians are walking around on some rainbow cloud while the jewel of this country, the working people, struggle to just breathe, while some of us have died, gasping their last breath, without any benefits.”
No one laughed. Even the politicians he attacked sat riveted. The men from the coal fields wept, to have someone speaking for them. The lawyers spoke next, and named their demands.
Every demand made at that hearing was won. They became amendments to the law, which led to OSHA. After that hearing, this ex-miner, scrap metal junker from Uptown Chicago became a national spokesman and lobbyist for the rights of miners.
I wish I could tell you that this is the end of the story,
but it is not.
My granddaddy had shed blood. Back home, we have a saying that bloodshed is answered by bloodshed.
Daddy spent the years of his life doing right for himself, and made life easier for a lot of
people he didn't even know. He was a good man. But blood crimes run deep, and
sometimes, it takes a generation or two to come back and answer itself. I was the answer.
See, another thing Dad did was work to get Harold Washington elected. Washington held a lot of the same beliefs dad did, but wouldn't run unless so many African American voters registered. Dad took me with him, wheezing all the way, to register voters--Southern whites, campaigning for Washington, who was black.
There's another group that was around for the election period. We were being called every rude name you can think by this group. They shamed me as I walked down the street. These guys know how to appeal to people, especially unemployed young white people.
"Dammit, you're white, some black guy has your job."
I was poor and mad and carried my granddaddy's temper, and I believed them when they promised me a job and a better life. I shaved my head. Went with them to a few rallies. But it wasn't like the rallies I'd been to with my dad. It wasn't about justice and rights. It was about oppression, it was what I'd been fighting against with my daddy since I could remember. I broke off from them. I went home to see my father-
That's when I was shot in the back of the head and killed. Rumors went out that a black man did it, whether to stir up racial fights or take the heat off them, I'm not sure, but it was them, the Neo-Nazis.
My dad and mom, in their terrible grief, didn't want this to damage the election. They put out a leaflet, telling the truth about what happened to their son. Harold Washington came to the funeral. So did the Nazi's. They marched right through.
My family didn't give them what they wanted, their bloody fight at the funeral, putting more blood on more hands. He was furious and grief stricken, but as far as Daddy was concerned this is where the bloodshed would end for his line. One man's action had come back and spoken to another generation, and it was answered. There was pain, and there was relief, because Daddy knew he, too, was one man. Knew he did right in the world, and he looked forward to the day his actions would come back and speak for him. And that is the end of the story.
Want To Learn More About Black Lung?
- United Mine Workers of America
Click on this link, which will take you to the United Mine Workers of America, to read about what they are currently doing to protect the rights of miners. Think about it- this organization may not have existed had it not been for the efforts of one
Do You Or Someone You Know Need Help Getting Benefits for Blacklung?
- Health Benefits, Retirement Stands and Workman's Compensation: Black Lung
Click this link to read the Employment Law Guide about workman's compensation for Blacklung and other benefits you may be entitled to if you have this disease.