Launched in 1964, the War on Poverty quickly took aim at the coalfields of southern Appalachia. There, the federal government found unexpected allies among working-class white women devoted to a local tradition of citizen caregiving and seasoned by decades of activism and community service. Jessica Wilkerson tells their stories within the larger drama of efforts to enact change in the 1960s and 1970s. She shows white Appalachian women acting as leaders and soldiers in a grassroots war on poverty--shaping and sustaining programs, engaging in ideological debates, offering fresh visions of democratic participation, and facing personal political struggles. Their insistence that caregiving was valuable labor clashed with entrenched attitudes and rising criticisms of welfare. Their persistence, meanwhile, brought them into unlikely coalitions with black women, disabled miners, and others to fight for causes that ranged from poor people's rights to community health to unionization. Inspiring yet sobering, To Live Here, You Have to Fight reveals Appalachian women as the indomitable caregivers of a region--and overlooked actors in the movements that defined their time.
About the Author
Jessica Wilkerson is an assistant professor of history and Southern studies at the University of Mississippi.
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The Political and Gender Economy of the Mountain South, 1900–1964
Florence Reece watched from the cabin as her husband Sam cowered in the hillside cornfields. Her mind reeled. For weeks he had been harassed by "gun thugs," hired by coal operators and supported by the sheriff to thwart his organizing activities with the United Mine Workers of America in Harlan County, Kentucky. The men had ransacked the Reece's home on one occasion and arrested Sam under bogus charges. Now they surrounded the house and threatened to abduct him. While Florence was "a-watchin' for the thugs to come after him," she must have worried about the seven children who slept under her roof. Raising them was no easy feat in the Depression-struck coalfields of the early 1930s. She witnessed the dire poverty of her neighbors and knew that little separated her from them. In Molus, the coal town where the Reeces lived, food had become scarce. One day a neighbor came to their house in search of sustenance. She was "scaly all over," tale-tell signs of pellagra, a disease she got "at the table because she didn't have no food."
Life had gotten worse since the Depression, but it had never been easy. Like many coalminers' wives, Florence fretted daily about her husband's safety. Miners would "go under that mountain every day, never knowing whether they'd come out alive." Her own father had died in a slate fall in a Tennessee coalmine when she was fourteen years old. Fork Ridge, where Florence and her parents had lived, was controlled by a small group of antiunion, elite white men. From the time she was a child, Florence understood that the lives of mining families stood in stark contrast to those of company families, who considered themselves civic leaders, yet did little to challenge the horrendous conditions of so many coalmining communities. Florence and Sam married and stayed in Fork Ridge, where Sam had worked as a miner since he was a boy. As a young man, he joined the wave of Appalachian union campaigns, leading workers out on strike in 1922. The company broke the union and fired Sam, and the Reeces moved to Molus where Sam found a job in the mines and continued organizing. In Harlan County he faced coal operators who owned all but three of the incorporated towns and a sheriff, J. H. Blair, who pledged allegiance to coal operators.
In the early morning hours, as her husband hid in the fields and she stood watch over her children, her mind turned from fear and anger to music. Lacking paper, she ripped the calendar from the wall and wrote "Which Side Are You On?" Set to the tune of the hymn "Lay the Lily Low," Florence's song later became the labor anthem, calling on workers to join the "good battle" and declaring that there is "no neutral" in Harlan County. Workers could choose the side of the union or the company's crony: "You'll either be a union man / Or a thug for J. H. Blair." The song also interwove the stories of women and children into the labor struggle, declaring that the company men's children "live in luxury, our children almost wild" and that the company will "take away our bread." The last verse and chorus referenced her father's death in the mines early in life: "My daddy was a miner / He's now in the air and sun / He'll be with you fellow workers / Till every battle's won / Which side are you on, Which side are you on?"
Florence Reece's "Which Side Are You On?" is most often heralded as a song by and about workers. Labor organizers carried the song to industrial workers across the country. Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers helped to make it famous in folk circles, and in the 1960s, civil rights organizers learned the anthem. As it passed through organizations and movements, its lyrics were revised to suit each situation. Yet part of the power of the song is in the portrait it offers of a wife and mother — the caregiver of the working-class community. Reece's song was about the labor struggle, yes, but that struggle encompassed more than a battle between workers and capitalists. It was a story about the working-class community in general and about the position of working-class women in particular, as the narrator calls on workers to unionize for the benefit of all.
Reece's gendered and class perspective as a caregiver comes into sharper focus when we place her song in the context of her life and activism. While she is remembered most often for her labor anthem, she was also a lifelong activist. In the 1970s, she returned to Harlan County to support union workers who were on strike. As she led the workers in song at rallies, her husband suffered from black lung disease, which she connected to the long labor struggle. She also wrote new songs that supported the 1960s antipoverty movements and challenged the dominance of capitalism, again emphasizing a caring role: "If the sun would stand still / Till the people are fed, all wars cease to be / Houses, hospitals, schools a-built / We must have a new recipe" In an interview Florence Reece summed up her support of the workers' and antipoverty movements: "All in the world we people wanted was enough to feed and clothe and house our children. We didn't want what the coal operators had at all, just a decent living."
Florence Reece was a part of a tradition of working-class white women whose activism was born out of daily life, configured in the particular class and gender dynamics at play in the Mountain South. To understand her and the dozens of women activists who were her contemporaries and those who came after, we must begin with the history of capitalist development and its impact on social relations in the coalfields of Appalachia. As coalmining dominated the economy of the region, women's work altered, and their caregiving roles strained under new pressures.
The Coal Industry Arrives
In eastern Kentucky in the late nineteenth century, white rural families lived in hollows, narrow valleys hemmed in by steep ridges and tall mountains. These mountain-sheltered valleys offered modest land to farm, hunting and foraging grounds, and streams. Wealthier residents of the region settled in wide valleys where they built towns, owned large farms and slaves, and developed commercial enterprises financed through land speculation and, later, through timber and mineral resources. Before the large-scale industrialization in the early 1900s, some industry flourished (relying in part on enslaved labor), including iron making, salt making, and the burgeoning resort industry. White rural families practiced subsistence agriculture but were also linked to market economies. They sold and purchased goods from merchants and borrowed money. Many went into debt. The men who did not own or rent land worked as farmhands or as laborers. Poor white women often joined men in the fields or labored in boarding houses and as laundresses. With the arrival of the railroad and new industries after the Civil War, the political economy underwent a sea change.
The promise of coal drove the industrial engine in Appalachia. Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, northeast Tennessee, and Southwest Virginia sit atop one of six geological coalfields that exist in North America. The term coalfields refers to the expansive deposits of carbonized plant debris that rest deep within the earth's surface and were formed over thousands of years. An important form of energy, coal has been used as a fuel to heat homes, power locomotives, generate electricity, and produce iron and steel. When railroads penetrated the region after the Civil War, semi-bituminous coal, previously inaccessible to large-scale American markets and industry, was ready for the taking.
The change was swift and the scale unimaginable. The population increased dramatically as workers flooded new industries. For example, in Pike County the number of coal companies jumped from eight in 1916 to forty-five in 1920, spurred along by the United States' entrance into World War I. Between 1900 and 1930, the population increased by 178 percent, and the influx did not cease until the 1950s. White, black, and central and eastern European immigrant workers migrated to the mountains or moved from mountain farms to coal towns, lured by the promise of steady work and wages. Once sparsely populated counties saw the rise of densely populated coal towns. An onslaught of workers brought new working-class cultures to the region. At the same time, politics came to reflect the interests of the industrial elite.
The new politics ushered in by industrialization diverged from the patronage system of the nineteenth century, when kinship and personal contacts characterized business and political relationships. Middle-class families had long held clout, rooted in their control of banks and land, and they distributed resources as they saw fit. At the same time, political participation was high across mountain communities, so middle-class leaders did not hold absolute power. White male residents of the county traveled to town for court sessions, to hear campaign speeches, and to vote, and they often brought their whole families with them. New industrialists — many of whom were absentee property holders — relied on the political power of middle-class residents to maintain a political system and economic environment that favored industry. As less wealthy residents of the mountains moved from farms, relinquished property, and entered the world of wage work, they gave up prior affiliations. For those who were migratory, a lack of permanent residence weakened their franchise. And new voting laws, meant to disenfranchise African Americans, also eclipsed poor whites' access to the ballot box. Meanwhile, middle-class residents maintained their status and grew more powerful as their ties to corporations strengthened.
The most evident indication of a new political system appeared in the form of coal operators' associations, founded by and presided over by coal operators and town elites. These associations fostered the concentration of political power in the hands of coal barons. They oversaw the police force, controlled company unions, regulated prices, and influenced elections and political parties at the local and state levels. They did not rule uncontested, however, as striking workers, unions, and, later, antipoverty workers challenged their political dominance in the Appalachian South.
Caregiving in the New Economy
Gender patterns evolved alongside the labor system, as families moved from farms or straddled agriculture and industry. For many women, labor intensified as they managed farms and capitalized on new economies in the coal camps. Above all, the industrialization of the coalfields ushered in a new era of intensified caregiving, in which women navigated new sicknesses, disabilities, and threats of violence that stemmed from coalmining.
In the nineteenth century, women's labor (and often children's labor) was crucial in operating farms and making a livelihood. Along with caring for children, fetching water, doing laundry, cleaning, and cooking, women participated in informal labor markets and, to a lesser extent, formal wage labor. They proved to be among the most productive women in the nation in the 1840s, bringing in more income from goods than farmwomen nationally. Women ventured into the forest to pick fruit, nuts, and wild herbs. Closer to home they kept gardens, chickens, bees, and milk cows, all of which offered sustenance and goods for trade. They sold milk, butter, cheese, eggs, and honey at markets. They manufactured cloth and sewed clothing and quilts. And they made other household goods like soaps, brooms, and baskets that they traded or sold. Others worked in factory-organized putting-out systems, for which they carded and spun wool and cotton, wove fabrics, or sewed and finished products. They also did fieldwork when widowed, when a husband was sick, or simply because more hands were needed. The poorest women worked as domestic servants in the homes of wealthier families, took in laundry, worked as field hands, or labored in commercial enterprises. In sum, the majority of white Appalachian households were, as one man remembered his childhood, "survival units" in which every member of the household was expected to contribute.
White mountain women did not slow down their pace when men entered the coalmines and other industrial work. In fact, the transition ushered in a deepening of the gender division of labor, as men increasingly worked in industry while women and children maintained homes and farms. Malta Miller grew up on a farm on John's Creek near Van Lear, Kentucky, in the 1910s with her siblings and tenant farmer parents. Prior to entering the mines, Miller's father devoted all of his time to working the farm with the help of his children, including his daughters, who thinned corn and drove cattle. Her mother mostly tended the garden, from which "she sold a lot." Miller's family continued to live on the farm after her father started mining, and her mother and the children picked up the slack. After he was injured in the mines, Miller's father had to quit his waged job. The injury also prevented him from returning full-time to farming, although he was able to garden and work odd jobs. Miller's childhood memories suggest that her mother and the children were crucial to keeping the farm and freeing up her father's time so that he could garner wages in the mines and then provide for the family once he was disabled.
With the increased population in the coal camps, many white women found an expanded market for their wares and food products. Mae Frazier's mother took advantage of a new customer base in the coal camps. She sold produce and eggs in the nearby mining town, and Frazier credited her mother's business savvy for her own upward mobility: That "was how she managed to raise us and get us all an education." Malta Miller also participated in the coal camp economy once she was grown. After graduating, she became a teacher, but she quit her job after marrying a miner. She continued to bring in an income by sewing and selling dresses and skirts for girls and women, work shirts for men, and children's clothing. Onda Lee Holbrook, born in 1917, worked in a shoe factory in Portsmith, Ohio, before moving to the coal camp Auxier with her husband. She had no access to similar wage work in Auxier, but she used her skills to become a seamstress in the informal economy.
Along with the sale of foods and other goods, women provided laundry and boarding services for the influx of men who worked in mining, timber, and oil fields. One widowed mother operated a boarding house and laundry service for the "office men" of the mines. Her nine children helped with the daily tasks of running the boarding house. They prepared meals for ten to fifteen men, washed dishes, laundered clothes in the nearby creek, and ironed the men's shirts. Marjorie Castle and her husband moved between mining towns and the family farm in the 1920s. They eventually moved to the coal town Van Lear so that her husband could work in the mines full time. They saved enough money to purchase a farm, which they rented out for two years while they continued to live in Van Lear. When mining slowed, they moved to the farm and Castle began operating a boarding house from her home, balancing housework and care for her five children. She organized her boarding house operation with a friend; her friend rented to the men who worked the day shifts, and Castle rented rooms to men who worked night shifts.
For some white, rural families, the founding of coal towns brought new options for work, education, and leisure. Some companies built modern towns with large company stores, where mine employees and their families had access to an array of products, including food, textiles, tools, and household goods. One woman remembered the stores as carrying a variety of goods that covered "about a hundred percent of people's needs." Even if the available products had expanded in her memory, her story highlights the contrast between the small stores of the past, where farmers bought only staple items, and the modern company stores. For the first time, rural white parents who desired formal education for their children could send children to school and, more rarely, college. Rural children often had access to school only through the eighth grade, but the larger industry towns operated high schools. Some companies also built community meeting spaces, churches, and post offices. For example, in Harlan County, U.S. Steel established the coal town of Lynch in 1917. The town included an impressive post office built from cut stone, segregated secondary schools (marking it as a modern southern town), a hospital, and a multistory company store. The houses sat in neat rows along urban streets with sidewalks. In sum, it was a modern, early-twentieth-century southern town, tucked in Appalachia.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "To Live Here, You Have to Fight"
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Table of Contents
1 The Political and Gender Economy of the Mountain South, 1900-1964 17
2 "I Was Always Interested in Peoples Welfare": Bringing the War on Poverty to Kentucky 41
3 "In the Eyes of the Poor, the Black, the Youth": Poverty Politics in Appalachia 69
4 March for Survival: The Appalachian Welfare Rights Movement 91
5 "The Best Care in History": Interdependence and the Community Health Movement 120
6 "I'm Fighting for My Own Children That I'm Raising Up" Women, Labor, and Protest in Harlan County 146
7 "Nothing Worse than Being Poor and a Woman": Feminism in the Mountain South 171