Coal Mining Days

May 14,2006

Morning Sun

We also called it the Mothers' March

When Alexander Howat called the coal miners of District 14 to go on strike in 1921 to obtain fair pay and safer working conditions, it was in defiance of the Industrial Court Law; consequently, he was sent to jail.

John L. Lewis, the president of the United Mine Workers of America, ordered Howat to call off the strike, but when he refused, he was expelled from the national union’s membership.

One development of the strike in southeast Kansas was the coal companies’ replacement of striking miners with "scabs," a term for workers who refuse to strike, refuse to join the union, or go to work in place of those who are on strike.

In response to the use of scabs to replace their husbands, sons, and brothers in the mines, the women spontaneously organized a march. Those who responded have become known as the Amazon Army. They marched four in a line, from coal camp to coal camp in support of the strike. Their intent was to intimidate the scabs. In the April 21, 2004 edition of The Lawrence Journal World, it was stated that “the women were marching because their children were starving”. At each stop, the women blocked the entrance to the mine and had something extra for those who resisted.

According to Nikki Patrick in the February 6, 2000 issue of the Morning Sun, Joe Skubitz, who served as U. S. Representative from the Fifth Kansas District for sixteen years, said that his mother, Mary, was at the forefront of the December 1921 Amazon Army march.

Mary Skubitz kept a journal recounting her experiences during those momentous days, eighty-four years ago. Patrick writes that Mary Skubitz was "deeply respected by the other women and was frequently called upon to speak for them." Her son Joe said that she spoke better English than anybody else in camp.

Mrs. Skubitz was the wife of a miner. She called a meeting for December 12, 1921 to be held in Franklin at the union hall. Three hundred women came to that first meeting. They planned to march on the coal mines to prevent non-union miners from going in to work. They also issued a statement condemning the Union and "industrial slavery" laws.

The next day, three thousand women became part of the Army with Skubitz usually found at the front of the march because she could speak better English and was fluent in several others. One day later, as many as six thousand women were reported to have joined the march as it proceeded through the county. Skubitz’s journal reveals "the crowd of women was miles long."

At one mine, the boss threatened to turn a water hose on the women. A mine superintendent ran down the American flag the women held as a barrier and trampled it. At Mine No. 21, the mine foreman promised to bring up what few men were working in the mine. The men made their appearance. Mrs. Skubitz said in her journal, "I never seen a more frightened lot of men in my life." When the situation was explained to them, one of the men said that if she would hold back the women, they would leave.

In Gross, Kansas, a full shift was working when the women "rolled down the pits like balls and the men ran like deers."Mrs. Skubitz continues, "Hampered by their narrow skirts, the women grabbed the bottom of their skirts, pulling them up together in trouser form and ran like wild after them."

Skubitz, like many of the women, was arrested for violence and spent a night in jail.

LaVaun Smokewood recalls attending the Victory School, located one mile north and one mile west of Mulberry. The school was across the road from Mine No. 19. "I was in the second grade. We were seated in the classrooms when we heard all this racket outside. Our teacher dismissed us so we could go watch. We saw about fifty women, including my mother, Mary Jane Smith, coming down the road in house dresses and aprons beating on dish pans, wash pans, metal buckets or whatever they could use to make a loud noise. Some women were using sticks they had picked up along the way, others had spoons or any household item they brought along. Two women went up in the mine tipple and pulled out the man operating the cage that carried men into and up from the mine each day. They pushed him down the steps to the ground. At that point, our teacher brought us back into the classroom. We also called it the Mothers’ March."

Miner Pietro (Pete) Tomasi's wife Marie Magdelana Magnetti was also part of the vast Amazon Army of Crawford County. Her daughter, Flora Scherff writes, "I was young during the days of marching. I was quite frightened."

Many women didn't bother to share their earlier experiences with their children and grandchildren. Some seemed embarrassed or reluctant to talk about it. In 1986, when Linda Knoll, local historian and gifted teacher, was sharing the history of the Amazon Army with her grandmother, Maggie Bellezza O'Nelio, she stunned Knoll by saying, "Ah, I was in that march." From that revelation, Knoll began to do research on the subject that led to her own award winning play entitled "An Army of Amazons: An Oral History of Southeast Kansas." Based on her research she coordinated the creation of a mural of the miners and the Amazon Army called "Solidarity"which can be viewed at the Pittsburg Public Library. Knoll's research became an educational multiplier, leading to many historical projects, one of which was Project Mines.

Gene DeGruson's poem "Alien Women" describes the experience of his mother, Clemence, unwittingly making history in 1921 as one of the marchers. The women carried the mens’ pit buckets filled with red pepper supplied by his great grandmother, Marie Bezinque Merciez, who owned a grocery store, first in Carona, and then in the same store that had been moved to Camp 50. Clemence remembers how the women threw the red pepper in the eyes of the poor scabs. (That was the "something extra" for the men who resisted the women blocking the entrance of the mines.) The scabs could be heard cursing over the sound of the State Militia's rifle fire. His mother was frightened, but hunger spurred her to support the march and the miners. She didn't remember years later the name "Amazon Army," nor that Judge Curran had labeled them as "the alien women, Bolsheviks, communists, and anarchists." Curran attributed the lawlessness of the women for the stationing of the State Militia in Crawford County for two months.

An Italian immigrant, Edoardo Caffaro, came to the United States from Italy, settling in Trinidad, Colorado in 1905. He moved to Pittsburg where he published the newspaper "Il Lavoratore Italiano.". He was a strong supporter of the Union, Alexander Howat and the Amazon Army. Caffaro ridiculed the governor of Kansas who sent out the militia "to protect men against Howat’s women."

The Appeal to Reason also stressed the peaceful nature of the march which came about as a spontaneous need born out of hunger.

News reports of the march not only shocked local readers but spread from Los Angeles to New York.

The organizers recognized the danger and called an end to the march. The women showed great courage. Eventually changes for laborers were made, but in 1921 suffering in the mines and in the lives of mining families was far from over.

Submit your mining ancestor’s name to Miners’ Memorial for etching on the black monuments soon to be located in Immigrant Park in downtown Pittsburg. If you have no mining ancestor but wish to contribute to the Adopt-a-Miner Program, send $100 to Miners’ Memorial P. O. Box MM Pittsburg, Kansas 66762. For more information call Louis Casaletto at 232-1728 or Debby Close at 231-7419.

Amazon Army