This week of publication includes the first Monday of September, set aside every year by law and tradition as a time to honor the contributions of the working man to the nation. No business outside of a one man operation can function without employees, so it is only right to recognize part of their story in this space, this week.
Last weekend, the area also celebrated West Virginia Italian Heritage. Much of the ethnic diversity of North Central West Virginia owes itself to peoples from all over poverty stricken areas of Europe looking for new lives in the Mountain State. The stories of immigration and of the history of local labor remain closely intertwined.
The first group of foreign laborers to work their way into the region were Irish coming on, and for, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad over a decade before West Virginia wrested itself away from the Old Dominion. As historian Matthew Mason describes, “While railroad construction work was not in demand among native-born Americans, Irishmen placed a high value upon it.”
Irish immigrant labor came from a land still dominated by the British Empire. Each had more allegiance to his or her home county than to an Irish identification. As the B&O progressed westward, the workers gained a reputation for fighting. They fought against each other along home county lines and against a railroad that rarely treated them with fairness.
A half-century later, another wave of immigration came to the region, this time from the newly formed Kingdom of Italy. Many came from the southern regions once called the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and ruled by a reactionary branch of the Bourbon Dynasty.
According to historian William B. Klaus, Italian immigrants to the Marion County area experienced two very different versions of America. On Columbus Day 1912, the City of Fairmont granted “the compatriots” of that great explorer “the freedom of the city.” A great parade, including 500 members of Italian-American civic organizations, spearheaded by the flags of the United States of America and the Kingdom of Italy marched through downtown.
These represented the Italian community that found the American free market a gold mine of entrepreneurial opportunity. Many of those businesses established then still thrive into this century.
Other immigrants found a different America, an experience to be endured more than celebrated. Italians also often found their way into coal mines and other difficult, dirty, and most importantly, dangerous industrial work. Between 1910 and 1910, the percentage of Italian born males of working age employed in the coal industry rose from 70 to 72 percent.
The Monongah Mine Disaster, commemorated in a century old Blind Alfred Reed country music ballad, remains the most destructive mining accident in American history. According to La Voce di New York, the explosion claimed 360 lives, over half of which were Italian workers.
Many Italian workers participated in strikes that hit the region in 1915. Their brandishment of red flags instead of American or Italian reflected the rise in popularity of socialist groups in Italy among industrial populations in northern Italy at the same time, one of the leading writers of which was Benito Mussolini.
Klaus described the dynamic between the two vastly different immigrant cultures as “uneven Americanization.” His research indicates that the longer the immigrant and family had been in the United States, the more likely they were to have ascended into the middle class and welcomed by old stock Americans as part of the community.
Professor Emeritus Ronald Lewis of West Virginia University wrote about the post World War I efforts to “Americanize” immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, particularly Italians. He wrote that while some efforts, notably by the Ku Klux Klan, took a “malevolent” form, many efforts “responded to the desperate needs of newly arrived immigrants . . . and they sought to narrow the gulf dividing poor immigrants from the rest of society.”
(My paternal grandmother’s family experienced both as they established themselves in Barbour County. My grandmother, born in Italy as Philomena Annese, remembered a local Baptist Church allowing Italian Roman Catholics to hold Mass until they constructed their own church. She and her siblings also remembered the Ku Klux Klan later burning crosses in front of their stately Phillippi home after my great-grandfather became a successful businessman.)
A few hundred words cannot capture the full story of labor and working families of the region in entirety, but it is worthwhile to remember those who gambled heavily on the idea that leaving everything behind in their home country and working hard in America would lead to a better life.
And for most, if not in the first generation, then later on, it did.