On a rural Southeast Kansas road in December 1921, thousands of wives, daughters, mothers, sisters and sweethearts of striking coal miners marched in protest against unfair labor practices.
The march made national headlines and is considered by historians to have played a significant role in America’s labor history, women’s history and Southeast Kansas heritage.
In the decades that followed, however, it faded from the public’s memory.
Until some 65 years after the march, Linda Knoll, a Pittsburg teacher, was having lunch with her grandmother, Maggie O’Nelio, and read her a poem from noted local historian Gene DeGruson, the archivist at Pittsburg State University’s Axe Library.
Called “Alien Women,” the poem referred to the “Army of Amazons.” It told the tale of DeGruson’s mother’s participation in the march.
“My grandmother said, ‘I was in that too; I was 17 years old,’” recalled Knoll. “So I started to research.”
Knoll’s research prompted her to write a play, which has since been performed numerous times at area folklife festivals. Her students became involved and in doing so earned state honors in the National History Day competition.
Kansas artist Wayne Wildcat then created a mural based on an iconic photograph of the march that had been printed in The New York Times. Today it hangs in Pittsburg Public Library.
Now, a Public Broadcasting Service producer wants to share the story with the state. It’s one every Kansan should know, said Jim Kelly, with Sunflower Journeys. He came to Southeast Kansas Wednesday for two days of filming interviews, historical vignettes from Knoll’s play, and a simulated march.
Sunflower Journeys also has produced shows about Chicken Mary’s and Chicken Annie’s, and Pittsburg’s Hotel Stilwell and Colonial Fox Theatre.
“One of our functions is to teach Kansans about Kansas,” Kelly said. “There are a lot of things in this state that they don’t know about, and they should,” he said as he prepared to interview Knoll and the current PSU archivist, Randy Roberts, at the Miners Hall Museum in Franklin.
The museum was a doubly meaningful place in which to conduct the interviews, Roberts said, as it is on the site of a former miners union hall, and was the brainchild of a handful of strong, determined women.
During the interview, Roberts shared the importance of the Amazon Army both nationally and locally.
Strikes occurred at some 300 or so local mines in the 1890s, and again in 1921. Thousands of immigrants were working the mines; many were injured or lost their lives because of the dangerous working conditions. They couldn’t count on a steady paycheck, as they were offered only 190 days of work per year at low wages — about 65 cents per ton of coal they mined by hand.
Life above ground was difficult too — particularly for the women, Roberts said.
Alexander Howat, an immigrant miner who rose to lead the area’s United Mine Workers of America, District 14, headed up labor disputes that gained national attention. The international president, John Lewis, ordered Howat to call off the 1921 strike, but Howat refused and was expelled and ultimately jailed.
Kansas Gov. Henry Allen stepped in, but was unable to get the miners to return to work. He asked 1,000 volunteers to reopen the mines, and because coal was in short supply and the winter was cold, they did.
In response, thousands of women marched to the mines Dec. 12-14 to convince these “scabs” to lay down their tools. Gov. Allen, in turn, sent the state militia — a machine gun attachment from Lawrence, 1,200 rifles stockpiled at Hotel Stilwell, and 1,000 deputized men to protect the peace.
The women carried no weapons — nothing other than American flags and red pepper to throw in the eyes of the scabs. Reports show union guards fired at the feet of the women, some pregnant and carrying young children, and arrested 49 of them on charges of unlawful assembly, assault and disturbing the peace.
The event had significant implications for labor unions, Roberts said.
“It also demonstrated for the nation, and for history, that women were just as tied to coal mining as men.”
The Sunflower Journeys program will air sometime after mid-September.
Son of marcher
Joe Skubitz, the young son of one marcher, Mary Skubitz, would later serve for 16 years as a U.S. representative and was instrumental in the passing of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, the Black Lung Benefits Act of 1972, and the Black Lung Benefits Reform and Revenue Act of 1977.