The 5 Q's: Linda Knoll highlights exhibit celebrating ‘Amazon Army’

A snapshot of a new exhibit, "Amazon Army," at the Miners Hall Museum in Franklin, Kan. In 1921, thousands of wives, daughters, mothers, sisters and sweethearts of striking coal miners in Southeast Kansas marched in protest against unfair labor practices in the local coal mines. Courtesy | Linda Knoll

Q: What is the historical significance of Dec. 12, 1921, to Southeast Kansas?

A: The Kansas Balkans refers to the coal mining regions of Southeast Kansas, particularly Crawford and Cherokee counties. It is an area known for its rich cultural heritage and for its turbulent, strike-ridden history.

Hazardous working conditions, language barriers, poverty and discrimination were just some of the common hardships that drew these immigrants together. As a group, they found the strength to fight for their rights as Americans, and history shows us that the philosophy of conduct in the Kansas Balkans was to fight for your right, even if it meant sometimes breaking the law.

Labor disputes were common in the coal fields. On several occasions, the miners of District 14 went out on strike in defiance of both state and federal laws, and against the direct orders of United Mine Workers President John L. Lewis.

The event that epitomizes the spirit of the Kansas Balkans was the women’s march of 1921, in which 3,000 to 6,000 wives, daughters, mothers, sisters and sweethearts of striking miners marched in an attempt to stop scab miners employed by the mine owners from reporting to work. Their actions, somewhat shocking and unheard of for women at that time, called the governor into action and made headlines across the nation. The New York Times dubbed them the "Amazon Army." The three-day march occurred Dec. 12-14, 1921.

Q: How does the Miners Hall Museum plan on celebrating the centennial year of the women's march?

A: Miners Hall Museum is honoring the 100th anniversary of the march by announcing a yearlong special exhibit that will be unfolding and changing as the year progresses with new materials and artifacts added in the coming months, emphasizing various aspects of this dynamic story, as well as highlighting the area's immigrant heritage and coal mining history, the labor movement and individual biographies.

When large groups are again appropriate, a series of monthly programs will be announced at the museum. Speakers will address the history of the march, the impact of Southeast Kansas strike history on establishing national social reforms, and the legacies left by these men and women.

Q: What types of content will be included in this yearlong recognition?

A: Beginning in January, this special exhibit honoring the centennial of the march will focus on the stories and the artifacts surrounding the thousands of Southeast Kansas women who became known as the “Amazon Army.” Included will be highlights of the strike and labor history of the region and the notable individuals that contributed to the event that would make national headlines and history. The yearlong exhibit will unfold with new information, displays, documents, letters, journals and photographs added periodically.

Q: In what ways did the women's march help shape fair American labor?

A: The women leaders marched behind American flags, hoping to invoke the statement that as Americans, they were entitled to the rights of American citizens. This “fight for your rights” philosophy created a volatile political history of rebellion, but also reform.

The Kansas Balkans remain one of the most progressive, influential regions in the state. While Southeast Kansas was often out of step with the rest of the state, its history suggests it was often in advance of the rest of the state. Reforms such as the eight-hour workday, equal rights for women and minorities, and equal pay for equal work — now an accepted standard of the American way of life — were all fought for in the coal fields of Southeast Kansas.

Q: What do you hope the audience will learn from the exhibit?

A: How vital and essential it is to take a stand when the situation calls for it. The effort that it must have taken for these women to organize and protest unfair and often inhumane practices took an enormous amount of courage and sacrifice. Most had no means of transportation, no avenues of communication, certainly no cellphones, and many could not afford even a newspaper.

How 500 women initially met on a Sunday afternoon at the Union Hall in Franklin, Kansas, to issue a statement to “stand by the union men of Kansas in this struggle” and would subsequently meet daily at 5 a.m., walking miles to march in the cold, many with young children, to some 63 mines in the county as the governor called out the state militia and arrests were being made is awe-inspiring.

Linda Knoll is the host of the exhibit “Amazon Army” and a trustee of the Miners Hall Museum in Franklin, Kan. She’s also part of the Humanities Kansas Speakers Bureau and has given talks about the women's march across the state.

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