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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 127

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This is a reburial site for the some of the unknown workers killed building the tunnel at Hawk’s Nest in West Virginia.

I’ve written about Hawk’s Nest in the Labor History series, so I won’t repeat every detail. The short version is that when building a diversion tunnel for a dam in 1930, white supervisors for Union Carbide basically threw largely black workers into a project so laden with silica dust while building the tunnel that they contracted silicosis within weeks or months. This is an occupational disease that usually takes years to contract, and only with consistent exposure. Somewhere between 750 and 1000 of the workers died within a few years. About 3/4 of them were black, largely from out of state. The dead white workers received regular burial, as they were locals. The black workers were just thrown into various mass graves around the region, without even identifying them or letting their families know. Despite investigations into Union Carbide’s actions, nothing was ever done to identify the dead black workers. There they lay for many years.

When Highway 19 was expanded to four lanes in 1972, construction workers uncovered one of the mass graves with 41 bodies. They were reburied off the highway. Finally, in 2012, there was a ceremony and marker placed to honor the dead. No one knows their names. And no one ever will. Such is a piece of the story of American racism. There are other Hawk’s Nest victims mass graves around the region, although I don’t believe any have this level of commemoration.

The Hawk’s Nest victims are located just off Highway 19, north of Fayetteville, West Virginia.

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  • BiloSagdiyev

    I’m not a communist, but this is why I’m not dismissive of those in that era that were.

  • They didn’t have any Irish to throw in there?

    • BiloSagdiyev

      They were too busy ruining America’s cities with their rum, Romanism, and rebellion.

      • Ah, so you’ve met my relatives.

        • BiloSagdiyev

          Well, I can’t say I got a good look at the license plate as they drunkenly sideswiped my car and sped off, but yeah, I assumed it was them.

  • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

    My residency is in an area with a long-standing glass milling industry, and we still see older patients with silicosis. There’s also ship building so asbestosis as well. Sucks

  • Van Buren

    As it happens, I am wearing a t shirt from a restaurant in Fayetteville right now. Nice town, nice people. And then you look at who they vote for, and shake your head.

  • dhudson2728

    Union Carbide–contending for the title of “world’s most evil corporation” since 1917!

    • Sharon1W

      Really, and not just in the U.S., Bophol (sp?), India was a Union Carbide created disaster.

  • King Goat

    750-1000? That’s a massacre. Shameful I haven’t heard of this before.

    • Linnaeus

      But not surprising that you hadn’t heard of this, given that labor history is not something that gets much coverage.

      • BiloSagdiyev

        As a certain retired linguist in the Boston area used to point out, every day’s newspaper has a business section, but on no day of the week do you see a labor section.

    • (((realinterrobang)))

      The medical doctor who wrote a book on the subject, Martin Cherniack, estimated it could have been as high as 4000 people. He says 750 is a really low estimate. (I have the book, but I don’t have it on hand as I’m at work, and I also just moved, so it’s buried in a box somewhere.) If you think that’s a scandal, you should see what the workers who were able to get compensation for it actually managed to get. For a black worker, it was usually around $42.00. (Not a typo. Forty-two dollars.)

      Thanks for this post, Erik.

  • SatanicPanic

    Jesus, that’s horrifying. Must have been so hard for their families to not know what happened to them

    • yet_another_lawyer

      I wonder in that era how often you would expect to hear from family members– i.e., if you lived three states over, how long would it be before you knew your loved one was “missing?”

      • SatanicPanic

        Right? That’s heartbreaking

      • weirdnoise

        Thing is, these workers didn’t die in a mine cave-in. They died one by one, choking to death from their damaged, fluid-filled lungs. The barest sense of humanity would compel someone to find out before they died if they had families or at least determine their hometown.

        They were treated no better than slaves, for a pittance of a paycheck.

  • Anna in PDX

    I hope the department of labor regulations mentioned at the end of the 2016 post have not been and will not be rolled back by the current administration.

  • Hypersphericalcow

    It says a lot that this is only the third-worst disaster that Union Carbide has caused. Maybe fourth.

  • diogenes

    They grind our bones to make their bread…

  • drdick52

    Only white lives have mattered for most of American history, and that is still generally true. Chinese railroad workers on the Union Pacific Railroad, who did the worst and most dangerous jobs building the transcontinental railroad, were treated in much the same way.

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