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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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