Knights of Labor

Robinson’s Cave New Straitsville Ohio May 22nd 2009

Knights of Labor is a performative re-interpretation of several key radical texts that seeks to reactivate their potential through a situated reading and discussion. Students from Matthew Friday’s Art and Ecology class and Robert Sember’s Participation created a collaborative event at Robinson’s Cave in New Straitsville, Ohio. Among the texts used were the speeches and songs of The Knights of Labor, an early 20th century labor union. The Knights of Labor were highly active in Southern Ohio and, in 1890 at Robinson’s Cave in New Straitsville Ohio, they formed the United Mine Workers Union, the most powerful voice for the working class in the early twentieth century. Community members, including local labor historian Cheryl Blossart, were invited to speak to the history of the region. Â The meeting consisted of a Quaker style communal circle where participants were invited to make an enunciation they felt needed to be heard by the group. Participants joined in singing several historical coal mining and labor union songs as quilts that mapped the geological, historical and utopian temporality were unfolded and discussed. The event ended with a presentation on John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) who planted many apple orchids in the region. A picnic composed of dishes containing some form of apple was followed by a ceremonial hand-washing and apple seed planting.

New Straitsville is also the origin of one of the most powerful social movements of the 20th century. Beginning in the 1870s a radical union known as the Knights of Labor began organizing the mine workers into a powerful force, demanding an equitable wage, better working conditions and democratic participation in the administration of the mines. In 1890, organizer Chris Evans, arbitrated the combination of the Knights of Labor with the National Federation of Miners and Mine Laborers, forming the United Mine Workers Union, which went on to become the most powerful voice for the working class in the early twentieth century.

We live in a world characterized by globalization, where the social sphere has so disintegrated that poverty, unemployment, and misery have become commonplace. Although it might seem that the radical pronouncements of community and solidarity espoused by the Knights of Labor are irrelevant, we believe that these forgotten histories contain a promise for new forms of communal affiliation and collective action. Rather than locate our community in a particular class, gender or ethnicity, how can we recognize a form of solidarity that cuts across these categories? How can this form of affiliation disrupt the previously established and institutionally sanctioned means of creating a community? What new modes of being can we learn from the history of militant labor and how can we employ these to create exuberant communities? Â Join us in reclaiming the repressed pasts of our region as we envision a new future!

Coal was discovered in the Hocking valley at the start of the 19th century, however, it was not until the opening of the Hocking Canal in 1843, that it began to be mined on and distributed on a large scale. In the later 1800s, three rival railroads traversed the isolated hills of Southern Ohio, allowing the abundant drifts of coal to be efficiently accessed. In rapid succession, company owned towns appeared, populated with thousands of miners seeking work. For over 50 years the Little Cities of Black Diamond was one of the largest coal producing regions in America. More efficient means of coal mining such as mountain top removal caused the prosperity of this region to be short lived. At their peak, The Little Cities of Black Diamond played an essential role in the emerging labor movement. In 1884, to protest the closure of local mines, workers rolled kerosene drenched cars of coal into five different mine entrances in New Straitsville. This radical act of sabotage has had a temporal agency far beyond that of its original intention; the mine fires of New Straitsville still burn today and are estimated to continue for 500 more years.