1921 labor march finds new life in artists' works

Few people outside southeast Kansas know the story of the "Amazon Army," a group of 6,000 women who marched to protest the treatment of mine workers in December 1921.

The march was an important part of labor history in America, but it has been reduced to a small footnote.

Now, a Lawrence artist, his wife and a choreographer at Kansas University are trying to revive the story of the march and bring attention to its significance.

Painter Wayne Wildcat was first introduced to this little-known piece of Kansas history in 1997, when arts leaders in Pittsburg approached him to paint a mural portraying the march.

As Wildcat and his wife, Tolly Smith Wildcat, began researching the artwork, they became fascinated with the event and were amazed how little people in other parts of the state, and the nation, knew about it.

"It was really a nationally pivotal moment in American labor history," Tolly Wildcat said.

Tolly Wildcat published an article about the march in the latest edition of Journal of the West.

Joan Stone, professor of music and dance at KU, has choreographed a march-inspired dance, which will be performed as part of the University Dance Company spring concerts Thursday and Friday at the Lied Center.

Stone said none of her dancers -- many of whom are from Kansas -- had ever heard the story of the women's march before becoming involved in the dance.

"It's a very interesting piece of Kansas history that is just not very well known," Stone said.

"By creating our art -- paintings and dance -- artists can bring back this history," Wayne Wildcat said. "Then other historians can start writing about it again because it's important."

Hungry miners

During the early 20th century, southeast Kansas had numerous small mining towns populated by immigrants.

In many cases, the immigrants came through New York's Ellis Island and immediately were shipped to work in the Kansas coal mines. The working conditions confronting the new arrivals were terrible. As described in Tolly Wildcat's article, workers were required to crawl on their hands and knees all day because the ceilings in the mines were only three-feet high. There were pockets of poisonous gas that would cause the lamps on the workers heads to combust. The workers had to buy their own supplies and were paid in company scrip, not real money.

After a strike in 1919, Gov. Henry Allen had the Legislature pass a law called the Industrial Relations Act. The law made work strikes illegal. Labor disputes were instead to be settled by a governor-appointed court of arbitration.

Alexander Howat, the United Mine Workers leader in southeast Kansas, set out to challenge the law. When the mining company refused to pay one of Howat's workers adult wages, Howat ordered a strike in February 1921. Howat was arrested and jailed for breaking the Industrial Relations Act. Upon learning of Howat's arrest, 10,000 miners loyal to him went on strike.

As the strike continued, strikebreakers -- men sent to work in the mines in the place of the striking workers -- were brought in, and the families of the workers began to go hungry.

The women then stepped in. Their children were starving, their men were out of work and winter was approaching.

"The women, on their own, said 'we've got to do something,'" Tolly Wildcat said. "So they got together and had a meeting."

About 300 women showed up for the first meeting. The next morning nearly 2,000 women marched. By the next day, close to 6,000 were protesting.

New interpretation

The Wildcats during their research interviewed Helen Grisolono, a 96-year-old woman who still lived near the mines. Grisolono remembered how the women called out: "If you want to eat, march!"

Grisolono marched but never told her daughter, now 70, about it until the Wildcats came around asking questions.

"It was kind of a necessary thing they participated in," Wayne Wildcat said. "I don't think they ever realized how big a deal it was."

The march garnered the attention of The New York Times, which ran stories and pictures about it. Gov. Allen sent the state militia to protect the strikebreakers, who were being prevented from working in the mines by the marching mob of women. The Wildcats said Allen was afraid a Kansas version of the Bolshevik Revolution was breaking out.

When they heard the militia was coming, the women leaders of the march decided to stop the protest after realizing it could become a blood bath. Several women did not want to stop, but after giving three cheers for Howat the women went home.

Tolly Wildcat said previous research on the march had indicated it was a failure because the women quit when the militia arrived. She interprets it differently, noting it brought national attention to the plight of miners and their families. She said she also thinks it strengthened Howat's resolve to fight the Industrial Relations Act.

In 1922, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law, and the case became a landmark in labor law because it upheld the workers right to strike.

The painting

Wayne Wildcat started his mural by duplicating in paint a photograph of six women who participated in the march. In their research, the Wildcats found photographs of two other women marchers.

The Wildcats then came across a photograph that had appeared in The New York Times that showed thousands of women marching. A replica of that photo was placed behind the eight women in the mural's foreground. At the bottom of the mural is a rendering of a photograph the Wildcats found that showed the mineworkers. The Wildcats spent almost a full year in Pittsburg researching the march.

The Dance

The Wildcats ran into Stone at a party soon after they had returned from Pittsburg. They told her what they had been working on.

Stone said when she first moved to Kansas from Connecticut in the early 1980s she had heard about a march of women in southeast Kansas. She thought it was interesting because she had come from a working-class family and liked the idea of women standing up to the coal companies.

Wayne Wildcat had seen a dance by Stone and thought she might be a good person to choreograph a dance about the march. The Wildcats took Stone to Pittsburg to see the completed mural.

"As soon as she got in front of the painting, she started dancing," Wayne Wildcat said. "When we take most people to see a painting, they just stand there. But she immediately started dancing. It was really neat."

Stone said it took her awhile to figure out how she would choreograph a dance about the march. The piece, which is about 12 minutes long, features nine dancers, miners' songs, marching music and a lot of American flags.

"The women were eager to show their patriotism," Stone said. "They were being accused of being a hoard of foreigners. They saw themselves as American citizens and carried flags because they felt their act was important."

The mural is currently on display at the Pittsburg Public Library, but Tolly Wildcat said it is available for showings. Prints are also available to buy. The dance, part of a larger dance program, takes place at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday at the Lied Center.


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