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A UMD Anthropologist Is Digging Into Commonalities Between Coal Country Immigrants Past and Present
By Liam Farrell
Photo via Library of Congress
THE SON OF IRISH immigrants, Thomas Walsh was orphaned as a child but was 38 years old and supporting a young family of his own by the time he started his shift at a northeastern Pennsylvania coal mine on May 3, 1911.
He had turned a chance meeting with a dressmaker named Catherine on a streetcar into a marriage that had given them 2-year-old Mary and 3-month-old Florence. They wed despite the disapproval of Catherine’s mother, a native of Ireland whose own miner husband had died in 1898; now the owner of a paid-off house, she suspected Walsh was only interested in her daughter for her modest wealth.
It was still a boom time for people living among the mountains laced with pure and shiny anthracite coal, prized for heating, manufacturing and steam production. A sliver of Pennsylvania was providing more than 15% of America’s energy, increasing wages and finally giving the brigades of miners who toiled underground the chance to put away small savings. Profits took their toll in blood, however; in 1910, 59,000 employees in Luzerne County dug up almost 29 million tons of coal, but more than 200 of them died in mine accidents.
Walsh, my great-grandfather, would share their fate on that cold spring day.
I’ve often thought about how it was not only a familial tragedy but also a moment when our family tree might have been cut off at the roots. It inspired my academic studies on the double-edged promise of immigration, as well as the need to resist the chauvinistic temptation to wield it as evidence that “we” had it harder than anyone who followed, or somehow have a more legitimate claim to this country.
Those same concerns animate the work of Paul Shackel, a professor in the UMD Department of Anthropology who has spent years exploring the history, culture and modern-day transformation of Luzerne County and its second-largest city, Hazleton. While Shackel’s work there initially centered on century-old events, he was also pulled in by the transformation of an area once dominated by deindustrialization and population decline into a critical goods-distribution network dependent on an exponentially increasing Latino population. He confronted age-old American questions: Who belongs and who doesn’t, who’s working hard and who isn’t, who’s making a place better and who’s dragging it down.
In a fresh project collecting oral histories of newer Hazleton arrivals for a state operated museum, Shackel hopes to show the historical, cultural and socioeconomic connections spanning ethnic groups and hundreds of years of history.
“We all have commonalities,” he says.
WHILE GROWING UP on Long Island in the 1970s, Shackel thought he would be an architect until he spent a college summer in Illinois doing archaeological work. Up at 5 a.m. for nine weeks, he surveyed an American Indian village site and burial mounds in preparation for a major interstate project.
“I almost didn’t want to come back home,” Shackel says. “It was a new adventure.”
While working after graduate school for the National Park Service in Harper’s Ferry, he attended a conference in Hazleton about the 100th anniversary of the Lattimer Massacre. In what Shackel has called “one of the most troubling, yet forgotten, moments in U.S. history,” deputies fired on striking Polish, Slovak and Lithuanian coal miners on Sept. 10, 1897, killing 19 and wounding 38. Intrigued by the relative obscurity of the event and derivations of his grandmother’s last name in local cemeteries—residents also “looked like my relatives,” he says—he returned a decade later. Along with a graduate student and volunteers, he found the site of the massacre and some evidence left behind, including four bullets and a miner’s tin cup with holes from a shotgun blast.
It had taken until Sept. 10, 1972, for a memorial to be dedicated to the Lattimer victims. Coal operators, Shackel says, had little interest in promoting anything that could rally labor. Surviving protestors found themselves blacklisted, and a jury acquitted the sheriff and his deputies after only a half hour of deliberations; the miners, according to the defense attorney, were living up to their peoples’ histories of “mischief and destruction.”
He also discovered that at the memorial dedication ceremony, the famed Mexican American labor and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez asked the audience to see the connections between the struggles of the European miners and those of Latino migrant farmers.
“They too are immigrants. They too have strange sounding names. They too speak a foreign language,” Chavez said. “We know only too well of the hardship and sacrifice of these mine workers because together there is another group of workers who have things in common.”
IN THE WAY that official documents often bleach out visceral detail, my great-grandfather’s death certificate simply says “killed by a fall of rock.” The 1911 Department of Mines of Pennsylvania report—which notes fatalities’ nationality, occupation, age, and number of widows and orphans—says he and Charles Notari, a 23-year-old single Italian laborer, died at the chamber’s face, the frontline of digging.
An article in the May 4, 1911, edition of the Pittston Gazette said it took two hours for the “badly mangled” remains to be unearthed—“Mr. Walsh was a man of exemplary habits and was well liked by all who knew him”—and were given to “Undertaker O’Malley.” But according to family lore, officials from the Pennsylvania Coal Company unceremoniously left Walsh’s body on the kitchen floor, saying, “There he is.”
For miners who survived, economic fortunes were robust for only a few more years. The region reached its peak around World War I, when investors started buying up mining operations as tax shelters and assets for sale instead of production. Anthracite, which was already dangerous to reach because of its deep, narrow and twisted veins, became even more costly as workers had to burrow farther underground, leaving the market vulnerable to competition from oil, natural gas and hydroelectric power.
The textile industry provided an economic cushion at first, both for the region and for Catherine, who continued to work as a seamstress while widowed and wholly responsible for a toddler and baby. When her mother died in 1914, she and a brother inherited the family duplex, a rare safety net that perhaps saved them.
Florence grew up and married my grandfather, William Farrell, in 1937; by that time, men in northeastern Pennsylvania had started commuting to New Jersey to work at factories. My grandparents followed so William, a trained dental technician, could open a laboratory in East Orange and eventually raise four sons, including my late father, Thomas. A generation later, their nine grandchildren were on the way to achieving college degrees and white-collar jobs.
By the time I graduated high school in 2000, however, fewer than 1,000 miners were working to extract 4 million tons of coal that year, and surveys on health and well-being from agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked northeast Pennsylvania at the bottom of American metropolitan areas. According to U.S. Census data, Luzerne County today still has a higher disability and poverty rate than the national average, with a median household income that is 18% below and a nine-point deficit in residents with at least a bachelor’s degree.
That economic stagnation invited a political reckoning.
ORIGINALLY FROM THE Dominican Republic, Annie Mendez was living in New Jersey 20 years ago with her two children and working as a paralegal when her boyfriend at the time wanted to open an auto repair business in Hazleton.
“We were in need of opportunities,” she says. “Life was getting expensive.”
Renting a five-bedroom house in the Pennsylvania city cost only $350 a month at the time, she remembers. Jobs were available at warehouses and distribution centers for companies such as Office Depot, Amazon, American Eagle, Bimbo bakeries and Coca-Cola, sparking a reversal of my grandparents’ internal American journey: First-, second- and-third generation immigrants in New York and New Jersey flocked anew to the anthracite region. In 2006, about 30% of Hazleton’s 31,000 residents identified as Latino; about a decade later, it was nearly half.
Mendez, who was interviewed for the oral history project, had good English language skills and helped new arrivals set up utilities and navigate government processes. She remembers snide comments in grocery stores and shouts from passing cars to go back to her “own country.”
The city infamously passed an ordinance in 2006 to deny business permits to employers who hired illegal immigrants and to fine landlords renting to them. It also made English the official language, prohibiting government documents from being translated into Spanish without the city’s approval.
Francisco Torres-Aranda, a local businessman who now represents the Hazleton area on the Pennsylvania Governor’s Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs, says the language requirement was “where it went too far.”
“The majority of the people in Hazleton weren’t here illegally,” Torres-Aranda says. “It became obvious what the motivation was. The motivation was to create animosity.”
While a U.S. Court of Appeals ultimately overturned that law in 2010, Hazleton fell under a microscope again when reporters and writers fanned across the country to find an explanation for President Donald Trump’s unexpected election. Luzerne County had voted for President Barack Obama by eight points in 2008 and five in 2012, but it swung decisively to Trump by 20 points in 2016. (President Joe Biden, who was born in Scranton, was bested in 2020 by about 14 points.) One resulting book was Ben Bradlee Jr.’s “The Forgotten,” which catalogued how frustrated working-class nostalgia, local political corruption and pure racism combined to support reactionary immigration rhetoric and policy.
“When all that’s settled, then we can think about helping others,” one resident told Bradlee. “I mean, people in this country need help too, don’t they?”
Today, a large banner hangs from a house not far from the Lattimer Massacre memorial: “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Trump.”
AS HE PUT IT in his book, “Remembering Lattimer,” Shackel’s scholarly goal is to show how immigrants across time and ethnicities have been animated by “universal values that we all want and desire—such as peace, good health, education and the ability to sustain oneself.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Shackel conducted excavations at Eckley Miner’s Village, a restored coal town, as well as in Lattimer and nearby Pardeesville. Joining with the Hazleton Integration Project, a nonprofit working to build local relationships across ethnic lines, Shackel also brought together Hazleton high schoolers of white and Hispanic backgrounds for the digs. One of them was Cesar Dadus, now a Bloomsbury University student who immigrated to Hazleton from the Dominican Republic with his family and participated in three of Shackel’s projects.
“It definitely helped with the gap between the populations,” he says. “(History) can be used to better understand each other.”
The new oral history effort underway with Scranton’s Anthracite Heritage Museum continues in that direction. While today the brick-and-mortar museum has information on European immigration and artifacts like mule carts and a child laborer’s beat-up hobnail boots, it plans to add a digital collection of interviews with Latino immigrants by the end of the year. The changing nature of the anthracite region is not just an opportunity to engage with a new population, says Bode Morin, site administrator of the museum and Eckley Miners’ Village, but also to show how it has continually developed and evolved.
“We are not a bunch of individual groups,” he says. “We are one culture.”
Gina Romancheck personally knows the value of such work. Shackel’s excavation of her great-aunts’ home brought her family’s everyday experience back to life, from seeds to grow their own vegetables to stockings that could be knotted into rugs. The new project could do the same for younger Latino immigrants, she says, as well as show older white residents how alike they are.
“It gives you a sense of where you come from,” she says. “You think you are different in a certain way, but you’re really not.”
ON A BLAZING JULY morning, downtown Hazleton slowly awakens as Shackel and two graduate students, Aryn Neurock Schriner of UMD and Aubrey Edwards of the University of Wyoming, begin their first interview for the oral history project, which is funded by a seed grant from the UMD College of Behavioral and Social Sciences Dean’s Research Initiative and in-kind support from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
The city is now 57% Hispanic and 39% white, and the main drags of downtown resemble something more like New York City’s Washington Heights or East Harlem neighborhoods in the early 2000s than a stereotypical vision of an aging coal town. There is still an Italian restaurant called Vesuvio’s and a law office with partners named Ustynoski and Marusak but they are dwarfed by Dominican cuisine, professional services advertising in Spanish and even a Latino religious supply store known as a botánica.
The cultures mingle more easily in the office of Amilcar Arroyo, who came to the United States from Peru in the 1980s and publishes a Spanish-language magazine in Hazleton. He used to pick tomatoes and work in a phone book factory; today, a painting (below, background) of long-ago coal miners hangs behind his desk as a reminder of the region’s history.
“They are my inspiration ... This is the Latino, but 100 years ago,” he says. “I would like to be alive to see Hazleton working together. That’s my dream.”
Listening to Arroyo proudly show pictures of his young grandson, I’m of course reminded of my own grandmother. While my grandfather died 12 days after I turned 3, “Flossie,” as relatives and friends called her, was a warm and loving presence in my life until she died in 2003. She traveled with us on vacations and came along when I first moved to college, yet I never heard a word about her father’s death or saw any outward trace of what would have been justified sadness, bitterness or anger; the only remonstrance I ever remember getting from her was gentle chiding after I grumbled about heading back to middle school at the end of one summer. “Things have a way of changing,” she would say to complaints and difficulties.
One day, I drove north to look for the mine where Walsh was killed, with the help of a 1926 map provided by the Luzerne County Historical Society. The closest I could get among thick brush, trees and signs warning against trespassing was a rusty gate in front of a seemingly abandoned construction site. But there were also plenty of modest and pleasant houses with children’s toys in the yards. Across from where the entrance would have been in 1911, the parking lots of a glass manufacturer and a wheelchair and disability product supplier were full.
Things, indeed, have a way of changing.
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