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The Forgotten History of Wyoming’s Black Miners

Today, the sage and sandstone of Wyoming’s vast Red Desert show little evidence of the coal-mining town of Dana, which once stood about 150 miles west of Cheyenne. No photos of Dana have ever been found, but in 1890 it probably looked much like southwestern Wyoming’s other Union Pacific Coal Company towns: a few boardinghouses, a company-contracted general store and just enough basic amenities to keep the town functioning. The main feature likely would have been the tipple, where coal was processed. Though largely forgotten, Dana was once home to a significant population of Black miners, originally recruited by a well-known Washington state politician and community leader, James E. Shepperson.

In 1890, the UPCC hired Shepperson to recruit the first Black miners specifically enlisted to work in the company’s Wyoming mines. He was a Black man who had migrated from Virginia to Roslyn, Washington, where he led the charge to bring more Black citizens to town. Working for the Northern Pacific Railway, he brought roughly 300 miners to Roslyn, where they forged a strong community. Shepperson had made a name for himself as a successful recruiter of Black miners, and so the UPCC hired him to bring workers to Dana. In early February 1890, about 200 Black miners from the Ohio area, accompanied by their families, stepped off a train in Dana — completely unaware that the company wanted to use them as strikebreakers.

Recruiting laborers for the coal mines and fighting labor organizers were nothing new for the UPCC. As coal production grew in the late 1800s, company officials, like all good industrialists, focused on profits. They did this by hiring laborers from impoverished areas, primarily in Europe and Asia — people they could entice with tenuous promises of riches, land or at least opportunity.

These recruitment practices inadvertently created some of the most ethnically diverse communities in the region. In the early days, the company, which owned and assigned all worker housing, routinely integrated neighborhoods. The thinking went that if members of a specific ethnic group were not housed together, they would be less likely to form unions. There were exceptions to this company rule: Native Americans weren’t sought out at all, and company bosses saw Chinese, Japanese and Korean workers as simply too different from other groups to integrate. Though the fight for workers’ rights went on for decades, in the long run, the company’s tactics failed, as unions such as the Knights of Labor became ever more integrated and influential.

In a time of intense labor disputes, strikebreakers were met with scorn and sometimes violence, particularly when they were members of an already disparaged ethnic group. Moreover, according to newspaper accounts, the Black miners in Dana were union men themselves. Because of this, they refused to “usurp striking brothers,” the white miners they were brought in to replace. By this time, the whole affair was making headlines, and the company needed a cover story. So, whether through miscommunication, deliberate misrepresentation or outright company duplicity, Shepperson became an easy scapegoat. 

The role of Black residents in the story of these early coal towns has often been skewed or forgotten altogether.

Read entire article at Mother Jones