I was born in Library, Pennsylvania but have always believed my birth would have occurred in Roanoke-Salem, Virginia if not for the depressing hard times that inspired my father and mother to leave their beloved Virginia.
So far as I know, my immediate family of Atkins near and far known kinfolks from Virginia, including Jackson and Lee distant cousins came into Western Pennsylvania in the "fourth movement" during the era of 1900 - 1930 in pursuit of cash-paying work such as, ... mule drivers, miners, mill and foundry workers and other opportunities not available down river in Virginia and Tennessee where labor was long and plenty but getting paid always uncertain.
Complaints "down home" about being cheated or not paid were frequently met with threats of violence and even arrest by constables and sheriffs more often than not members of the Ku-Klux-Klan or instigated by opponents to Black laborers.
Many of the modern scholars seemingly overlook the economic competition that fueled much of racial hatred and violence in America even before, during and after the Civil War with many White men feeling threatened by labor competition from Black men. Many, if not most, White men felt and believed it was an affront to them to be paid the same labor rate as Black men.
And, time after time and place, labor furor was often driven by this feeling of rage against young Black men. Following their defeat in the Civil War, ex-confederate soldiers had launched a campaign of terror against former U.S. Army Colored Troops and within a year of war's end had murdered over 175,000 mostly young men. My beloved mother and father never told me that her Uncle Charlie Lee Hill, an active duty solder the 10th Cavalry Regiment returned from the Spanish American War: was lynched in year 1900 by West Virginia Klansmen.
The killings and sporadic beatings by sons and grandsons of the confederacy continued until World War I and follow-on world-wide economic depression that began in year 1929. My father, his cousins and friends had no fond memories of fairness working for southern Whites ... who still did not believe Black men ought to be well paid and believed Abraham Lincoln was a criminal for making them free. People like my parents moved into Pittsburgh Region to "keep hope alive" before I was born into generation #65.
The heavy industrialized Pittsburgh Region, akin to the great Ruhr Valley in Germany, was itself generated by Presbyterian and Lutheran values of the late 19th century that came into conflict with Roman Catholic attitudes generated in Ireland during the previous century of British Empire exploitation of Irish Catholics. When the famed Homestead riot occurred in Pittsburgh during the 1890s, ... reasons cited were the use African-American laborers as strike-breakers but root causes were generated mainly in Ireland.
Samuel Gompers (London born Jewish heritage) and other leaders and founders of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) along with the Irish Catholic Church were determined that African-Americans were not only aliens in America but also not real Christians like themselves.
I was born some thirty years after the Homestead strikes and murders of Black workers, and about twenty years afterwards the Pinkerton Detectives hired by the mill and mine owners, .. advised Black men to organize and arm themselves in hunting clubs for sport and self protection against threats by Ku-Klux-Klans. Their right and practice to bear arms seemingly had the desired effect and attacks against Black miners to and from work quickly ended. What mattered most was courage by young Black men, not their faith in laws and lawyers as imagined protection against random terrorism and violence.
American Federation of Labor (AFL) craft unions dominated virtually all jobs in the region's foundries, factories, mills and mines that required skilled laborers, ... and from at least year 1900 to 1950 excluded African-American membership. Congress of Industrial Worker unions such as the United Mine Workers (UMW) were less anti-Black but even within the mines most skilled craft jobs were restricted to White AFL members.
By the time I was born, Roman Catholics (mostly of Irish and Italian heritage), not to be confused with Orthodox Catholics (mostly of Russian and Armenian heritage), and affluent Jews had a network of schools separated from the public schools attended by youth (especially Blacks) of other religious faiths and too distant, poor or unwilling to pay for a parochial education.
There were a few, not many, Black Catholics who over the post-Civil War years had come up the Mississippi River from down New Orleans way to Pittsburgh, and some even came from places like Charleston and Savannah where nuns recruited and indoctrinated students like Clarence Thomas to be separate and superior from "the least of us."
The Catholic Diocese for Pittsburgh, true to their doctrine, did indeed establish a mostly Black congregation in Pittsburgh that still exists, ... though the far larger Bethel AME Church established by Richard Allen as headquarters for the Western Abolitionist Movement was demolished by City of Pittsburgh at beginning of the 1950s in the name of "urban renewal." It was launched concurrently in Birmingham, Alabama and Johannesburg, South Africa within a hundred years of the Civil War that members like Martin Delaney had helped win. Mother Bethel was torn down (along with dispersal of over 30,000 impoverished Black residents) by Catholic Mayor David L. Lawrence to make way for a hockey arena for the Pittsburgh Penguins and their fans living in the suburbs..
The Jackson, Lee, Fuqua, and many other families of African heritage in the region moved in at turn of the century when heavy industrialization began by the 'Great Scots' like Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon who not only planned and developed steel mills, foundries, coke ovens and coal mines, ... but also manpower resources to make it all work.
Livery workers and even their mules to move coal were brought in from places like Western Virginia and Tennessee where young Black men were famed as mule-skinners in moving bulk materials including coal.
Thousands of healthy, hearty, heavy lifting young men were railroaded in from far-away places like Birmingham, Alabama for standard labor wages in the Pittsburgh Region. And, last but not least they literally imported many thousands of skilled and unskilled laborers from Western Europe, especially Ireland, Scotland and Wales who quickly organized labor unions to wave away and keep out people not their color or kind.
Their issue was less an issue of race than that of creating and maintaining scarcity of skills in order to demand greater pay. Such men organized the Amalgamated Steel Workers of America and deliberately excluded African-Americans from membership in their locals.
My mother explained the hatred of Andrew Carnegie by many White laborers was because he dared to pay Black men standard wages which implied they were good as White men. Most Pittsburgh region bigots did not want Blacks to ever be perceived equal in church pray, employment pay, or even their offspring's play, ... going to great lengths to insure that Catholic Schools did not compete with high schools having Black athletes. Men of steel were made to bend in the face of cultural dynamics in union movements that would shape employment policies in Pittsburgh regional industries.
There would be no integration of men or their sons until the ministry of Martin Luther King, Jr. Prior to emergence of King in the mid 1950s, most Catholic leaders and flocks had little or no reason to believe and understand that most African-Americans were fellow believers in the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Catholic bishops and priests of Irish and Italian heritage in the late 19th and early 20th century, educated and enlightened in their faith via years of study and apprenticeships and obedience to strictly constructed teachings published for daily and weekly use, .........
... had seen and heard far too many non-educated Black men unenlightened in the ministry of Paul and uneducated in the teachings of Jesus. For such Catholics, it was preposterous to imagine such men as they had seen could be preachers or teachers of the good news, ... nor could their congregants have received it. But, unknown to Catholic leaders there were many God fearing Christian believers among African Americans in the Pittsburgh region.
In the early 20th century men of Christian means had organized and paid for not only the building of more than 100 functional churches but also matters such as baseball and other sporting clubs and association for men's fellowship similar to those sponsored by White men.
William Thomas Atkins, Sr., front-row, third from left
For Black men like my father in the Pittsburgh region, World War II was good news in their pursuit of opportunities to gain the benefits of being an American. Getting killed in the war was far less likely than being attacked or even legally killed by accidents in the mines and mills, or sheriffs in America they knew and feared when turned ugly in the name of law and order.
I vaguely remember discussions pronouncements by my father's buddies about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the Black man who had fought back against the Japanese. I would later learn that Dorie Miller (on left) was enlisted in the Navy as a cook during the pre-war era when Black men were regulated to be either stewards or cooks for White crewmen; but, he had learned to operate a machine gun he used on that faithful day. My earliest memories of the war was around year 1943 when my Sunday School teacher (Dave Pope) announced that he was going into the army and my cousin William Roger Atkins came home from West Virginia State College to enter the army.
Alienating "the least of us" became organizing objectives that kept Black men out of craft skills for at least the next three generations ending only with Civil Rights Act of 1964-1965 designed by President John F. Kennedy before his untimely death in 1963. Indeed, JFK was the first world leader of any faith to pronounce in 1963 that "segregation is morally wrong."
It was a sermon Blacks loved to hear. And, Black Pittsburghers still love him, ... and Mother Rose Kennedy who gave him birth in the faith, hope and love of Christ in a very violent 20th century of change that killed over 100 million people including six million Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, other Europeans and a lot of Africans never counted.
Kennedy was a prolific reader, student of history and knew that all of the horrors that manifested in 20th century were generated by attitudes and behaviors nested in previous centuries. Sins of the fathers were reaped by future generations. JFK knew that racism ultimately leads to categorizations, classifications and conflicts in which humanity itself is the loser of new potential generations of goodness. He knew and understood that America's tolerance of racism against African-Americans would ultimately lead to so-called "final solutions" as occurred in Germany where Jews before WWI were far more assimilated, integrated, prosperous and safer there than existed for African-Americans in United States. Kennedy helped change his generation, and the cotton curtain in America. And, many demented minds hated him for it.
As a college student and ROTC cadet, I had the good fortune of scoring high on the civil service examination and being chosen for JFK's White House Summer Intern Program in 1963, ... and vividly remember shaking the hand of this great man who urged us to care about and be interested in others than simply ourselves. It was a good time to be young and doing my internship in the Bureau of Employment Security wherein I was able to learn and understand why such agencies were created and necessary in the American federalist system.
The process was designed by President Roosevelt's Administration to afford a measure of employment compensation to employees who lost employment through no fault of their own, provided they had been employed to work at least 40 hours per week; and both employer and employee paid into the state mandated insurance program.
The experience allowed me to understand how and why so many thousands of Black men working non-standard jobs in places like the Pittsburgh region were ineligible to receive workmen's compensation. So-called day workers on garbage trucks, in automated car washes, farm-workers, dish washers, construction day labor and many other jobs for unskilled Black men were bad news if the worker were injured or simply not hired on any given day. The challenge of getting into unions and assignments to work steady in the construction industry has always been a tough hurdle for lesser men to overcome.
Neither the federal or partner state processes were ever intended to protect such men and generally did not recognize that so many tens of thousands of Black men earned their livelihoods by performing so-called menial labor that White men did not want to do. The same situation applied to Black women, like my mother "Proud Cora" who found it necessary to do day-work as maids in the homes of privileged White women for six dollars per day plus trolley carfare.
Being there in the summer of 1963 also gave me an opportunity to witness the historic congregating of people who heard the great oration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. better known as "I Have A Dream." The supervisor in my department, listening and watching the gathering and speeches exclaimed for the office to hear, "Now, you can see why they cannot qualify for worker's comp, losing time complaining instead of home working."
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