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The Mine Wars | Article

Ellis Ray Williams

Ellis Ray Williams is a long time resident of McDowell County in West Virginia. His father moved to the area and took a job as a coal miner so that his family, including Ellis Ray, could attend the schools for African Americans, which were much better than those in the Deep South. Mr. Williams was class president and valedictorian when he graduated from Gary District High School in 1940. In addition to his firsthand experience in the mines, he is also a WWII veteran and was an educator in McDowell County for many years. Mr. Williams was interviewed on-camera for the 2016 documentary The Mine Wars.

Ellis Ray Williams. Credit: WGBH


When I was growing up, the first job I had was on the outside of the mine, sweeping the streets. I was out there sweeping the street on Church Street and… a little girl, a white girl, came out and started talking with me. And when she started talking that broom started moving. That street got swept so fast because I moved away from there because I didn’t wanna get in trouble because of… race or anything like that. And of course I later learned about the girl and her name and everything because she worked in the summertime in the company store, and she was asking me why did I move so fast and didn’t talk with her? And I explained to her why I didn’t talk with her. One of the evils of racism, segregation, and all of that.


My father and I were working in this place where the coal had been worked out. And the coal was just falling, and you didn’t have to shoot it, or pick it, or anything. Just had to shovel it into the car. And… we had-- it was just about quitting time, too, and we had loaded up a… I think it was seven cars and this was the eighth car. And… it was supposed to be my car that we were loading on. And we had it just about loaded and this big bump came, and my father said, “We’d better get out of here,” and he told me to run. And I ran out, and he started right behind me and he thought about that car of coal there and he turned and ran back in there to release the brake on this car to save that car of coal. And when he turned, he knocked the brake off the car, and it was on a slant and the car started drifting out. And my father was running down the track ahead of the car, and a piece of slate fell out of the top and sort of hit him in the back of the head, and knocked him to the side and forward, otherwise that car would have run over him. And it scared me to death because I really thought I’d lost a father, but when he got up he had one little bruise. It knocked his mining cap off and everything, and he just thanked God and that was it, but it scared me to death. I was ready to give up mining at that moment. Yeah.


Now with, togetherness you get more power. Those people who work in the coal mines, the only way they could make some of those owners understand was to strike. So they would strike… stop the flow of money coming in to the big man. And when they would strike, the owners’ bills would be still coming in. So, the owner would have to do something to get those people back to work. I could understand that. I could understand it when I was working in the coal mine with them. And that’s one of the best lesson that you can ever learn in this world is get down there with some of those people who were scuffling in the coal mine to work with them.

Last day

I might’ve mentioned about a boss that I had in the coal mine, and he was supposed to have gotten a pump to bring into the mine to pump water out of a place. And then the water was about up to your knees, and he didn’t bring the pump in the mine. I made the statements, “I don’t know why in the world I came in here to work in the first place.” And he cursed and told me, he said, “I know why. You’re just like I am. You can’t do any ‘curse word’ better.” And I said, “Well, I don’t know whether I can do better or not, but I’ll tell you what. I’m going to try to do better. I won’t be back tomorrow.” And that was my last day working.

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