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Long-time residents of West Virginia’s coal fields can recite stories, passed down from generation to generation, of appalling working conditions, chronic hunger and violent mine guards. It was only in recent decades that these residents found the courage to tell their stories to historians and writers. Scores of articles and books have now been published on the history of West Virginia’s coal industry from the perspective of these coal mining families.
Missing from most of these published works, though, is a critical look at the coal camp experiences of women. Labor historian Wess Harris targets this lost history in a brand new book that provides jaw-dropping accounts of how women were treated by an industry already widely known for its ruthlessness and callousness.
The groundbreaking book, Truth Be Told: Perspectives on the Great West Virginia Mine War, 1890 to Present, spends a few chapters examining what is known as the “Esau” system.
When husbands or sons were injured in the mines and there were no other men available to work, women could receive Esau scrip, which in turn could be used to buy food or other necessities. Coal companies typically issued wages in a special form of money called scrip, redeemable only at coal company-owned stores and other company-owned places of business.
Esau was issued only to women, and it was a form of scrip that would enable a woman to purchase food for her children during the time that her husband could not work. The Esau was only good for 30 days, and if her husband went back to work within those 30 days, then the company would forgive the debt. And if he did not go back to work at the end of 30 days, then the scrip became a loan that was due and payable in full on day 30.
At the time, most coal miner’s wives did not hold jobs. But they still had to pay back the loan, which was a collateralized loan, and the women themselves were the collateral. Their physical selves would be used to pay the debt.
Harris believes the formal system probably ended sometime between 1932 and 1934, a period when the United Mine Workers of America succeeded in heavily organizing West Virginia. “Once that was in place, the company wasn’t going to try to get away with it if you had a union contract,” Harris said in an interview.
The work of West Virginia author Michael Kline, one of the first to write extensively about the Esau system, is featured prominently in Truth Be Told. In a 2011 article published in the Appalachian Heritage journal and reprinted in Harris’s book, Kline explained that until quite recently, “the use of female flesh to extend credit to feed the family was never mentioned by our own regional historians.” West Virginians have accepted that early coal operators “were a mean, iron-willed breed bent on ruthless control and rising profits — but surely not that mean,” he wrote.
Many of these incidents allegedly occurred at the Whipple Colliery Company Store, located near Oak Hill, W.Va., where women would walk up to a room on the third floor to try on shoes and, in the process, would be raped by coal company guards. The Whipple Company Store was one of three company stores built by coal baron Justus Collins in Fayette County, W.Va.
Joy Lynn, who now co-owns the Whipple Company Store and has turned it into a museum, told Kline she has had as many 10 women visit the museum who referred to the third-floor space as “the rape room” because that is how the mine guards forced the women to pay for their shoes. “They would have to keep their mouths shut tight about what had happened to them upstairs,” Lynn said, because the mining companies would threaten to kick them out of their company-owned houses.
The name of Esau comes from a story in the Book of Genesis from the Old Testament in which Esau, a starving hunter staggers into his younger brother Jacob’s tent, begging for food. Jacob feeds his older brother but only after forcing Esau to sign away his birthright.
“For the miner’s wife, forfeiting on the Esau agreement meant submitting to the sexual depredations of the company men, compromising her own integrity and birthright, all for a poke of beans to feed her children, or a week’s rent to keep a roof over their heads,” Kline wrote.
Kline said learning about the “bureaucratized rape” in the coal fields of West Virginia was a shocking revelation to him.
His article on Esau won a Denny C. Plattner Award, but it also earned Kline the wrath of academia. Harris writes in Truth Be Told that professors demanded more sources and more concrete proof, but they did not step up to assist in the research. The work of further documenting the existence of Esau scrip fell to a limited number of “unfunded independent scholars” like Harris.
In Truth Be Told, Harris provides additional documentation based on hundreds of in-person interviews. Many of these people recall their grandmothers or other family members telling stories about these acts, including “having sex with the mine boss or bosses to get her husband’s job back.”
Since the publication of his article on Esau in Appalachian Heritage, Kline writes that “numerous accounts of institutionalized forced sexual servitude in the coal fields have surfaced.”
A woman from West Virginia told Harris and Kline a story about her great-grandmother who was “rented” to coal company agents at the age of 12. She would spend four to six months at a time in sexual servitude in coal camps. “And if the girls had babies, the babies would be taken and sold,” the woman said.
The girls and young women who were taken from their homes in West Virginia were called “comfort girls” or “comfort wives” during their time in servitude. The Japanese government followed the same model, forcing Korean and Chinese woman to work as “comfort women” during World War II. Japan has refused to apologize for forcing the women into sexual servitude, claiming the women were voluntary prostitutes. In West Virginia, state officials have never acknowledged the existence of this formal system of sexual servitude.
The West Virginia woman interviewed by Harris and Kline said her great-grandmother felt so desperate at the time that she did not have any qualms about selling her own babies. “I mean, if you’re a woman and the only thing you have to make money with is your body, and you end up pregnant, you can’t afford to feed that baby. So what are you going to do?” she said.
A woman who needed another week’s worth of groceries or needed new shoes would pay with their own bodies, the woman said.
“My sense is they weren’t ashamed,” Harris said about the exploited women. “It wasn’t something they were embarrassed about. It was very much in the same vein as the men going into the coal mine and taking risks they had no business taking. It’s like you do what you have to do to feed your family. They didn’t talk about it, but they certainly weren’t ashamed of it. Why would you be ashamed of feeding your kids?”
Some academics remain unconvinced such a heinous system existed in West Virginia’s southern coal fields. Paul Rakes, a professor of history at West Virginia University, believes the stories are not credible. Coal miners would not have tolerated such treatment of women, he said in a 20-minute documentary produced by Catherine Moore. “Those men I know from years of research would have done one of two things: 1) they would have either left that camp as soon as they knew this kind of behavior was required or a potential danger; or 2) they would have reacted to it violently,” he said.
Rakes told Moore that he has researched criminal court proceedings in Fayette County and has never come across anything like the Esau story. “If this kind of behavior was common, was an actual institutionalized part of the operating procedure, you could not keep all these things quiet. It would have ended up in Fayette County Court,” he said.
But Harris disagrees with Rakes’ conclusion and insists there are many topics that people in the coal fields feared to discuss. “The culture was: you do not talk,” he said.
“My best guess is they didn’t talk about it because if they had talked about it, they would have risked their husbands getting really irritated and going out and trying to get revenge. Your husband gets killed, you’re a widow, you’re on the street, you get kicked out of the company house,” he said.
The same secrecy surrounded the use of child labor well into the 20th century when boys as young as 10-years-old were still going into the mines in West Virginia. “They were admonished in a very firm fashion not to talk about the fact that they worked in the coal mines,” Harris said. If the children did tell a social worker, then the child could lose his job in the mine and his mother would be removed from her company-owned house.
In his research, Harris said the Esau system existed primarily in Fayette and Raleigh counties, W.Va. “We did not find Esau in Logan, Mingo and McDowell counties, historically the ‘rougher counties,’ but we did find similar behaviors in those counties — basically inappropriate sexual exploitation,” he said. The behavior in those three counties was not as formalized as it was in the region around the city of Beckley, W.Va.
“I wasn’t looking for Esau; it found me,” Harris said. “It was a secret system. Many, many people haven’t known about it. Unfortunately, we’ve found a lot of people who did know about it.”