Interview with Lonzo Johnson, July 25, 1987

Lonzo Johnson was born in Carter County, Kentucky, in 1907. His father, Thomas Johnson, worked in the coal mines around Matewan, West Virginia. In 1916 his family moved to Rockhouse on Marrowbone Creek where his father began working for the Marrowbone Mining Company. Lonzo Johnson himself began working in the mines when he was sixteen years old and worked as a miner for 45 years mainly at the Henry Clay mine. He recalls that when he first started mining he made two dollars a day, or thirty-five cents a ton. The company then took out deductions for his rent, coal, electricity, and medical care. He describes the division within the coal camps between the sections where the miners lived and the sections where the bosses lived. At Henry Clay, the bosses lived in "Boss Town." Johnson talks about the clean-up system that required that a miner clean up all the coal and rock no matter how long it took. He recalls that when the UMWA tried to organize on Marrowbone Creek, the miners and organizers frequently met on the railroad tracks at Hellier because they were not allowed on company land. He mentions Tom Raney and George Titler as two of the early organizers. If a miner was overheard talking about the union, he was fired and blacklisted. He describes the tactics the company at Henry Clay used to fight the union including the use of armed guards and the installation of a spotlight above the town. He tells how union supporters out on strike would shoot the dinner bucket out of scabs' hands to try to discourage them from going to work. Johnson recalls that G-Tom Hawkins, an area lawyer and union supporter, would make speeches on behalf of the union. Steam engines brought the coal out of Marrowbone Creek. Black miners and their families had to ride in the Jim Crow car to Pikeville. Johnson remembers the loud, spirited singing that came from the black church. The black miners lived in "nigger town," worked in a different section of the mine than the white miners, and sat on a different side of the union hall during union meetings. Johnson comments that union miners "took care of each other but everybody knowed his place." Johnson remembers that at the Wolfpit mine, owned by McKinney Steel, scores of immigrant miners were killed. Johnson states that "the company didn't care." A miner would get killed and "they'd haul him out and keep working, same as you'd kill a chicken." He also talks about listening to his first radio, watching silent movies in the company town theaters, and playing company-sponsored baseball games.

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