Wednesday, January 21, 2015

You might be a Redneck

The phrase "You might be a Redneck", popularized by Jeff Foxworthy and defined by Merriam-Webster as a "a white person who lives in a small town or in the country especially in the southern U.S, who typically has a working-class job, and who is seen by others as being uneducated and having opinions and attitudes that are offensive", had an entirely different meaning in the 1920's.

How does this fit into my Rhea family history? One of the reasons my grandmother refused to live in the tiny area surrounding Sneedville, Tennessee was the mine. The only way to make extra money was to work in the mine and she didn't want that for her husband. So, in 1914, William Ogden Rhea and Mellie Farris Rhea, packed their bags and headed north until their money ran out in Billings, Montana.
William Ogden Rhea and Mellie (Farris) Rhea in Los Angeles, California, visiting my newly married parents in August 1947. 
The rest of the family, Martha Jane Rhea, my great grandmother, and three of the kids, continued to farm the land along the Clinch River. They did quite well supporting themselves by growing corn and tobacco. However, several family members were lured into working the mine for the money to supplement the farm income. The working conditions for the miners were brutal all through the Appalachian Mountains. There were no safeguards, the worker's and their families were terrorized, and working the mines brought black lung and other respiratory illnesses.

In a letter to my grandparents on January 1, 1919, Martha Jane Rhea wrote:

"The mining people is going slow. Wages for common work is $1.50, carpenter $3.00 or $3.50. A man by the name of Coberly from Joplin, M.O. is here to setup their machinery. His family is here. They claim to have one million and quarter dollars worth of mineral in sight." Big money for the investors, nothing for the miners.

It all came to a head in 1921 at the Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia when more than 10,000 coal miners confronted state and federal troops. Their goal was to unionize the Southwestern West Virginia mine counties. The labor laws in effect today were largely due to this battle for better working conditions. It was the biggest armed uprising in American labor history.

The protesting miners at Blair Mountain wore red bandannas around their necks, hence the term "Redneck". In this short video of the struggle, the bandannas can be seen in some of the pictures.

Do you have Rednecks in your family?

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