Monday, November 26, 2012

Lucas County's black farmers & miners

The Wright family stone at Chariton Cemetery, showing Alfred's inscription.

This is mostly about Lucas County's only farming family of African American descent, but that family's history also involves southern Iowa's rich coal mining heritage, too, so there's a little here about both.

Lucas County's black population had peaked at approximately 200 by 1900, during the heydey of coal mining at Lucas and Cleveland. The census of that year shows 195 black residents, divided almost equally between Chariton and Jackson Township, where the county's mining industry was concentrated.

By comparison, Lucas County's black population was relatively small. Our neighbor to the east, Monroe County, had 558 black residents in 1900 --- the year the Consolidation Coal Co. opened the legendary Buxton mining camp there. It may be that Lucas County's black miners already had begun to move in that direction, as most would do.

Until the 1920s, the Buxton-area mines were among Iowa's most productive and were worked by miners who were, in the majority, black. Thousands of black miners lived and worked harmoniously with a minority white population. Even union-management relations at Buxton were for the most part friendly.

This had not been the case in Lucas County, where black miners had been brought in by mine owners to break strikes by white workers, contributing to less than harmonious relations.

 Appanoose, another southern Iowa mining center, had a black population of 437 during 1900.  By comparison, southern Iowa's largest city, Ottumwa, had 805 black residents; and Des Moines, 2,065.

But the opening of the Buxton mines, offering superior living and working conditions to black people, probably is a major reason why Lucas County's black population diminished after 1900 as the mining center shifted from Lucas to Chariton and northeastern townships and miners of eastern European descent filled the gap.

Census records also show that Lucas County had no black residents during its earliest days. There was no black population in 1850 and 1860 and only one black resident in 1856, a 14-year-old, Emy Miller, living with one of the Throckmorton families in Warren Township (the census page is damaged so I can't be sure which family). By 1870, Chariton had a black population of 38, but that number had dropped by 1880 to 29.

After 1900, as black miners moved away, Lucas County's population declined --- to 79 in 1910; 48 in 1920; 45 in 1925; and 43 in 1930. Black citizens who remained were for the most part representatives of families that had settled here in the 1870s and 1880s.

Through all of this, only one African American family engaged in farming in Lucas County --- the Wrights of English Township. The absence of black farmers probably had little to do with aspiration or skill and a lot to do with the cold hard fact that black families arrived in Iowa with no money to buy land. Nor were there opportunities here, other than in mining, to earn much beyond subsistence incomes.

Amanda's inscription on the west face of the family tombstone with Garfield's and Mary's stones to the right.

Alfred Daniel and Amanda (Green) Wright were the exception. They arrived in Chariton from Ray County, Missouri, in 1876. Ray County is located just north across the Missouri river from Jackson County (Kansas City and Independence) and Lafayette County (Lexington) and both Alfred and Amanda had been slaves there prior to emancipation.

By 1880, the Wrights had purchased 60 acres of land in Section 31 in the far southwest corner of English Township. This small farm, located about three miles north and a little west of Chariton, remained the family home until the mid-20th century. Their son, Garfield, was the last family member to farm it.

Because both Alfred and Amanda were born into slavery, it is very difficult to track their history. Slaves were considered property, enumerated in the South by age and sex rather than by name in census records and their marriages were not considered worth recording. In most slave states it was a crime to teach slaves to read and write, so most were illiterate and therefore kept no independent written records.

According to their obituaries, both Alfred and Amanda were born in "Crabapple County," Kentucky, but there is no such place. This could have been Crab Orchard, Kentucky, or any number of other places in Kentucky named after that flowering fruit tree. Whatever the case, they were brought to Missouri as enslaved children.

Alfred's year of birth is inscribed as 1830 on the tombstone he shares with Amanda in the Chariton Cemetery, but the date provided in his obituary (Chariton Herald-Patriot, July 6, 1922) is June 4, 1826. "About the age of 8 years as a slave he moved with his master to Ray County, Mo., where he remained until he was set free," according to that obituary.

Amanda's obituary (Chariton Herald-Patriot, July 27, 1917) states that she was born Oct. 14, 1814, which is absurd --- although it fits in with the assertion in the obituary that she was 103 years old when she died during 1917. The birth year 1833 is inscribed on the family tombstone, however, and census records suggest that this is the more accurate date. According to her obituary, "at the age of about nine years she went to Lafayette (County), Mo., as a slave."

According to their obituaries, Alfred and Amanda were married in Missouri on July 5, most likely 1851, perhaps 1852, and began married life in slavery. They became the parents of 16 children, the eldest of whom were born into slavery and 12 of whom lived to be adults.

After emancipation, the Wrights continued to live in Ray County where the family was enumerated (for the first time by name) in the 1870 federal census. Alfred, 40, and Amanda, 30, were living next door to Samuel Wright --- probably Alfred's brother --- and his family. Alfred and Amanda had six children by that time and both Alfred and Samuel were employed as farm laborers. Although he owned no real estate, Alfred did own personal property valued at $200.

I'd love to know why the Wrights selected Lucas County as their future home during the mid-1870s, but that information probably is lost. It may be that there was a family relationship between the Wrights and black families who had settled here earlier.

The Wrights were early members of Chariton's Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now Community of Christ) congregation. According to Alfred's obituary, "he united with the Reorganized Latter Day Saints church through the preaching of Elders Jas. McDiffit and Geo. Spencer, formerly of Chariton."

Many of the Wright sons were miners, apparently working in the mines of Monroe County. It may have been in the black mining community there that several of the children who married met their spouses.

The mines of Monroe County claimed the life of one of those sons, Bert May Wright, who was killed in a fall of slate at a mine near the Consol camp on Nov. 30, 1920. His body was returned to Chariton for funeral services and burial on the family lot in the Chariton Cemetery.

Amanda Wright had died, in her 80s, on July 23, 1917. She was misrepresented in her obituary as 103 years old, "probably the oldest woman in Lucas County." Exactly why these claims of extreme old age were made, or who made them, isn't known. Neither Alfred nor Amanda could read or write.

Alfred died five years later, on July 3, 1922, probably at the age of about 92.

Several family members continued to live on the family farm in English Township as the years passed, including son Elijah, who died during 1938 and is buried in an unmarked grave near those of his parents. Garfield Wright, who died in 1961, probably was the last although Mary (Wright) Brown, who died during 1967, also lived at various times on the farm. The graves of both Garfield and Mary are near those of their parents.

Here is an imperfect accounting of the Wright children: Green, the eldest son, seems to have lived much of his life near Richmond, Missouri, but had moved to Portland, Oregon, by 1922; Abraham, seems to have lived and died at Lexington, Missouri; Samuel, died at Lexington on July 6, 1933; Jennie (Wright) Coleman, living at Peoria, Illinois, during 1922; Frank L., died at Lexington on April 30, 1945; Elijah, died 1938 at Chariton; Arthur B., living at Consol in Monroe County during 1922; Bert May, killed in the mines at Consol during 1920; Belle (Wright) Martin, lving at Chariton during 1922; Mary (Wright) Brown, living on the family farm in 1922, died 1967; Garfield, died at Chariton 1961; and Daniel, living in Kansas City during 1922.

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