Virden, Illinois Race Riot (1898)

Virden, Illinois, ca. 1900
Virden, Illinois, ca. 1900
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The Virden, Illinois Race Riot was an example of the combination of labor and racial violence in the late 19th and early 20th century United States. Following a United Mine Workers (UMW) national coal strike in 1897, a new 40-cents-per-ton rate was agreed on by all Illinois coal companies and the Illinois district of the UMW in January 1898. Then, the Chicago-Virden Coal Company abrogated the agreement and brought in African American miners from Birmingham, Alabama as strikebreakers to work the mines at Virden, a town twenty-five miles southwest of Springfield, Illinois.

On September 25, 1898, a trainload of Birmingham miners arrived in Virden. A stockade around the mine entrance had already been constructed next to the railroad tracks to protect the arriving black miners. About 300 armed striking white miners, mostly immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, came from throughout central Illinois to meet the train of strikebreakers. The train slowed down near the Virden station but then sped past the station and went on to Springfield, Illinois, without trying to drop off the miners in the mine stockade.

The white UMW miners continued to patrol the tracks around Virden, expecting the mine owners would try to bring the strikebreakers back to the town. By October 12, 1898, their numbers had swelled to two thousand when the mine owner made another run on the Virden station. Shooting started as the train sped past the depot with another load of Birmingham miners and their families. This time, however, it stopped at the nearby stockade.

A pitched battle ensued, between Thiel Agency detectives from St. Louis on the train-car platforms, supplemented by Chicago police inside the stockade, against armed white union miners in a field opposite the stockade. Seven striking miners and five guards were killed, with as many as thirty individuals wounded, including a black Birmingham miner. The violence lasted about ten minutes.

The train engineer, wounded in the arm, sped out of Virden to Springfield, Illinois, where the injured and dead were taken off the train. The Alabamans were promised care and transportation by UMW officials, and were persuaded to come to the union hall. The next day, October 13, the union abruptly announced it would not protect or care for the African Americans beyond six o’clock that evening. A pair of black miners tried to run from the union hall to the train station, but were caught by the white miners and badly beaten. A mob gathered at the union hall threatening to lynch the strikebreakers but Mayor Loren Wheeler of Springfield calmed them down and arranged to send the Birmingham miners to St Louis on the next train. There, they were abandoned without money, food, or warm clothes.

State troops were called in to Virden at that point, and there was no more violence. Inquests and investigations were conducted, charges were filed against both the mine owners and some white striking miners, but the subsequent trials brought no convictions. The company acceded to strikers’ demands, and the mine re-opened shortly with only white UMW workers. Virden became a sundown town. As late as 1908, only one of the 3,123 miners in Macoupin County, where Virden is located, was African American.