52 Ancestors 52 Weeks – Wesley Watkins 1870-1929
Wesley Watkins was the name he went by in the found documents and as family members referred to him. Several of his descendants would also carry this same name. The difference in naming pattern has been John Wesley Watkins. He is my great grandfather on my paternal (Henry H. Carroll) maternal side (Lois Watkins).
Wesley was born in Walker County, Alabama August 1870, five years after slavery to John Wesley Sr. and Amanda Andrews. Wesley married Mary Eliza Bailey in 1892 and their children were Lulu, Smith, Floyd, Otis/Ocie, Wesley, Lillie Mae and Lois (my grandmother) between 1898 and 1912 in Alabama. Wesley worked as a farm laborer in 1880 and yet somehow according to family stories became involved in the coalmine industry in Jasper, Walker County Alabama. The story shared with me by my great uncle, Ocie and my father, Henry was that he was in charged of the black company store for the coal mining company. His sons, Smith, Floyd, Ocie and John Wesley would go back and forth between the black store and the white store performing errands during the early 1900’s. The freedom of movement between the two stores concerned my great grandfather Wesley and often I have wondered about that part of the story and needed to move beyond dates, places and names.
Researching the mining industry in Alabama opened many doors. Walker County Alabama was part of the 70,000 square miles from Pennsylvania and Ohio to Central Alabama that had coal deposits at the southern end of Appalachian coalfields. Alabama Coal Mining Company was the first company mining in the area and was owned by William Phineas and went back to around 1849. Coal mining began in Alabama during the 1830’s. Phineas was known to have used slave labor to mine the coal. My mouth fell open when learning about how state prisons began leasing convicts, arrested and incarcerated for insignificant offenses like vagrancy since many black men had no way to prove they were employed that is unless they were fortunate to have a landowner vouch for them. Thousands of black men were held in involuntary slavery due to minor charges that sheriffs and law enforcement would charge them with and earn money for convictions. They would leased those jailed to plantations/farms, railroads, lumber camps, etc. and the state of Alabama as well as other states in the Deep South gained by the leasing of humans to commercial enterprises. The advantage is this forced labor was beneficial to the appropriate state budget and in some states made up ten percent of their budget. This involuntary slave labor lasted right up to World War II (1940’s).
So my Family History Journey leads me to want to learn more about the terrible conditions of the mining industry for so many of my branches participated in coal mining. The book and Public Broadcasting TV station on “Slavery By Another Name”
caught my attention. The book was by Douglas A. Blackman and covers how coal mining in the south forced blacks into involuntary service after the “official” slavery period was over in 1865. It was harsh labor yet financial incentive was given to all that participated with the exception of the black male. Because personal individuals no longer owned slaves there was no real interest in keeping those workers alive. One case stated that about one third of the prisoners that worked in the mines died in Alabama yearly. This labor system has pretty much been excluded from America History yet lasted after Reconstruction in 1877 through 1928. The NAACP investigated many cases and even set up “underground railroads” in Georgia to assist blacks to leave the rural parts of the state. The Federal Government after turning their heads for years in fact for five decades finally acted in the mid 1930’s.
So what does this have to do with my great grandfather, Wesley Watkins? The family story is he was concerned for his sons going back and forth between the racial divided stores and felt it was time to migrate north. Now Pittsburgh Pennsylvania was the sister city of Birmingham and participated in the coalmining industry, which he knew a great deal about, so he packed his family up and I believe secured employment near the area in Ernest, Indiana County, Pennsylvania in the middle to later 1920’s. Wesley’s mother Amanda Andrews (age 78) was living with him in the 1920 US Census for Walker County and it is my belief it was after her death that they all moved to Ernest. Wesley died of a heart attack on 6 Sep 1929 and is buried on 10 September in Oakland cemetery in Earnest, Indiana Pennsylvania. Below is the record that his youngest daughter Lois Watkins, my grandmother recorded in his 1928 Bible.