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How Cruel Was Our Valley

A conversation with R. Suzanne Sukle, author of Bucket of Blood, the Ragman's War.

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When people in a coal patch died fighting for a union, that town was sometimes called a "bucket of blood." Little do most Pittsburghers know that the tiny former company town of Russellton, 20 miles northeast of the city, earned this hard distinction during the grueling coal strike of 1927. In Bucket of Blood, the Ragman's War, Suzanne Sukle, who grew up there in the 1950s, tells the story as historical fiction. A Russellton legend -- the unsolved vengeance killing of one of the mine owners' Coal and Iron Police officers, claimed by several local families -- makes the novel's plot. The protagonists are borrowed from Sukle's own family -- her father and two uncles, sons of a local farmer -- who become involved when relatives are abused by the Coal and Iron Police. Sukle's father, former Marine boxer Theodore Albert Gall, later became a United Mine Workers of America organizer and a labor and civil rights activist.

 

For Russellton and other Western Pennsylvania towns, the 1927 strike was a failure. A combination of Coal and Iron Police brutality, the threat of another harsh winter and the union's dwindling resources effectively ended the strike by mid-1928, driving strikers back to work at a lower wage. A miners' union in Russellton wouldn't be recognized until Roosevelt's National Labor Relations Act of 1935 guaranteed the right to organize.

 

Why historical fiction instead of straight history?

A lot of people I wanted to read it wouldn't read it if it was dry fact. The young people of Russellton might not read their history. And this way you can show the emotion.

 

How have the Russellton events been depicted up to now?

There were two movies made about the strike. The Miners' Strike was released in 1928. It was made in cooperation with National Miners Relief Committee -- they were Communist-backed. This movie had actual footage filmed in the camps. Now you're talking about a government controlled by industrialists, their profits and this good stock market of the Roaring Twenties depends on keeping these people in servitude. ... It's like oil today. So the movie was banned.

 

Another movie exists, and there probably are prints of it somewhere. That movie was based on a screenplay called Black Hell that was written by the Honorable Judge Michael A. Musmanno of Pittsburgh. He tried to document the brutality of the Coal and Iron Police and the lack of civil rights. It was picked up by Warner Brothers, [but] WB had the script completely redone. But even so, the Hollywood version, Black Fury, was considered too radical so they had to cut out a lot of controversial parts. And even then it was still banned in many cities, so WB abandoned the film.  

 

Could the miners leave the valley to get a job in Pittsburgh?

How could they? They couldn't speak English, they had no family, no friends, nothing outside the coal camps. Remember, [companies] recruited in Italy for that purpose: to isolate and dominate. What are you gonna do? You're gonna stay where you are. And coal mining is all you know.

 

Is the brutality of the Coal and Iron Police that you portray -- including the rape and harassment of women -- also factual?

Yes, that's why a lot of people didn't talk about [the strike]. That happened to a lot of women. You know why [the guards] could do that? The company owned the houses and they could come in at any time. And the women had to keep quiet, because their men could be killed.

 

Lots of killings and beatings never got reported. When researching the book, I was in the [Community Library of Allegheny Valley] in Tarentum reading microfilm. This one elderly man said to me, "Did you find any murder in there in March of '28?" I said no. He said, "My father went [to Russellton] to visit his father, he got off the train and was stopped by Coal and Iron Police and they beat him and threw his body over the hill and he died."

 

Civil rights did not exist in the coal towns. They had a curfew, they had to show papers to leave and return, private property was seized and sold at auction, and they were not allowed to gather or bear arms.

 

If you ever drive through Russellton, [you'd see] it's very easy to control it. There's the one main road, with the Bessemer tunnel, and the other entrance, [with] a train overpass. The other roads were badly rutted, and the company controlled the train station.

 

What lessons does this history suggest?

Today, instead of importing immigrants, we take the companies [overseas] to keep profits high with cheap labor. We could use some organizers over there. My dad would feel bad to see the labor movement today -- a lot of the stuff he fought for is disappearing.

 

Does Russellton want the larger community to know this history, or is it too personal?

I think it's just something that got overlooked. A lot of them say they'd like to see a movie made of it. Maybe it took this book to bring it out, so they could look at it in a good light. It's nothing to be ashamed of. I'm planning a sequel, because I promised the people in Russellton that I'd tell the rest of the story.

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