The Archivist’s Nook: Speaking Labor to Power – W. B. Wilson

Photos of John Mitchell and W. B. Wilson from the pamphlet ‘Speech of William B. Wilson on Mitchell Day, October 29, 1901,’ Box 127, John Mitchell Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

Scottish immigrant and Pennsylvania coal miner, William Bauchop (W. B.) Wilson (1862-1934), became the voice of workers speaking to power as a founder of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) union, the first representative for labor in Congress, and the first secretary of labor in the Woodrow Wilson (no relation) administration. Although not a Catholic, W.B. worked during the Gilded Age and Progressive era to advance labor’s cause along with many Catholics such as T. V. Powderly, John Mitchell, John W. Hayes, and ‘Mother’ Jones. Wilson’s papers reside with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, but his documentary trail is well represented in the papers of his Catholic colleagues at the Catholic University of America Archives, and the digital version available by subscription at The History Vault.

W. B.’s family settled in the tightly controlled coal company town of Arnot, Tioga County, in the mountains of northern Pennsylvania. In 1871, not yet 10, Wilson went to work in the mines. As a young man he began to organize his fellow workers, becoming blacklisted by mine owners, and thus working a series of jobs as lumberjack, mill hand, and railroad worker. Active in the Knights of Labor, where he was a supporter of leader Terence V. Powderly, as evidenced by his letter of March 5, 1895. W. B. was also a founder of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in 1890, serving on their National Executive Board though he remained an active coal miner until 1898. He served as UMWA Secretary-Treasurer, 1900-1908, working closely with President John Mitchell as his “wise and sagacious counselor”¹ during the Great Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902, winning higher wages, shorter working days, and national recognition of the union. During this time he also became a colleague of celebrated labor activist, ‘the Miner’s Angel,’ Mary Harris ‘Mother’ Jones, who usually addressed him as “My Dear Comrade’ in her numerous letters.²

Letter denouncing John W. Hayes, who had engineered the ouster of T. V. Powderly from leadership of the Knights of Labor. W. B. Wilson to T. V. Powderly, May 24, 1895, Box 48, T.V. Powderly Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

W. B. went on to serve three terms, March 4, 1907-March 3, 1913, as a Democratic congressman from Tioga County. In Congress, he introduced legislation creating the Bureau of Mines and established a Department of Labor, which included the Bureau of Labor Statistics that had been headed successively by Catholic University professors Carroll D. Wright and Charles P. Neill. In 1912, W. B. became chairman of the House Labor Committee but was defeated for a fourth term in Congress. However, incoming Democratic President, Woodrow Wilson appointed W. B. as Secretary of Labor, heading the department he had created from March 5, 1913, to March 5, 1921. There he conciliated numerous potential strikes, regulate working conditions for women, and during World War I created an employment service moving more than six million workers to places where workers were needed. He also worked to provide insurance for military members and housing and higher wages for war workers. W. B. also worked diligently to restrain excesses of Attorney-General A. Mitchell Palmer during ‘The Red Scare’ regarding Communist threats in 1919-1920.

W. B. left the Labor Department in 1921, where incidentally he had been reunited with his former Knights of Labor chief Powderly who now reported to the Secretary from his position as head of the department’s Information Bureau. Out of government, W. B. engaged in mining and agricultural pursuits near Blossburg, Tioga County. He made a foray back into politics for an unsuccessful run for the U. S. Senate in 1926. Thereafter, W. B. did some work as an arbiter in Illinois coal fields but otherwise lived in retirement until dying on a train returning from Florida near Savannah, Georgia, on May 25, 1934. He is buried beside his wife, fellow immigrant Agnes Williamson, whom he married in 1883, in Blossburg’s Arbon Cemetery, not far from other family members. He is remembered for speaking labor’s “truth to power.”³ He was also an occasional poet, poignantly expressing the immigrant’s longing in Memories (1916):

Group portrait of Anthony Caminetti and T. V. Powderly flanking their boss, William B. Wilson, at the Labor Department, n.d., This photo and others of Wilson can be found in both the John Mitchell and T. V. Powderly online digital photo collections.

True, there stood Penn’s forest as stately as ever,
And, there, the wide meadows and tall growing grain,
And down in the valley the swift flowing river
Fast winding its way to the billowy main.
Yet though my heart loves them with loyal devotion,
My memory dwells on sweet visions of yore,
And pictures that country far over the ocean,
The land of my fathers, old Scotia’s loved shore.

Special thanks to the best online source for William B. Wilson: Blossburg.org. I also owe a personal debt to ‘Dunny’ Dunlap, an aged corner store owner in my hometown of Cherry Tree, Pennsylvania, who would regale me with stories about his wife’s uncle, W. B. Wilson.


¹ Craig Phelan. Divided Loyalties: The Public and Private Life of Labor Leader John Mitchell. State University of New York Press, 1994, p. 91, citing the United Mine Workers Journal of June 18, 1903.

² See Edward M. Steel (ed.) The Correspondence of Mother Jones. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985.

³ To borrow an iconic phrase attributed to later civil rights leader Bayard Rustin.

The Archivist’s Nook: Digital Rebirth – Labor Collections at Catholic University

Boxes, microfilm reels, and guide books for the Powderly, Hayes, and Mitchell Papers, 2018. American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

The papers of Terence V. Powderly, John W. Hayes, and John Mitchell, three Gilded Age and Progressive Era labor leaders of national importance are now available online in digital format thanks to a partnership between The Catholic University of America (CUA) and ProQuest’s History Vault subscription service. Securing collections of notable Catholic labor leaders like Mitchell, Powderly, and Hayes was facilitated at CUA in the 1940s by labor priests, John A. Ryan, Francis J. Haas, and George G. Higgins, all of whose papers reside in the university’s archives. There were some advances in accessibility via microfilming in the 1970s and more recently with the creation of detailed finding aids and digital collections via the Washington Research Library Consortium (WRLC) of Powderly and Mitchell photographs since 2001. However, the current ProQuest digitization project, based on scanning the microfilm, culminates over seventy years of archival outreach.

Knights of Labor Pamphlet, 1889. T.V. Powderly Papers via the ProQuest History Vault.

Powderly, subject of a previous blog post, was the son of Irish immigrants, born in Carbondale, Pennsylvania, in 1849. He joined the International Union of Machinists and Blacksmiths in 1871 and the Scranton, Pennsylvania, Local Assembly of the Knights of Labor in 1876, where he rose to national leadership as Grand (later General) Master Workman, 1879-1893. He was also a progressive mayor of Scranton, 1878-1884. From 1897-1901, he was Commissioner General of Immigration, and thereafter held several other federal immigration or labor posts. After his death in 1924 Powderly’s papers were retained by various family members until his niece, Mary, donated them in 1941 to CUA through the influence of Msgr. Haas. They richly detail the organization of labor, immigration policy, and political patronage in late nineteenth and early twentieth century America. The correspondence and reports are treasure troves of primary source material while the photographs and lantern slides display a wealth of cultural imagery and geographical landmarks.  The microfilming project of 1974 (94 reels) was funded by the Microfilming Corporation of America and edited by John A. Turcheneske, Jr.

Parade in Honor of John Mitchell, Scranton, Pennsylvania, 1903. Mitchell Papers via the ProQuest History Vault.

John William Hayes was born in 1854 in Philadelphia to Irish immigrants. Working as a brakeman he lost his right arm in a railroad accident in 1878 and thereafter learned telegraphy. He joined the Knights in 1874, was elected to their General Executive Board in 1884, and became General Secretary Treasurer in 1888. He worked closely with Powderly until 1893 when Hayes joined with the socialists and populist agrarians to oust Powderly from leadership. Hayes remained in control of the fading Knights, who were losing out to the American Federation of Labor (AFL), first as General Secretary-Treasurer until 1902, then as General Master Workman until the closure of the Knights headquarters in Washington in 1916. The Hayes Papers (49 boxes; 24.5 linear feet) were donated to CUA by his family in 1943, the year after Hayes died, and are almost equally divided between official Knights of Labor correspondence and his personal affairs. They were microfilmed (15 reels) together with the Powderly Papers in 1974.

Mitchell, also subject of a previous blog post, was the legendary leader of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), born 1870 in Braidwood, Illinois. Orphaned at an early age, he worked as a coal miner. He was first a member of the Knights of Labor and then, successively, legislative agent, organizer, vice president and president of the fledgling UMWA.  His leadership in Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902 resulted in significant gains for coal miners and greater recognition for the UMWA. Mitchell was also vice president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and member of various national, state, and local civic organizations. He died in 1919 and is buried in Scranton, Pennsylvania.  In 1942, Msgr. Haas contacted the Mitchell children and arranged for their father’s papers to be donated to the university. They include correspondence and meeting minutes regarding such watershed issues as standardized wages, safe working conditions, and collective bargaining. The Mitchell Papers, sans most clippings and many photographs, was microfilmed (55 reels) and a printed guide prepared by editor, John A Turcheneske, Jr., in 1975.

The promotional brochure for the ProQuest History Vault, 2018

ProQuest is well known in educational circles for curating an archive of billions of vetted, indexed documents connected via a variety of research communities. The ProQuest History Vault debuted in 2011 and is constantly adding new documentation of widely studied topics in American history. A particular strength is social movements, especially racial justice, women’s rights, and organized labor. The collections, with enhanced search features, can be purchased as a perpetual archive or as a subscription, providing research access for students and faculty to materials held at geographically dispersed archives. The Powderly, Hayes, and Mitchell papers are part of the module, ‘Labor Unions in the U.S., 1862-1974: Knights of Labor, AFL, CIO, and AFL-CIO,’ which include collections from the University of Maryland and the Wisconsin Historical Society. Because the History Vault digitization project scanned the 1970s microfilm, portions of the Powderly and Mitchell papers are not represented. Files deemed duplicative or unprocessed, but also printed materials and photographs that did not show up well on microfilm, were omitted. The non-microfilmed portions are so noted on the Powderly and Mitchell finding aids and remain open to traditional archival research, as is also the case with all the original materials. Additionally, and as mentioned above, many Mitchell and Powderly photographs are freely available online via WRLC.

For more information on ProQuest History Vault, visit the ProQuest History Vault webpage.

The Archivist’s Nook: John Mitchell – Apostle of Labor

Contemporary newspaper depicting the people and events of the Anthracite Coal Strike, 1902. John Mitchell Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.
Contemporary newspaper depicting the people and events of the Anthracite Coal Strike, 1902. John Mitchell Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

May First is a date full of meaning as ‘May Day’, a traditional European spring festival, the Feast Day of St. Joseph the Worker for Roman Catholics, and International Workers’ Day for leftists. However one marks this day it is certainly an appropriate time to note one of the most important figures in American labor history, John Mitchell, whose archival papers, including an online digital collection of his photographs, are housed at Catholic University. If Terence V. Powderly can be called ‘Labor’s American Idol,’ Mitchell was widely recognized as The Apostle of Labor after he led the fledgling United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) union through one of history’s most significant strikes, the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902. He also wrote two books, Organized Labor (1903) and The Wage Earner (1913), arguing capital and labor could work together if both were linked in prosperity.

Mitchell was born 4 February 1870 in the coal mining village of Braidwood, Illinois, to poor Irish immigrants. Orphaned at a young age, he had little opportunity for education, and by age 12 was working in the coal mines. He joined the Knights of Labor in 1885 and in 1890 was a founding member of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). He became an international union organizer in 1897, working alongside the celebrated “Mother” Mary Harris Jones, before being elected UMWA Vice President that same year, and President in 1899. Union activity in this era was a risky business as coal operators controlled the mines, coal towns, and coal miners who were forced to endure horrible conditions and long hours. Miners were often paid with coupons that could only be redeemed at company stores at inflated prices and had to buy tools and supplies such as dynamite for blasting and oil for lamps. As UMWA president, Mitchell, with his priestly mien, worked to incorporate new workers from various immigrant groups, mostly Catholic, who showed their affection by nicknaming him ‘Johnnie da Mitch.’   Continue reading “The Archivist’s Nook: John Mitchell – Apostle of Labor”

The Archivist’s Nook: More Than You Imagine – The Archives at Catholic University

Photograph from the opening ceremony for the Archives at CUA, December 8, 1949, with, left to right, Patrick O'Boyle, Archbishop of DC and Chancellor of the University, Fr. Henry Browne, first CUA Archivist, and Wayne Grover, Archivist of the United States
Photograph from the opening ceremony for the Archives at CUA, December 8, 1949, with, left to right, Patrick O’Boyle, Archbishop of DC and Chancellor of the University, Fr. Henry Browne, first CUA Archivist, and Wayne Grover, Archivist of the United States

Though there was a museum at The Catholic University of America (CUA) going back to the university’s founding in the late 19th century, the Archives at CUA originated much later as shortly before World War II Msgr. Francis Haas began collecting the papers of important Catholic labor leaders such as Terence Powderly, head of the Knights of Labor (1879-1893), and John Mitchell, president of the United Mine Workers of America (1898-1908). These papers were stored in Mullen Library, but there was no staff to organize nor rooms where researchers might examine them. After the war, history faculty, particularly Rev. John Tracy Ellis, worried that university history and of Catholic Americans generally was being lost through neglect of vital records and papers.

As a result of Ellis’ advocacy, a committee that included Msgr. Edward Jordan (the vice rector), Mr. Eugene Willging (acting director of the library), and Rev. Henry Browne, was formed to establish an archives envisioned as the “memory” of the university, a depository for collection of the nation’s Catholic leaders and important organizations, and a resource for the history of Catholics in the American labor movement. The Archives officially opened on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8, 1949) in an impressive ceremony that included Wayne Grover, archivist of the United States; Archbishop O’Boyle, chancellor of the university; Ernst Posner, archivist of American University and a seminal theorist of archives; Philip Brooks, president of the Society of American Archivists; and Dr. Guy Ford Stanton, executive director of the American Historical Association (see photograph above). They spoke of the importance of archives in the preservation of culture, and, specifically, of the Catholic Church’s long tradition as a keeper of historical records.   Continue reading “The Archivist’s Nook: More Than You Imagine – The Archives at Catholic University”