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: 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”