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Labor historian to speak about W.Va. Socialist Party

Courtesy photo
Fred Barkey's book was published last year by the West Virginia University Press. He wrote it in 1971 for his Ph.D dissertation.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Labor historian Fred Barkey will talk about his book, "Working Class Radicals: The Socialist Party in West Virginia, 1898-1920" at the Culture Center at the state Capitol Tuesday evening.

Barkey writes about the rise and fall of the party in the Mountain State, based in large part upon his interviews in the 1960s with surviving members of the movement.

Socialist candidates were never elected to any state legislative offices, Barkey said during an interview Friday.

"But in a lot of smaller coal communities, local folks elected Socialists to be mayors, city council members, sheriffs, constables and justices of the peace."

The West Virginia Socialist Party created its first branch in Wheeling in 1901. In 1912, more than 15,000 West Virginians voted for Eugene V. Debs, the party's national presidential candidate that year.

The Socialist Party began collapsing in the wake of the 1912-1913 Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strikes, Barkey said.

Socialists were prominent in coal mining and in some craft occupations, such as glassmaking and cigar making.

"Some major cities in the state -- Huntington, Charleston, Morgantown, Fairmont and Wheeling -- elected a socialist councilman or two," Barkey said.

"Several cities were really socialist towns, such as Cameron, below Wheeling. Star City, near Morgantown, was the socialist city with the most longevity in the whole country. People elected there in 1911 were still in office in the early 1920s."

Barkey said he tries "to give the movement the justice it is due, in the sense that people made certain sacrifices for it. They were part of a pretty viable tradition and made real progress in the electoral process as well.

"They didn't carry the state, but you don't find too many places where an entire mining district goes socialist and elects people to office in places like the Cabin Creek district in Kanawha County or the area in Fayette County around Mount Carbon, Deep Water and Gauley Bridge."

Active branches of the socialist movement also grew around Wheeling and across the Ohio River in St. Clairsville.

"I will try to place the socialist movement in Charleston and West Virginia into the context of the times and what they did. They made a positive addition to progress in America, more or less," Barkey said. "Socialism, communism or anarchism have been so demonized that even people who were part of those traditions tend to deny it."

Barkey also plans to discuss Gov. Henry Hatfield. In April and May 1913, shortly after he became governor, Hatfield raided, destroyed equipment and shut down the Huntington Labor Star and Charleston Labor Argus -- charging they were socialist-leaning newspapers.

Hatfield jailed strike leaders and socialist activists, Barkey said.

"But all these guys who were involved in the movement really considered themselves to be progressive Republicans," he said.

Barkey hopes his talk conveys "what working people were thinking about back then, especially in contrast to today.

"Back then, a great number of workers had a big vision of a better society in America. Socialists tried to capitalize on that and translate it into political victories.

"Things are much more limited today. People think about working within the parameters of the system, rather than about what systemic changes are needed," Barkey said. "That would make this nation a better place to live in."

West Virginia University Press published Barkey's book last year. It was completed in 1971, as his Ph.D. dissertation in history at the University of Pittsburgh.

Today, Barkey is professor emeritus at Marshall University's West Virginia Graduate College. He also taught history at the University of Charleston and West Virginia University's Institute of Labor Studies.

Tuesday's program will begin at 6 p.m. in the Archives and History Library at the Culture Center. Admission is free and open to the public.

People are encouraged to register before the lecture, but registration is not required. People may register by calling 304-558-0230, ext. 163.Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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