Davis, Richard L.
Richard L. Davis
Labor leader, coal miner
Coal miner Richard L. Davis has been called the most important black miner in the late 1800s and into the turn of the twentieth century. He was a founder of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in 1890 and a delegate to its first convention. He held leading positions with the organization twice, serving as a member of its national executive board. He was a tireless organizer whose work as union leader and ability to deal with black workers and organized labor in the 1890s command attention and discussion.
Much more is known about Richard L. Davis's activities as a coal miner and officer of the UMWA than is known about his personal life. It is known that he was born in Roanoke, Virginia, on December 24, 1864, just before the Civil War ended. The circumstances of his birth and whether his parents were slave or free are unknown. The United Mine Workers' Journal (UMWJ) refers to him as "a full-blooded colored man" and nothing more. Davis attended school in Roanoke but only during the winter months, yet he received a fair education. He was also a good reader and writer, which facilitated his work later on. When he was only eight years old he took a job in a local tobacco factory and remained there for nine years. The deplorable conditions that he endured in that factory prompted him to seek employment elsewhere, moving to a coal miner's job in the Kanawha and New River regions of West Virginia.
Davis then lived in a small, mining village of Rendville, Ohio, in 1882, located southeast of Columbus in the Hocking Valley region. There he settled down, married, and the couple had children. There are no known records giving his wife's name or the number of their children. First-hand accounts giving the little that is known about Davis's life and work are published in the UMWJ and the labor paper, the National Labor Tribune, published in Pittsburgh.
- Born in Roanoke, Virginia on December 24
- Relocates to Rendville, Ohio
- Becomes delegate to United Mine Workers of America Convention; elected to Executive Board, Ohio's District 6, United Mine Workers of America
- Recruits blacks for union membership
- Dies of lung ailment in Rendville, Ohio on January 24
Clearly, Davis's life as a coal miner offered few amenities. For Davis and his fellow miners, the work was unsteady, resulting in recurrent unemployment. Workers in the coal-mining region of Ohio suffered from the mid-1980s depression. As cited by Jacobson in The Negro and the Labor Movement, Davis described the situation in a letter to the editor of the UMWJ dated February 28, 1895: "Times in our little village remain the same …—no work and much destitution with no visible signs of anything better." Conditions did not improve, work had all but ceased, and neither Davis nor his fellow miners knew what to do. Over a year later, on April 30, 1896, he wrote to the journal's editor: "We can't earn a living, and if we steal it we will be prosecuted." Conditions improved slightly by 1897, yet during one week the miners worked only half a day.
Becomes Union Organizer
Davis worked intermittently both as a miner and union organizer. From age eighteen until he died, he was an active participant in the labor movement. He joined the Knights of Labor and then the United Mine Workers of America. He was a delegate to the founding convention of the UMWA in 1890 and at the same time was elected to Ohio's district 6 executive board, a post that he held until 1896. His success was duly noted in the UMWJ, which celebrated his election by publishing a brief biographical sketch of Davis (referred to him as "Dick") and the other new officers. The UMWJ said that he represented his race well and that the miners were confident that blacks should be recognized on the board. Jacobson published the journal's view that, "He will in a special way be able to appear before our colored miners and preach the gospel of trade unions and at the same time will be able to prove to our white craftsmen how much progress may be made with very limited opportunities." "Dick" had merited the recognition "from either standpoint, for as a man, and more especially as a union man, he has deserved well of the miners of this country," the journal continued. The journal also praised him for his seriousness and wished him well. In 1895, he was seventh among twenty-eight candidates for one of six vacancies on UMWA's international executive board. Davis in 1897 had the highest number of votes among fourteen candidates who sought the UMWA office. With that post he held the highest position of an African American in the UMWA.
After Davis was defeated in the 1898 election, his popularity among the delegates fell dramatically. He concentrated on organizing black workers in southeastern Ohio and was successful in recruiting Ohio's black miners for union membership. While in 1892 he had recruited in West Virginia's New River field and in McDonnell, Pennsylvania, in 1894 he moved his efforts to the Pocahontas field of West Virginia. In 1897–98, Davis organized black miners elsewhere in West Virginia as well as in Ohio. In Alabama in the 1890s he had extreme difficulty combating the color line, where racial prejudice among blacks was deep and legally enforced segregation was hardening. Biracial unionism there, regardless of the advocates, presented a grim shadow over his work. Sadly convinced of the need for immediate and dramatic change, he wrote to the UMWJ's editor on January 1, 1898: "As our people [the Negroes] are celebrating the emancipation proclamation, we will stop now and go out to listen for awhile. But we need another proclamation of equal importance, and that one is to emancipate the wage slaves both white and black."
Apparently Davis was a religious man. His published letters reflected religious images; Jacobson notes his letters to the UMWJ's editor in 1895 through 1898 in which Davis commanded, "Let us resolve to do better. We are taught by the Holy Writ that in unity there is strength." He reminded Massillon, Ohio, miners who threatened to leave the union that "Except those abide in the ship, ye cannot be saved," quoting Paul in the New Testament.
Some believe that Davis's commitment to trade unionism hurt ordinary miners. In 1898, some black miners claimed that Davis and other miners organized a strike for the purpose of restoring a wage scale. Davis was affected by the strike and went without work while other miners were able to find work. By 1898, he lived in a pitiful condition, having been black-listed for unknown reasons. Mining companies refused to hire him and his union refused to pay him for his organizational work. Although Davis had done what he thought best, he also did so in the interest or organized labor. He had lived at risk; his life had been threatened, and he had been sandbagged, stoned, and deprived of his rights to support himself and his family.
According to Jacobson, a black miner from Congo, Ohio called "Old Dog" joined Davis's complaint about being unable to find work in the mines or work to do as an organizer. "Old Dog" knew that Davis had worked hard in the interest of black miners and had brought many Ohio workers into the union. He petitioned the UMWJ and its readers to provide support for Davis and his family. He deserved better treatment than he received. Others took up the cause as well, praising Davis for his work. Through it all, Davis's commitment to organized labor never waned.
Richard Davis died young, just one month after his thirty-fifth birthday, in Rendville, Ohio, of "lung fever" on January 24, 1900. Ironically the UMWA was in convention in another city at the time. His work touched local, regional, and national arenas. Both the UMWA and black miners had lost a key advocate of workers' rights. Although he was most influential in southeastern Ohio where he lived and worked, Davis had fought racial injustice within and beyond organized labor at a pivotal moment in the history of America's industrial society.
Fink, Gary M. Biographical Dictionary of American Labor Leaders. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1974.
Jacobson, Julius, ed. The Negro and the American Labor Movement. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Anchor Books, 1968.
Frederick D. Smith