Buxton, Iowa…a Labor Day story

In Editorial on September 4, 2011 at 8:51 pm

Several months ago, I thoroughly enjoyed a program on Iowa Public Television that told the amazing story of Buxton, Iowa.

Buxton, located near Oskaloosa, enjoyed the reputation of being America’s first fully (and only) racially integrated municipality.  African-Americans and whites enjoyed unprecedented equality in jobs, housing, and lifestyle.  There were “Negro” teachers standing before white students and getting identical pay as their white colleagues.  The happy side of the story tells us that whites and blacks cooperated racially in the best interests of coal production and civic mindedness.

After the mine closed, the population moved along and rejoined mainstream America.  African-American former Buxtonites lamented that they never again enjoyed such equality in America.

It appeared to be a story about a racial “Brigadoon”.

This would not be a Labor Day editorial if it were about the racial “successes” of Buxton, Iowa.

I became quite curious about Buxton and its history.  Even a hundred years later, whites and African-Americans do not enjoy anything anywhere near the storybook-style harmony that once typified Buxton.

What was going on?  There had to be more.

There was!

Buxton was a company town and Consolidated Coal Company (CCC) was its owner.  The late 1800s were the beginning stirrings of labor unrest in the mines and the dark, dirty, and dangerous mining industry was a birthplace of the American labor movement.  Over the passing years, increasing numbers of coal mines were organized by the newly formed United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).  Strikes were becoming common and they disrupted the stream of coal destined to support America’s full swing industrial revolution.

Consolidated Coal Company looked for an expedient and cheap resolution to the potential strikes that loomed just outside their tipples.

White miners were typically new Americans of Welsh, Cornish, or Czech origin.  Back in their homelands, labor and employee-employer relations were still quite Dickensian.  These workers were just beginning to smell labor justice, but they had been conditioned back home to fear retaliatory redundancies that seemed to follow whenever workers began to flex a collective muscle.  Losing a job in those days, in those places, was often a death sentence for a family.

The question facing CCC was, “What can be added to this mix to keep our workers cowed for just a bit longer?”

CCC found the answer it was looking for in America’s Carolinas.  Newly freed African-Americans were shipped north, to Buxton…as strikebreakers.  Far from home and conditioned to be docile and obedient, these workers began to enjoy a standard of living that could hardly be imagined in the shadows of charred plantations.

According to historical accounts, Consolidated ran its company town with a paternalistic, iron fist.  Unmarried men were not hired and the only housing available to married workers were the “company homes” rented to them for a portion of their pay.

If a family “created a disturbance” they were summarily evicted with only five days notice.  There was no city council and the “police” consisted of two CCC “regulators” who kept some form of order.

They also decided who “created a disturbance”.

Workers were encouraged to reflect on “how lucky” they were to have “good jobs” and the company men regularly reminded workers of their precarious ability to keep those jobs under often capricious and arbitrary circumstances.

So, while Buxton Iowa makes for a deeply motivational story of racial harmony, the untold price of harmony was equal oppression of two racial groups of workers, each holding on desperately to what little a company permitted both white…and black…to hold.

Happy Labor Day from Phyne Dyning!


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