Jewish immigrants in the coalfields

When the mines opened in West Virginia, at first there was no way to get coal from the mines to the industrial centers of the East Coast. In came the railroads, hauling away the coal and coke. The railroads not only took coal out, but brought people and goods in. A lot of these people were immigrant miners, and a lot of the goods were for the company stores or the supplies needed to dig and shore up the mines. However, another group came in to the coalfields. Beginning in the 1880s, a large wave of Eastern European Jewish migration brought millions of Eastern Jews into the United States. While most settled in the large port cities of the East Coast such as Baltimore and New York City, many others spread out. By 1900, they had established thriving Jewish communities in the coalfields.

Jewish citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Russian Empire had hard lives. Under Austro-Hungarian rule, official and institutionalized anti-Semitism was not permitted. Despite this, Jewish citizens remained the victim of significant discrimination at the hands of citizens. In the Russian empire, things were much worse, where anti-Semitism was an official governmental policy. Jewish men could be conscripted into the army and could expect brutal treatment at the hand of officers and other enlisted men. They were confined to the Eastern part of the empire, the Pale of Settlement. They faced violent attacks and were only allowed to practice certain trades. For Jews in both empires, America offered an escape from that oppression. Jews were also hit by the recessions that visited both Empires at the end of the 19th century. America promised new economic horizons.

Most Jewish immigrants had landed in America in New York City or Baltimore. There, they most often found work in the garment industry. Many of them had worked in similar jobs in Europe. They worked in factories, as tailors and seamstresses, or stores. Unfortunately, they found themselves facing a new kind of oppression. This time, it was at the hands of the American industrial capitalist machine of the Gilded Age. They struggled with low wages and poor working conditions and were often stuck living in cramped tenement buildings.

Some of the earliest arrivals, such as Jacob Epstein, opened up successful wholesale firms. Soon they were looking to expand their markets beyond the big cities. For the immigrants who were already weary of the industrial grind of the cities, this opened up a new opportunity. Peddlers began spreading out from the cities, bringing with them the goods of the big wholesale stores, offering them to rural families throughout the country.

Pickus Brothers Department Store Advertisement, The Beckley Messenger, December 1917

So it was that Jewish immigrants found themselves in the coalfields. First came the peddlers, following the railroad tracks to the coal camps. When the tracks ended, they climbed the hills, bringing the comforts of the retail industry to the families of Southern West Virginia. As time passed, they began opening stores. Jacob Berman opened a clothing store in Keystone. The Pickus brothers, Louis and Nathan, established successful large department stores in Beckley. As they became successful and established, their families followed. For most of these Jewish immigrants, the rural communities of West Virginia were much like the villages they left in Europe. And, while the coal industry opened the region up geographically to them, their economic and social networks operated independently from the coal industry. This allowed them to interact with the industry in a way different than other West Virginians. They weren’t forced into interaction with the coal industry because it had taken their land and their livelihood. Instead, they were able to pursue economic opportunities on their own terms. In West Virginia, they were on the other side of the industrialization equation. In Europe, they faced mounting economic devastation as their rural way of life was lost to urbanization and industrialization. In the southern coalfields, they were able to use this same process to their advantage, coming out on top.

Article, Bluefield Daily Telegraph, 1935.

By the 1910s, several communities in southern West Virginia had Jewish populations large enough to sustain synagogues. Keystone, Bluefield, Kimball, Welch, Williamson, Beckley, and Logan had regular sabbath services. Beckley, Bluefield, and Williamson still have their congregations, but the others have closed due to the dwindling population over the years. For the decades at the beginning of the West Virginia coal industry, Jewish immigrants had important economic and community roles. They found a life free from oppression and open with possibilities and enriched the coal towns in the process.

Source: Deborah Weiner, “From Shtetl to Coalfield: The Migration of Eastern European Jews to Southern West Virginia”, in Transnational West Virginia: Ethnic Communities and Economic Change, 1840-1940, ed. Kenneth Fones-Wolf and Ron L. Lewis (Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2003), 73-111. This is a great collection of essays detailing several different immigrant communities throughout West Virginia.

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