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Forging a Path Through History

Army of Amazons
          The stories that you tell about your past shape your future.

If one ever doubts the closeness of the past, you need only travel to the open fields of southeast Kansas that once bled black and red with the extraction of coal; land bruised black and blue over the struggles for justice and equality. And there, through the mist of yesteryear, glimpse the figures marching resolute up the wintery roads, flags unfurled, shivering in the early dawn light, unyielding, singing and dancing blithely over the approaching sound of a hundred horse's hooves and the muffled pop of militia rifle-fire. Winding their way, with each determined step, to join the great weaponless armies gone before. Forging a path whose destination reaches the doorstep of the great deeds of history.

Personal stories are what become public history, through future generations that rediscover them; stories that revisit the larger themes and enduring principles that originally created and sustained them. Recently the author of a new nonfiction book explained how, in 1775, a particular protest action by the colonists was not lauded as a significant event and, consequently, was pretty much promptly forgotten. It was not until years later — over 60 years in fact — when the event was recounted, quite by accident, by an actual participant to a reporter/writer, and a journal account was discovered, did it take on a new significance. Thus, two generations after it happened, the story of the Boston Tea Party was rediscovered and became part of our collective history.

In similar fashion, I grew up listening to the personal histories of my Slovene and Italian grandmothers. Their colorful accounts of the trials and triumphs of immigrating from the "old country" to the Kansas coalfields gave me an early appreciation of Southeast Kansas history and the legacy they, and those like them, bequeathed to future generations.

Son of a Southeast Kansas coal miner, historian and nationally known curator at Pittsburg State University, Gene DeGruson, was also enthralled with these tales and the characters that peopled them. Gene composed a book of stories and poems about these individuals and their experiences in the coal camps of Crawford and Cherokee counties.

One poem from his award-winning book, "The Goats House," is dedicated to his mother Clemence. Titled "Alien Women," it describes the women's protest march of 1921. Quite by accident I happened to have the book and share aloud the poem with my 88-year-old grandmother over lunch one afternoon. To my surprise, she said, "Why, I was in that march!" "Why, Nona, you never told me." "Oh," she smiled, "You never asked!" Then, as she dished out rigatoni and salad, she proceeded to lay out her recollections of the event in fascinating detail ...

That afternoon in 1986 began a twenty–six year and counting research adventure that has produced a play — which later became the inspiration for a mural — seeds for student history projects, a kiosk at Miners' Memorial, lectures, community presentations, and publications. All fueled by a passionate desire to learn and record how this one event impacted not only Southeast Kansas, but also a nation.

~Linda O'Nelio Knoll
August 2012

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