“Sixteen Tons”: A U.S. and South African Mineworkers’ Archive
It was not evident to me how little the world tends to remember about the story of the working class and labor history until I visited the De Beers Mining Museum in Kimberley, South Africa. The story of the mineworkers, their families, and their communities is hidden behind the celebrated legacy of a successful company and its founder Cecil Rhodes, whose “ambition, enterprise, and vision” helped to tame the “madness and mayhem” of the frontier. The mining museum does little to inform visitors of the dangerous and often deadly conditions that thousands of men partook in on a daily basis, and there is no tribute from De Beers honoring the countless workers lost while in the mines.
My CHI project, “Sixteen Tons”: A U.S. and South African Mineworkers’ Archive will tell the story of these workers, their families, and their communities by creating a public archive and online exhibit that documents the history of two mining towns. In Clifton-Morenci, Arizona, the copper company, Phelps Dodge created an economic and political stronghold over the community and workers that paralleled the strength of the De Beers company in South Africa. Yet, mineworkers, their families, and the communities in each of these areas modified, shaped, contested, and sometimes resisted this economic and political control. This archive will focus on the rank and file workers of these two mining districts both in and out of the workplace and draw attention to how workers created their own identities, communities, and forms of resistance to counter the economic and political control of two powerful mining companies.
I hope that this archive can become an educational tool for teachers and students who are interested in studying a range of topics in history including labor, migration, community, gender, citizenship, colonialism, and comparative history. Each topic that I address will contain a written overview, photographs and primary sources, and recommended teaching topics. I also hope that this project will provide accessible information to a broader public audience outside of academia. In Clifton-Morenci, there is only a small museum, largely underfunded and unvisited, to recount the mining days of this remote region. In Kimberley, De Beers developed the Big Hole Museum as a way to recount the power and legacy of their corporation but not the mineworkers. It is my hope that “Sixteen Tons,” and other projects like this, will continue to preserve the history of laborers and the working class while providing both a history lesson and story of interest for both scholars and the broader public.