NEWCASTLE, Wash. — Underneath the undergrowth were the graves of two coal miners, both Black, buried in a Newcastle cemetery thought to be reserved solely for whites.
It was true even in coal-rich Washington state.
When black coal miners died, they were buried in a cemetery separate from their white counterparts.
But an amateur genealogist’s startling discovery blew apart that assumption.
It may be hard to imagine in the hubbub of Newcastle, nestled as it is between Bellevue and Renton, but a century and a half ago, it was coal country. For 100 years beginning in 1864, nearly 11 million tons of coal were extracted from the dark, dangerous mines that crisscrossed the hills.
Coal mining was so prolific that Newcastle was a bustling community boasting stores, churches and even places for visitors and workers to live.
Very little of that time remains. Closed mineshafts warn visitors to keep out. Mining cart axles and wheels are found along hiking trails.
Records show African-Americans arrived in Newcastle by train in the 1890s, hired for less pay to break labor strikes by white miners.
Photos suggest they somehow managed to find a way to work and live together — their children even attending the same Sunday school.
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“A lot of the Black people, not just the miners, who came to this area the latter part of the nineteenth century were looking for what was known as ‘free air,’” said Dr. Daudi Abe, a Seattle historian.
But exactly who the miners were has largely been lost in the mists of time.
“This was the history of the people in this area,” said amateur genealogist Linda Fitzgerald.
To find that history, Fitzgerald and others from the Seattle Genealogical Society came to the Newcastle Cemetery. In the center were the graves of several white coal miners.
Their search led them to the high, rocky ground near the fence line where 120 years ago, any miner who wasn’t white would be separated from all the rest.
It was there that Fitzgerald and company found the graves of two miners.
“They were young men,” said Fitzgerald.
Reed Calloway and the son of John Lock were also Black. Even so, there was a distinct difference.
“Normally, at that point in time, they would have been buried outside the fence instead of inside the fence,” said Fitzgerald. “So, it said a lot about the history of this area. I think it said that the mining community was a lot more integrated than one likes to think.”
“It is a surprise,” said Dr. Abe. “And it isn’t a surprise.”
Abe studies the history of African-Americans in the Evergreen State.
“It isn’t a surprise because at that time in that area around Renton, Black people, Black men were able to buy property,” said Abe. “This was not the case at that time in Seattle. Yet, they could go outside of Seattle and buy acres of land out in this place where these coal mining activities were happening.”
“The history is, you know, there,” said Bisa Meek, who was visiting the Newcastle Cemetery, “so you can see where it was.”
A little known history, now for all to see.
“I see these things,” said Meek, “and can go to other states in the South and there’s Black cemeteries, white cemeteries. And they’re all divided.”
More proof perhaps, that Newcastle stood apart.
“Where we are now depends on where we were then,” said Fitzgerald. “Well, you need to know where you’ve been. This is where we’ve been in this beautiful little cemetery.”
A cemetery that holds important lessons of history for us all.
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