The West Virginia Legislature took a key step Wednesday toward commemorating not only the child laborers lost in the worst industrial mine accident in American history, but the memory of all children who worked in hazardous industries across a state whose economy has relied on them.
In a nearly unanimous vote, the House of Delegates passed a bill, House Bill 3312, that would establish a memorial in Fairmont to child labor and child workers killed on the job.
The state Division of Labor would contribute $500,000 toward constructing the monument, which would feature an inscription remembering the explosion at the Fairmont Coal Company’s No. 6 and No. 8 mines in nearby Monongah on Dec. 6, 1907.
The official death toll of the explosion is 362, but the memorial would note that number doesn’t account for miners’ family members, including dozens of children, who were present in the mines that day.
“Whether due to enslavement or poverty, child labor was a grievous part of our state’s industrial history — not only in coal mining, but also in factories, salt works and other inherently hazardous professions — until it was restricted by state and federal laws in the early 20th century,” the monument is slated to read, per the bill’s instructions.
“This monument stands as a memorial to all children who were victimized by child labor in hazardous industry, and may this park serve as a reminder that the primary employment of children ought to be to learn and to play.”
The bill would require a commission be established on July 1 to choose a monument design by the end of the year that preserves green space on the plot chosen.
The targeted completion and dedication dates are Nov. 15, 2022 and Dec. 6, 2022, respectively; the latter is the 115th anniversary of the Monongah mine disaster.
The commission would have the authority to seek additional funding for the project through grants, donations or other means.
The commission would consist of the curator of the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History; a member each from the state House and Senate, appointed respectively by the House speaker and Senate president; a representative appointed by the Fairmont City Council; and a representative from the West Virginia University College of Creative Arts.
The City of Fairmont would own the monument, and any funds remaining in the commission’s control at the time of its disbandment would transfer to the city for memorial maintenance.
Ownership would revert to the Department of Arts, Culture and History if the city does not keep up maintenance of the monument and its greenspace.
The bill passed the House in a 99-1 vote. Only Delegate Shannon Kimes, R-Wood, voted against the measure, which now goes before the Senate. The legislation originated in the House Government Organization Committee last week.