Travelling near Springhill recently, I thought about Stacey Abrams, the Georgia politician who, in a bitter gubernatorial race against a white male opponent, lost her bid to become the first African-American woman to lead a state.
The annual dispatch of a Christmas tree from Nova Scotia to Boston commemorates the province’s ties to Massachusetts residents who provided aid in the aftermath of the Halifax Explosion. But quiet as it’s been kept, Nova Scotia also holds a historic link to the state that saw Abrams disparaged (along with a flurry of “n words”) as a candidate who “white women can be tricked into voting for, especially the fat ones.”
For it was exactly sixty years ago on this Saturday (December 8, 1958), that LIFE magazine ran a Georgia-related feature story about Maurice Ruddick, an African Nova Scotian coal miner and central figure in the October 23, 1958, Springhill Mining Disaster. The widely read weekly magazine was then one of the most prominent periodicals in North America.
Born in Joggins, Ruddick, then in his mid-40s, was working at the No. 2 colliery of the Cumberland County mine when a “bump” (or small earthquake) caused the mineshaft to collapse, killing more than 70 men. Ruddick, a talented amateur singer, was among only a handful of Black men employed at Springhill and the only one on shift at the time. Despite suffering a major injury, he bolstered the spirits of his co-workers by leading them in song and prayers during the nine days the surviving men were trapped (surrounded by corpses), 4,000 metres underground.
“I cried in the darkness, but I made sure that nobody else heard me,” Ruddick later said. “It might have broken their resolve to live.” Added the mother of one of the rescued miners: “If it wasn’t for Maurice, they’d all have been dead.”
The incident garnered international media attention which prompted the then-governor of Georgia, Marvin Griffin, to offer the so-called “Miracle Miners,” a weeklong, all-expenses paid holiday at one of the state’s most luxurious resorts. But as LIFE magazine told it, the governor amended the invitation after learning that Ruddick was Black. “When he found out … Griffin hastily declared that [Ruddick] could only come on a segregated basis.” Ruddick’s co-workers were reportedly reluctant to accept the terms of the offer and insisted that they “would not go without him,” LIFE noted.
But reputedly unwilling to “disappoint” his colleagues and mindful of their desire for a free vacation, Ruddick agreed to the plan and travelled to Georgia with his wife and several of their small children. There, the white Springhill miners were welcomed in a nice motel. By contrast, as LIFE recounted in “Springhill Segregation Spree,” the Ruddicks were lodged in a distant “colored” trailer built especially for their stay.
In an apparent attempt to stem a deluge of negative press, Griffin quickly ordered another trailer “where a cook and maid served the Ruddicks’ meals” and yet another “where a Negro educator … and his wife were installed to keep the Ruddicks company.”
“This little trailer town was specially equipped with electric light poles, septic tanks, beach chairs, and sod,” LIFE observed, in a shade-filled swipe at the governor’s display of storied southern hospitality.
The multi-photo spread showcases images of white miners (and their families) loading their plates at a smorgasbord, relaxing during a boat excursion, dancing the bunny hop, and happily strolling through the resort’s “white section.” As for the Ruddicks, they are shown outside their “colored” trailer.
LIFE also noted that Blacks from a nearby community entertained the Ruddicks and raised $100 for their children. Asked how it felt to be segregated, Maurice Ruddick, “the perfect diplomat,” LIFE ventured, replied: “‘I seem to be enjoying myself just as much as the others.’”
Still, it’s not been lost on me that Ruddick, in a telling photo captioned “Colored Main Event,” is shown, guitar in hand, just before crooning “Aren’t You Sorry Now.”
Reading the LIFE article today, I can’t help but wonder how the white Springhill miners justified their holiday in the light of the prejudice exacted upon the African Nova Scotian whose soaring baritone helped to keep them alive. Perhaps the caption under the bunny hop photo provides a clue: “I couldn’t have been better used if I was in heaven,” one of the white men mused about his carefree sojourn in Georgia.
On that note, read “Revelation,” a story by Georgia writer Flannery O’Connor for enlightenment on the state; then and now, in the era of Stacey Abrams.
Named a “Canadian Citizen of the Year” and later lauded in a Heritage Minute, Maurice Ruddick died in 1988. Recent media accounts reveal that several of Ruddick’s daughters sang at an October 2018 Springhill event that marked the 60th anniversary of the mining disaster. Mindful that some of the women might have been the Ruddick youngsters pictured in the LIFE article, I considered tracking them down to interview for this piece. On second thought, I just couldn’t countenance the possibility of evoking hurtful memories for Ruddick’s progeny.
Set against the steady backbeat of racial discord in Nova Scotia, I’m reminded that there are levels to which some people succumb to their everlasting disgrace (and often to the psychic detriment of their children). Clueless and/or shameless, the white Springhill miners (now all deceased) featured in LIFE magazine did not request anonymity. With a nod to the noble memory of Maurice Ruddick, may they rest in peace.
See the LIFE magazine spread here, starting on page 49.
The author of Alice Walker: A Life, Evelyn C. White is a freelance writer in Halifax.
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