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On September 2, 2020, after more than two weeks on a ventilator, Elaine Purkey died, in a hospital in Charleston, West Virginia. She shouldn’t have died of Covid-19
A musician, an activist, a supporter of union coal miners, Elaine Purkey was a West Virginia treasure. She performed all over the country, including on the National Mall in Washington DC during the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
“Elaine grew up in a family of musicians and singers in southern West Virginia,” stated the bio for her performance at University of Pennsylvania Center for Folklore and Ethnography. “Her father, a coal miner, was a celebrated fiddler and banjo player, and her mother was in much demand as a singer. As a child, Elaine performed with her siblings for church services and many community events, and took her music to the picket lines in support of her husband, a union miner. She began writing and singing labor songs in the 1980s during the united mineworker strikes against the Pittston Coal Company. Elaine became a community organizer in the 1990s, directing the West Virginia Organizing Project, a grassroots organization. Of her singing Pete Seeger wrote, “Elaine Purkey’s songs carry on the great tradition of Ella May Wiggin of Gastonia, South Carolina, and Aunt Molly Jackson of Harlan County, Kentucky.”
Nearly every year, Elaine sang at the United Mine Workers of America Labor Day picnic in Racine, West Virginia. Frequently, she used her voice and music in support of continuing health care and pensions for union miners.
When union steelworkers were locked out of Ravenswood Aluminum in the infamous Ravenswood Lockout of the early 1990s, Purkey once again wrote a rallying cry for the workers in “One Day More.” It would become her most famous song.
Elaine loved teaching music to children. For the past 10 years, she taught song writing and traditional music in after-school and summer programs at the Lincoln County, West Virginia, Big Ugly Community Center.
I met Elaine 22 years ago while researching a book about a landmark lawsuit over damages to communities from coal mines in southern West Virginia, “Moving Mountains: how one woman and her community won justice from big coal.”
Elaine was the organizer for the coalfield citizen group, West Virginia Organizing Project. Unlike environmental groups, where staff write press releases and speak to the media, Elaine and other staff did not speak or write for members. Members like Patricia (Trish) Bragg and Vicky Moore had to learn complex mining regulations and track bills through the legislature.
Vicky Moore was living in Blair, West Virginia, right below a huge mountaintop removal coal mine, with a gigantic machine, several stories high, shoveling coal round the clock. She joined other coalfield residents whose communities were being harmed by mining.
“I am flooded by memories of the group of us standing and fighting together and supporting each other for a common cause,” Vicky wrote. “It is hard to express what Elaine Purkey means to me. I was honored to get to know Elaine as a friend and she felt like family to me. I loved her Jack Rock song and she used to have a tree made out of jack rocks in her office during the days of WVOP. [Jack rocks were sharp tools made up of nails welded together with their points facing out designed to puncture truck tires.]
“We came together during a time that was close to all our hearts. I just don’t know what to say about my friend Elaine, except you are a West Virginia treasure and I will never forget you and will always love you! If you would like to know what a gem she truly was then watch Moving Mountains or read the book Moving Mountains, and listen to her folk songs and what they stand for. I have never felt so strong than I did during these days. We will always remember. I love you my friend! Please continue to pray for her family and friends. RIP and thank you for the work that you did and thank you for your songs that have touched many people.”
Trish fought for her neighbors who had lost their well water because a sprawling underground mine had severed the aquifer. Then a mountaintop removal mine started above the community, and she became the lead plaintiff (by virtue of the alphabetical order of last names) in Bragg v Robertson, which would lead to some restrictions on chopping off mountains for their coal. In a second lawsuit, Trish and her neighbors forced the coal company to pay for their public water, which replaced the wells.
Elaine encouraged Trish to go to college. She aced community college, then graduated summa cum laude from West Virginia State University.
Trish Bragg’s rembembrance of Elaine:“I have no words to express my love and respect for Elaine. She has always been the sound of reason and justice for the people of Appalachia. How does one express the genuine and selflessness of one woman. She put her family, churches and friends above her own needs and health. She worked tirelessly to organize and educate people of the coalfields . She laughed with us thru our victories and cried many times with us thru our struggles. My friend, mentor and often my leader that pushed me forward into college and confidence in my own abilities. To say I loved her seems so little, for how do you express in words the spiritual and heartfelt emotion when you heard her sing or listen to that passionate voice telling the world that freedom to live in a healthy community wasn’t just given but it took the investment of one’s heart and responsibility to work with your neighbors. To approach government officials with not only our passion but also the knowledge of our legal rights. Changing laws for our people’s betterment. No, no mere words could ever make known the love I had for Elaine Purkey. My wonderful friend will be sorely missed and the lessons she taught me will be my wisdom that I live by in the future . Knowing one day I will reunite with her in heaven someday. My grief is so deep that my heart feels bruised and tore. Oh, how do I go on knowing that talking with her always helped me thru so much. She was a mother, sister, comrade, with a voice of thunder and a smile unmatched in my mind.”
A week ago, September 25, Victoria Bosley, of the Friendly Neighbor Show, where Elaine often sang, messaged me on Facebook that Elaine was in the hospital with Covid. She had come across my book while tidying up and thought I’d like to know since Elaine was prominent in my book.
Over the past week, Victoria kept me posted about Elaine’s condition, and called with the sad news this afternoon. We agreed this did not have to happen.
Logan County, in the heart of the coalfields and near where Elaine lived in Ranger, West Virginia, has one of the highest percentages of positive Covid tests. Many residents had gone to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Governor Jim Justice did not require them to quarantine after returning. Few people wore masks. In one seven minute trip to the grocery, Victoria had seen just one of 12 employees wearing a mask. “I was so terrorized, I just simply left my banana and milk and walked out.”
Elaine’s mother-in-law was in Logan Regional Medical Center for a minor ailment at the time 13 staff members had Covid. The hospital did not test her mother-in-law upon discharge. Instead, the hospital called a few days later and said she should be tested because of possible contact with an infected staff member. On August 4, Elaine learned her mother-in-law had Covid.
Elaine and her family had been in contact with her mother-in-law while helping her recover. Elaine’s grandson, two great grandchildren (who lived with her) and her husband Bethel all got Covid, but recovered. Elaine had diabetes and a heart condition and was more vulnerable.
I wish, all her friends and family wish, this could have been prevented. All I can do is write in hopes all those people who think the pandemic is a hoax and quarantines are worthless finally realize their actions can kill people. One might even be their friend.
I am so fortunate to have had Elaine as a friend, to know someone so strong, so talented, so kind. Thank you.
Elaine was portrayed by actress Tina Alexis Allen in the movie we made of my book.
Read Elaine’s story in her own words in this Tribute to her by the West Virginia Folklife Center
Penny Loeb is an author, investigative reporter at Newsday and U.S. News & World Report, and a Pulitzer Prize and National Magazine Award finalist.