The Lattimer Archaeology project has been ongoing for more than five years now. It was originally planned as an examination of the physical and historical record of the Lattimer Massacre. It soon became clear that a broader research project was at hand, one encompassing aspects of work, memory, violence and everyday life in the region. Stories of hardship and struggle as well as community life and endurance complemented the narrative of the massacre in ways we didn’t expect. Speaking with folks about the memory of the tragic event often led to a discussion of the present and recent past, the collapse of the industry, the mixed fortunes of metropolitan Hazleton, the tension of contemporary life. In our pursuit of oral histories to learn about the town’s past, we decided not to avoid discussing the present because this seems an important concern of the folks we talk to, one they do not disconnect from the region’s tumultuous past.
With the permission of our interviewees, we decided to begin posting portions of interviews we have collected over the last few years on this blog.
The first interview we will post is from Robert Burczy, a painter, photographer and long-term resident of the town whose family has deep roots in the Hazleton Region. In the interview Robert reflects on the way that local history has defined his outlook on art, politics and history. The entire interview can be read here, and selections from it below:
A little background:
MR: How long have you lived in Lattimer?
RB: 3 years
MR: So your family has a long history in the Hazleton area?
RB: 90 plus years. My grandfather was born in 1879. He was born in Poland, in some town south of Warsaw. And he immigrated here … the stories I heard… He immigrated here because he didn’t want to join the Polish army to fight the Russians or he didn’t want to fight the Germans. So he skiddadled and I am glad he did. And we have been here more than 90 years. And especially where they are living now the Burczys and the Sojas (?) are the oldest names in the township now.
MR: Do you know what he did before he left Poland?
RB: Might have been a farmer? I think they were all farmers for the most part.
MR: But he ended up working in the mines?
RB: They offered him a job. Yes, the Lattimer Coal Company, I think they were in Harleigh….. he had a contract with them. And he didn’t get paid much, but when he died of black lung, his compensation, my grandmother was taken care of.
MR: What about your mother’s family?
RB: They were from Poland. And it was a large family and you had to marry a miner to live in Cranberry, and that was the rules they had. She married a man, they had kids, he died, she married another guy, he had kids, but they still had more kids. My grandmother, didn’t move far from that area, they moved about ten blocks where she always stayed for the rest of her life.
On the heritage of anthracite coal in the region:
MR: Do you think that coal mining is still a big part of the identity of Hazleton? Do you think it defines people’s identities?
RB: Yeah, absolutely…… I think what the hell is wrong with me? Everybody has that question. Somethings’ wrong? But it, I think it is just generational. I think… every generation tells the other generation hints… and that then….. becomes a part of your makeup whether you know it or not. Just because your relatives were certain ways and those kids had kids and it goes on and on. In the end it shapes the whole area.
On the significance and memory of the Lattimer Massacre:
MR: When did you first hear about the Lattimer massacre?
RB: It was the monument itself. And way before I moved to Lattimer I came out here, because this used to be the skids. This was like the boondocks. So, but I looked at the monument and nobody was taking care of it so I took care of it early on. I am sure they had their guys doing it but it didn’t seem fast enough to me. It seemed like nobody was taking care of it. So that was my introduction to Lattimer, is the monument.
MR: Do you think the massacre is a significant event? Is it significant locally or nationally?
RB: Well it should national. There’s the [Triangle] Shirt Fire in New York…. that’s the one they always talk about. But then there are assorted massacres. So is one less important than the other, or does Lattimer top them all? I think that Lattimer, that one should be the big one….. but I think this is just because of the way they were killed. And if they were unarmed… that’s a big deal! When you have company men killing unarmed people…. what they were about, better wages, better working conditions.
On the history of immigration in Hazleton
MR: Do you think that issues of immigration were important in there as well, in terms of the massacre, but more broadly in terms of Hazleton?
RB: You just had people coming off a boat, and just escaped a certain type of system only to get locked in another system. I think that company men, the owners, they knew that there were workers there, they corralled them pretty well…. the people that mined, they didn’t want to go back there. So what were your options really? They were hired so…. yeah, I think that’s important…
MR: How do you think the way different immigrants lived together in these little patch towns? Is that part of the identity of the area?
RB: I think it would be coming together, of course. I think if you lived next to a neighbor that didn’t go to the same church or might have cooked different meals or stuff like that, they were in the same boat and they knew it. I think that germinated and I think it cross bred and then it became generational. I think it was a benefit. I don’t think there was a line of hostility because they were in the same boat.
On the value of remembering local history:
RB: It’s a parlor game. it keeps your mind supple….. You have to be agile. You are a little bit more aware in your surroundings, which you are always fine tuning, whether you are looking at the bird on the tree branch or you are looking at the people at the voting place, you have to be alert.
On the significance of the Lattimer Archaeology Project:
MR: What are impressions of the archaeology project? Do you have suggestions or requests of where we should go and what do you hope that we can accomplish?
RB: I am glad that you came around…. I think that it is important that you came in. You bring it to light. There are people out there that will connect to that and that will morph into something else. I [hope] it would get back to policy, it would get back to the way we live together. So it’s all interconnected by shedding light on it. But Lattimer is very special, because famous people came from here or passed through it. It symbolized something for the working man and its hard pressed to find work in that now, and that feel, and those words, and that movement is a good thing for a modern man … And when you get to be seventy and I am gone there are going to be kids talking to you about Lattimer.