Family connection sparked reporter’s research into history, book

Jennifer Reeger
Saturday, Dec. 10, 2011

Richard Gazarik had never heard of Fannie Sellins before he began researching her life and death in 2006.

It was then that he spied a photo in the Valley News Dispatch of his cousin’s daughters at a monument to Sellins in Arnold’s Union Cemetery. The caption mentioned that their great-grandfather — Gazarik’s grandfather — was a witness to Sellins’ murder during amine strike in Natrona in August 1919.

While his research would never prove his grandfather, who worked at the mine, witnessed anything that day, Gazarik’s interest in Sellins was piqued.

“It was a Western Pennsylvania story about Western Pennsylvania people, and my journalistic curiosity got the best of me,” said Gazarik,

62, of Greensburg, a Tribune-Review reporter for the past 35 years. Gazarik’s work has resulted in the publication of a book, “Black Valley: The Life and Death of Fannie Sellins,” published by the St. Vincent College Center for Northern Appalachian Studies.

Gazarik, a Tarentum native, will sign copies of the book at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Alle-Kiski Valley Historical Museum in Tarentum.

His research took him to the National Archives and to libraries at West VirginiaUniversity, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, the University of Pittsburgh and the U.S. Department of Labor.

“She was a footnote to this period of labor history,” Gazarik. “At the time she was killed, she had a reputation on par with Mother Jones. But in subsequent stories, her name was always misspelled … and everybody seemed to forget about her.”

Sellins, a native of New Orleans, was a widow working as a seamstress in St. Louis when she joined the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. A mother of four, she would go on to lead nationwide boycotts of two clothing manufacturers.

On a visit to Pittsburgh on union business, she met a West Virginia coal miner involved in a mine strike. Sellins joined the United Mine Workers and began working on strike issues. She spent six months in prison for defying a judge during a West Virginia strike.

Her work brought her to the Allegheny Coal and Coke Co. mine in Natrona, which provided coal to Allegheny Steel Co., now Allegheny Ludlum. The miners were staging a strike on the eve of a nationwide steel strike, which would engulf the region in violence.

On Aug. 26, 1919, Sellins was at the mine with a crowd of women and children.

“Things were tense at the mine. There was a contingent of Allegheny County deputy sheriffs on duty, and she sensed trouble that day, and she said to this crowd of women and children, ‘We need to get out of here,'” Gazarik said.

As Sellins led the group away from the site, a male miner was beaten and shot by deputies.

“She tried to push the children out of the line of fire when a deputy struck her with a blackjack,” Gazarik said.

Sellins tried to flee but was shot and killed.

The Allegheny County coroner cleared the deputies of wrongdoing, Gazarik said.

But the union persuaded officials to reopen the investigation, and three deputies were indicted in 1923. Two were acquitted. The third, the alleged triggerman, never showed up for trial and was never heard from again.