Bluefield Daily Telegraph
When Mrs. Etta (Bennett) Lambright called me in early May of 1994 to ask if I would be interested in interviewing her husband, I immediately responded: “Where abouts in Bishop do you live?” Mrs. Lambright had heard Karl Miller and I perform at a church, and thought she knew me well enough that she felt safe in asking me to interview her husband. Her husband had just returned to their home on the West Virginia side of Bishop, and was still asleep from his travel. Still, she was anxious for someone else to hear his story. I told her I could be in Bishop in about an hour.
The United Mine Workers of America had asked Alonzo “Boots” Lambright to serve as an observer for the first post-apartheid elections in South Africa. When Boots started working in the coal mines, he joined the UMWA and was among the first wave of African American coal miners who became a part a major change in the coalfields. The mine operators of southern West Virginia who came to the region in the early 1880s, and held sway in the coalfields until 1933 when the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration allowed coal mine labor forces to organize and select union representation.
My friend, the late Early Smith, showed me a photograph of a national UMWA meeting in St. Louis in 1935 that showed essentially equal numbers of black and white men and women enjoying a former dinner together. In the mid 1930s, that was an unusual if not unique scene. Boots Lambright went to work in the mines at a time when the coal industry labor force was quite possibly at its most diverse in terms of racial representation. That was 20 years before President Harry S. Truman integrated the U.S. military.
By the time I arrived in Bishop, Mr. Lambright was awake and sitting in the living room. The Lambright home was very clean even though it was located about 40 yards from the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks where loaded coal trains rattled dust through the community at all times. I’ve lived in a home close to the old B&O Railway, and I knew how hard it was to keep coal dust from settling on everything. I complimented Mrs. Lambright, and she smiled.
Boots Lambright said he was surprised when the UMWA selected him to go to South Africa — not because he wasn’t active in the union which he was, but rather because he was already retired at the time. He immediately recognized the opportunity to be part of an important moment in world history, and took the steps he needed to secure a passport and get the inoculations he needed to travel abroad. The union helped him with the technical elements of his travels, but other than that, he was on his own.
When he arrived in South Africa, he was one of many international observers who had been invited to participate as election observers to ensure that the elections were conducted without fraud or intimidation. He was assigned to a rural polling place and visited the site prior to the start of the three-day election. I remember that he wondered why an election observer would be needed at such a rural site. However, when the election started, he was amazed by the long lines that formed with people who were voting for the first time in their lives.
I can’t remember what Boots told me about Nelson Mandela. I can’t remember if he said he met him or even saw him, although I think he might have had the chance to shake his hand.
Two things do stick out in my memory of Boots Lambright’s recollections of that experience. First, he was surprised to see a long ballot that included color photos — head shots — of all of the candidates, “Because,” he said, “some of the voters couldn’t read very well.” The second thing I recall most vividly about that interview was how Boots Lambright described the unbridled joy in the faces of the voters who had waited so long for that historic moment.
Boots Lambright didn’t travel to South Africa for a vacation, and he didn’t visit Nelson Mandela’s home. But he saw the fruits of Mandela’s labors in the faces of the joy-filled voters that he observed. Boots did say that he admired Mandela for his tenacity and strength for being able to survive such a long prison term in the fight for equal rights.
I called Boots from time to time during the next several years and visited with him at some church functions. It was always a joy for me to see him, because it reminded me of the joy he told me about in the faces of all those South African voters when they truly tasted freedom on “Freedom Day,” April 27, 1994. I thought about Boots when Andy Patton, our news editor, shared the news that word of Nelson Mandela’s death had come across the wire. His was a life that freedom-loving people throughout the world should always remember.
Bill Archer is senior editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at email@example.com.