Throwback Thursday: Indomitable Mary

Today I found a box of family photographs I’d been searching for since we moved three years ago. It contains, among others, this 1922 photo of my great-grandmother Mary Bartocci Tomassoni and her four children. Her husband, Antonio Tomassoni, had been killed the year before in a coal mine collapse, leaving her alone at age 26 with three children and a fourth on the way. She survived by taking jobs hanging wallpaper — and by going up against her late husband’s employer.

This 1922 photo shows my great-grandmother Mary Bartocci Tomassoni and her children. The children’s father, Antonio Tomassoni, named the first three children after characters from his beloved Italian operas. My grandmother Norma has the spectacular bow in her hair. Romeo (nicknamed Rush) is in the sailor suit. Aida (also spelled Ada) stands in front of her mother. The fourth child might have been named from another opera, but when he was born, after his father’s death, Mary named him Antonio, Jr.

Mary’s story was one of the first unexpected treasures my genealogical research turned up, when I discovered the records of a court case that no one in the family knew about: Tomassoni vs. Pennsylvania Coal Company.

The 26-year-old widowed mother of four took on Big Coal, suing the company that had refused to pay worker’s compensation for her husband’s death.

This was northeastern Pennsylvania in the 1920s. Coal was king. I cannot imagine the courage and determination it would have taken for a young, uneducated mother of four to go up against a coal company. Better yet, she won. Twice. The first court found in her favor. Pennsylvania Coal appealed and lost. And in 1923, the appeals court awarded a cash payment to her and her children. I don’t know if they ever actually received the money.

Mary went on to forge a long history of standing up for workers. She protested for women’s rights and labor rights. Another photo I have not yet relocated shows her wearing a white sash at a rally; my mother said she was marching to support a teachers’ strike. In 1929, she married her second husband, another coal miner; their son was born the following year.

I am proud to be descended from her.

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