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Afro-Americans in Mining Picture 
An ex-slave miner in southern West Virginia, at age 90
(ca. 1921)
Picture Courtesy of
James T. Laing

 

During the Civil War, the twenty-two leading coal companies of eastern Virginia either hired or owned 1,847 hands, mostly slaves. Slaves worked Alabama mines as early as 1840. To encourage coal production, the Confederate government enacted legislation in 1861 exempting from field service any operator who contracted to mine coal with at least twenty slaves.

 

 

Afro-Americans in Mining Picture

 

Free miners at an unidentified coal mine near Birmingham, AL, 1915
Picture Courtesy of the Birmingham Public Library

 

Emancipation terminated slave labor in the coal industry as it did throughout the South, but some of the economic benefits derived from forced labor were preserved, at least for a few mine operators, in the new bondage of convict leasing.

 

 

Afro-Americans in Mining Picture

 

Banner Mine Prison buildings, in Alabama, primarily housed black convicts.
Picture Courtesy of the Birmingham Public Library

 

Although leasing convicts to private contractors was common in the South, it became prevalent in the coalfields only of Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama. Other southern states with significant coal reserves did not use prison labor in mining.

 

 

 

Afro-Americans in Mining Picture

Lighting the fuse, 1923
Northern WV Coal Operators' Assn.

 

The prevailing patterns of race relations in the American coalfields resulted in the exclusion of blacks in the North and nearly complete dependence upon them in the South. Correspondingly, the struggle for control of the labor process set the course of race, class, and community conflict along diametrically opposite paths in North and South. In vast portions of industrializing central Appalachia, however, no racial group held an established position in the mines or company towns. In central Appalachia, particularly in southern West Virginia, blacks came closer to finding economic equality than in any other coalfield, and perhaps anywhere else, in America.

 

 

 

Afro-Americans in Mining Picture

Miner wearing self rescuer Bureau of Mines

 

A large percentage of the migrants into the central Appalachian coalfields were blacks, and by far the majority of them came to live in southern West Virginia. Blacks came to West Virginia in larger numbers in part because the scope of industrialization was greatest there, and labor in greater demand. By 1920, therefore, 88,706 blacks lived in central Appalachia, but 69 percent of them resided in southern West Virginia.

 

 

Afro-Americans in Mining Picture

1913 - Location unknown - Eastern Regional Coal Archives

 

The population of central Appalachia grew dramatically between 1880 and 1920 in the wake of industrialization, though growth did not proceed uniformly, nor was it evenly distributed. The West Virginia plateau grew rapidly throughout the era, with the population of the southern counties nearly quintupling from 93,174 to 446,051.

A large percentage of the migrants into the central Appalachian coalfields were blacks, and by far the majority of them came to live in southern West Virginia.

To attract southern black labor to the new fields, companies dispatched labor agents to the southern states with "pockets full of money" and offers of free transportation, steady work at high wages, and company houses to lure those who had little money with which to purchase their own.

From the spring of 1916 through 1917, the U.S. Department of Labor's Division of Negro Economics estimated, seventy-five thousand blacks, or about 8.3 percent of Alabama's black population migrated to points north.

 

 

Afro-Americans in Mining Picture

Elizabeth Drewry being sworn in West Virginia House of Delegates. Mrs. Drewry became the first African-American woman elected to the West Virginia Legislature. 

During her thirteen years in the legislature, Drewry was a leading advocate for education and labor.

Picture Courtesy of the Eastern Regional Coal Archives.

 

Better wages were not the only reason blacks left the South for Appalachian coal mines. The prominent black UMWA organizer George Edmunds probably summarized the deeper foundations of the exodus when he observed that black migrants were seeking a "man's chance in the world; a chance to educate their children; to live in decent homes, under decent conditions, to exercise the right of the ballot, and in short, they are looking for true American citizenship."

Even though racial lines were not so stringently enforced in West Virginia as they were in the Deep South, or even in neighboring central Appalachia, social life in the Mountain State was segregated by custom and management design. Nevertheless, race relations were unique. Perhaps the key to understanding the distinctive qualities of race relations in southern West Virginia was the freedom of expression enjoyed by blacks. Only in education and intermarriage was integration specifically barred by statute.

Unlike its Appalachian neighbors, West Virginia did not disfranchise blacks, and they continued to enjoy full political equality. In fact, one of the major reasons blacks moved into the state's mining towns in such large numbers was the near absence of jim crow laws. They preferred West Virginia to Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee because they wanted to vote, to educate their children, and to live in a black community which was not suppressed by racist politics or hedged in at every turn by the constraints of caste etiquette. That only 14 percent of the blacks who resided in West Virginia during the 1920's were born in the state testifies to the powerful allure of the relative equality they found there.

Afro-Americans took full advantage of this political freedom. Their enthusiasm for politics led the prominent black politician and Charleston attorney T.G. Nutter to conclude in 1924 that "the Negro is the balance of power in the State and this fact is recognized by the two great parties." Consequently, Nutter wrote, "in no other section of the country does the Negro wield the power and enjoy the political prestige" he had in West Virginia. Although Nutter exaggerated, it is true that blacks were a political force to be reckoned with in the southern part of the state. Since they were staunchly Republican until the New Deal era, blacks exerted considerable influence in the party's local machinery.

 

 

Afro-Americans in Mining Picture

Picture Courtesy of West Virginia and Regional History Collection

 

 

Southern blacks chose the unknown dangers of life and labor in central Appalachian coal mines for sound economic reasons. The southern caste system dictated that blacks receive the worst jobs and lower pay than whites for the same work, whereas in the northern fields blacks all too frequently found themselves excluded entirely. Although racist attitudes were prevalent among white employers and white workers in central Appalachia too, the severe labor shortage in an expanding industrial labor market eliminated the most blatant forms of racial discrimination.

Two important analyses, one complete in 1933 and one completed in 1983 provide an exhaustive array of data on the occupational and wage equality of blacks in southern West Virginia. Both studies demonstrate that racial discrimination was operative in a few job categories. As might be expected, management was all but closed to blacks. One study found only 9 blacks in the sample of 248 supervisors employed between 1906 and 1925. In 1922 the West Virginia Bureau of Negro Welfare and Statistics similarly reported only 7 bosses among 6,483 black miners and only 1 fire boss among over 7,000 Afro-Americans surveyed in 1927.

 

Afro-Americans in Mining Picture

Picture Courtesy of the Bureau of Mines

 

Some segregation also existed in transportation. Throughout this period motormen were almost exclusively whites; mule drivers were black.

 

 

 

Afro-Americans in Mining Picture

Picture Courtesy of the Bureau of Mines

 

Both performed similar functions in the industrial process, but mule driving was harder work. Electric motors were used to haul coal cars in newer, larger, and more mechanized mines, whereas the mules were most often found in smaller operations.

 

 

Afro-Americans in Mining Picture

Picture Courtesy of the Bureau of Mines

 

When blacks did find employment as motormen, they usually operated the smaller gathering motors which brought loaded cars to the entry, where the main haulage motor towed them outside.

 

 

 

Afro-Americans in Mining Picture

Picture Courtesy of the Bureau of Mines

 

Between 1907 and 1932, years for which data are available, the percentage of native whites found in the harder, dirtier, and more dangerous inside jobs ranged between 53 and 80 percent of the total. A greater percentage of the black work force held inside jobs, between 77 and 92 percent, and southern European immigrants holding these jobs between 88 and 92 percent or higher. Wages, rather than employer discrimination, explain the higher proportion of blacks and foreign laborers working inside. These occupations paid on a tonnage basis at the same rates regardless of race or nationality, and an expert loader could earn as much or more money as any of the skilled men, with the possible exception of the machine runner.

Interviews conducted for one survey indicated Afro-Americans whose families still lived in the South preferred coal loading because they came from farms where work and leisure routines were established by nature and necessity, and the miner's traditional independence on the job resembled this familiar work pattern. Like farming, traditional methods of coal mining called for alternate periods of intensive labor and rest and permitted miners to simply walk out the mine when they had loaded enough. Coal loading also offered less direct white supervision, and miners might not see a foreman more than once during an entire shift. This was an important consideration for southern blacks who came to the mines to escape the constant scrutiny of whites in the jim crow South.

 

 

Afro-Americans in Mining Picture

Picture Courtesy of James T. Laing, 1932

 

On the job, operators integrated the races more or less indiscriminately, through equal opportunity and pay, attempting to mute irrational racial animosities which might hinder production and profits.

 

 

 

Afro-Americans in Mining Picture

1st Prize Yard Award - House No. 65 - Pleas Ewell -
Colored - Coal Loader Eastern Regional Coal Archives

 

But controlling the miners' work life was only part of the operators' management problems. In these remote mountains coal companies also had to plan and construct entire towns, and towns involved social life. The social sphere of coal town life was not so directly connected with production, and most operators followed the customary social norms by segregating the racial and ethnic elements of the mining population. Even though segregation prevailed, however, in southern West Virginia the separate-but-equal doctrine usually applied, and most miners were offered the same type of housing, rental rates, and conditions of tenancy.

Blacks not only were welcomed in the mountain coalfields, they were given equal wages for equal work, as good an opportunity in the occupation hierarchy as they were likely to find anywhere in industrial America.

 

 

Afro-Americans in Mining Picture

Students at Bluefield Colored Institute (Bluefield State College)
Eastern Regional Coal Archives

 

Educational equality was a significant area in which West Virginia race relations were most distinctive. Equal opportunity in politics reinforced equality in education.

 

 

 

Afro-Americans in Mining Picture

Pictures on this page
Students at Bluefield Colored Institute (Bluefield State College)
Eastern Regional Coal Archives

 

 

The children of black miners took advantage of the educational opportunities available to them. In 1910 nearly 80 percent of the black children between ages six and fourteen in McDowell County attended school, as compared with 75 percent of native-white children in the same age bracket.

By 1930 a larger percentage of black youth attended high school than in any other southern or border state. Similarly, in 1933-1934 ninety-four of every thousand blacks between ages eighteen and twenty-one were enrolled in public colleges, whereas the ratio for whites was only fifty-three per thousand. The children of miners were highly represented in West Virginia's black college population. For example, over 50 percent of the 1932-33 freshman class at West Virginia State were the sons and daughters of coal miners or other unskilled workers. At Bluefield State, 93.9 percent of the 232 students were the children of coal miners.

 

 

Afro-Americans in Mining Picture

Miners at Jim Walter's Resources, Inc.

 

Equally funded education in the coalfields was significant not merely as a magnet for attracting black workers or as a mechanism for upward social mobility but also as preparation for equal citizenship.

 

 

 

 

Afro-Americans in Mining Picture

Federal Mine Inspector, Mt. Carbon, West Virginia
MSHA - District 4

 

 

The role of the African-American miner has changed during this century from slave and convict laborer in Southern mines to highly skilled and educated miners, mine superintendents, safety managers, federal and state mine inspectors, and mining engineers.

 

 

History of African-American Miners
in the Appalachian Coal Fields


Thank You


A special thanks to Dr. Ronald L. Lewis, Professor of History at West Virginia University.

The text in the exhibit was taken from Dr. Lewis' book Black Coal Miners in America: Race, Class, and Community Conflict 1780-1980 , The University Press of Kentucky, 1987.

Photo Credits:

Birmingham Public Library, Birmingham, AL
Black Coal Miners in America, Race, Class, and Community Conflict 1780-1980. Ronald L. Lewis
Bureau of Mines historical picture collection, National Mine Health & Safety Academy, Beckley, WV 
Eastern Regional Coal Archives, Bluefield WV
Harper's Monthly Magazine
James T. Laing
Northern West Virginia Coal Opertors' Association
West Virginia and Regional History Collection, West Virginia University Libraries, Morgantown, WV

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"I'm just trying to make a way out of no way, for my people" -Modejeska Monteith Simpkins

 

AFRICAN AMERICA IS AT WAR

THERE IS A RACE WAR ON AFRICAN AMERICA

THERE IS A RACE WAR ON AFRICAN AMERICANS

THERE IS A RACE WAR ON BLACK PEOPLE IN AMERICA

AMERICA'S RACISTS HAVE INFILTRATED AMERICAN POLICE FORCES TO WAGE A RACE WAR AGAINST BLACK PEOPLE IN AMERICA

THE BLACK RACE IS AT WAR

FIRST WORLD WAR:  THE APPROXIMATELY 6,000 YEAR WORLD WAR ON AFRICA AND THE BLACK RACE

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