African American Workers and the Appalachian Coal Industry: An excerpt from Joe Trotter’s new book

Joe William Trotter Jr.’s book African American Workers and the Appalachian Coal Industry is new from WVU Press. To celebrate Black History Month, we’re pleased to share an excerpt from the introduction.

When I proposed this volume to West Virginia University Press in the fall of 2019, the devastation of Covid-19 was just months away. Hence, the impact of the pandemic did not figure into my rationale for wanting to publish this book. My motivation for producing this volume stemmed from the impending thirtieth anniversary of my book, Coal, Class, and Color: Blacks in Southern West Virginia, 1915–32 (University of Illinois Press, 1990). I hoped to use this collection of essays to reflect on my personal and professional journey to the notion of proletarianization (class formation) in scholarship on Black coal miners in the southern Appalachian coalfields; explore the transformation of research on the topic since publication of Coal, Class, and Color; and suggest directions that the next wave of research on the topic might take. These objectives remain core elements in the book’s raison d’être, but the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic on people of African descent represents an even more compelling rationale for publishing these essays at this particular time in the history of the region and the nation.

During the early phases of the pandemic, media reports downplayed the potential impact of the virus on poor and working-class Black communities. Evidence of widespread racial disparities in sickness and death from the disease soon dispelled such thinking. Over the past several months, growing numbers of scholars, media, and public policy analysts from a variety of fields have located the roots of these disparities in the concentration of Black people in the most dangerous, unhealthy, and underpaid work, housing, and living conditions in the geography and political economy of the nation. While these debates and discussions accent the need for historical perspectives on these racialized issues, they are unfolding without sufficient attention to African American health care activism designed to creatively combat disease, restore their own health, and insure their survival in the face of substantial trauma. These conversations also elide the precise ways that socioeconomic, labor, and environmental conditions undermined the health and well-being of the African American community in particular places at specific moments in time.

By focusing on a variety of issues in the history of African American workers in the Appalachian coal industry, this book calls attention to the ways that a better sense of history can deepen our understanding of the roots of the coronavirus among other epidemics and pandemics in African American history. A few illustrations from the West Virginia coalfields underscore this point. First and perhaps most important, in southern West Virginia, loading coal over a lifetime took its toll on the health of Black miners and exposed them to a wide variety of diseases, particularly tuberculosis during the industrial age. Some Black miners “literally broke themselves down loading coal.” According to one miner, Pink Henderson, “My daddy got so he couldn’t load coal. He tried to get company work [light labor, often outside] but the doctor turned him down, because he couldn’t do nothing. He broke his self down. . . . My brothers done the same thing. They used to be the heavy loaders.”

Coal loaders also endured the persistent inhalation of coal dust and particles of coal, black lung or “miners’ asthma,” a slow killer of miners as it was called in those days. Inadequate housing also took its toll on the health of Black miners and their families. In 1927–1928, the West Virginia Bureau of Negro Welfare and Statistics (BNWS) reported that tuberculosis was a far greater cause of death among Black people than mine accidents. Described as that “great scourge of the Negro race,” tuberculosis accounted for 13 percent of African American health-related deaths compared to less than 8 percent among whites. The BNWS concluded that improvement in Black miners’ health required better “living conditions—proper housing, wholesome food and sanitation,” the “prerequisites of good health.”

In addition to charting the health conditions of Black coal miners, this volume also recalls how Black miners, their families, and their communities mobilized movements designed to fight racial inequality in the health care system and counteract the impact of insufficient wages to fully support their families with healthy diets and living conditions. Across the coalfields, as part of their strategy for combatting disease as well as hunger, miners and their families not only cultivated their own vegetable gardens but also maintained a few hogs, chickens, and sometimes a cow for fresh milk and butter. Most important, however, they also collectively used their vote to demand greater access to public funds to serve their education, social welfare, and health needs. They not only worked through the state’s leading Republican legislators but also elected their own numbers to public office. During the early post–World War I years, they sent three Black men, one a miner, to the House of Delegates in Charleston. They effectively used their political influence within the Republican Party to secure the establishment of two all-Black colleges (West Virginia State College and Bluefield State College); homes for the African American elderly, deaf, and blind residents; and a tuberculosis facility.

In other words, looking back over this collection from the vantage point of current debates and the quest for knowledge to address the challenges of COVID-19, this book illuminates both the conditions that repeatedly exposed African Americans to the most destructive impact of disease as well as some of the most important strategies that they devised to help themselves. In addition, as noted at the outset of this preface, African American Workers in the Appalachian Coal Industry also responds to the need for an assessment of the field since the closing decade of the twentieth century, along with ideas for moving scholarship forward into the third decade of the twenty-first century and beyond.

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