RSS

Tag Archives: dying towns

Black Coal…Black Workers

Black coal miners date back to slavery. The first Unions formed in West Virginia  included black coal miners. Today a coal miner makes about $85,000 a year. That is good money – especially in he mountain regions of West Virginia. Coal is dying though as an industry due to pollution.

First…A little bit of history –

Most slaves from present-day West Virginia lived in the Eastern Panhandle counties, but a substantial slave population existed in the Kanawha Valley. Due to the decline of plantation agriculture in the 1800s, slavery was no longer as profitable in the east and slaves were frequently hired out or sold. The salt industry was driven by poor white transients and slave labor, often leased from eastern Virginia. This was the first significant introduction of slavery into western Virginia because salt was the first major industry to develop. In fact, by the 1800s, slave labor was rarely used in areas that did not rely heavily upon industry. Similarly, industrialization in the late 1800s and early 1900s would later bring many transient African Americans into the state.

Of the slaves in the Kanawha Valley, half were owned or hired by salt firms. Forty percent of these slaves were used to mine coal for the salt works because they could be hired from their owners for much lower wages than white laborers demanded. These slaves were usually leased and insured rather than bought due to the risk of death or injury in the coal mines.

In 1863 West Virginia separated from Virginia.  West Virginia placed a greater emphasis on funding white schools than it did black schools. The African- American community took it upon itself to create the first schools in the state for blacks. In 1862, a year before the state’s creation, a black school was opened in Parkersburg. In 1866, the state agreed to take over the Sumner School, making it the first publicly financed black school in the entire South. Black schools sprang up in other towns, including Charleston, Clarksburg, Fairmont, Grafton, Keyser, Lewisburg, Malden, Martinsburg, Morgantown, Piedmont, Point Pleasant, Ronceverte, Shepherdstown, Union, Weston, Wheeling, and White Sulphur Springs. There was a growing need for individuals to teach the increasing number of black students. Storer College, established at Harpers Ferry in 1867, was comprised of two components, a grammar school and a normal school for the training of teachers. In the 1890s, the state created two additional black normal schools, West Virginia Colored Institute (later West Virginia State College) and Bluefield Colored Institute (later Bluefield State College).

Coal was King, and it was mined as far South as Alabama. From 1880 to 1904, 10 percent of Alabama’s state budget was paid by leasing (mostly black) prisoners to coal companies.

As a history tidbit – The original “Mother Jones” was a Union organizer at the Pocahontas Mine in Tazwell, Va. She would help organize coal fields in West Virginia in the Kanawha Valley. Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, led striking miners. Jones, a native of Ireland, was already a major force in the American labor movement before first coming to West Virginia during the 1897 strikes. Although she reported the year of her birth as 1830, recent research indicates she was probably born in 1845. As a leader of the UMWA’s efforts to organize the state, Jones became known for her fiery (and often obscene) verbal attacks on coal operators and politicians.

Among the elected delegates to the founding UMWA convention were at least five African American miners. By 1900 approximately 20,000 black miners had joined the union, representing about 20% of UMWA membership.

One of the best known African-American UMWA members was Richard L. Davis, who mined coal in West Virginia and Ohio. A delegate to the founding convention in 1890, Davis later served as a UMWA organizer in Alabama, Ohio and West Virginia, and was twice elected to the UMWA National Executive Board.

 

This is drift mining with a continuous mining machine. Notice the cut is only 3-4 feet tall, and the tunnel is not tall enough to stand in.

In W.Va., fortunes of black minority fall along with coal

Coal Miners in 1920’s West Virginia Kanawha Valley

Buck Wade wanted to be just like his dad. His father, a widower, raised five children on a coal miner’s salary, working long hours and in his free time teaching the kids to cook and clean house. At 17, Wade got his first job in the mines. It was 1943, and he was so anxious to work underground that he lied about his age on the application form. No one cared. His father took him on as an apprentice, and Wade made 23 cents for every ton of coal he mined. “I was just as happy in the mines as I could be,” he says.

Wade grew up in Keystone, a busy town in McDowell County, West Virginia, unusual for its racial diversity and the economic power of its black residents. Though the county was an anomaly in that sense, residents here, like elsewhere in the region, were ensconced in the world of coal. That’s what brought Wade’s dad to the state — he’d walked all the way from Montvale, Virginia, to the West Virginia community of Edmond, the old man always said — along with thousands of other African-Americans.

Coal was booming, and work was plentiful. By the 1930s, the industry employed 400,000 miners, 55,000 of whom were black. African Americans were restricted to more physically demanding positions requiring less skill, earning30 percent less than whites. But their wages were still high by national standards: $118.30 per month, according to one 1929 survey. By contrast, a national study in 1939 later found that black men earned an average income of $460 per year.

By the 1950s, African Americans made up 24 percent of McDowell’s population, compared with 6 percent statewide. Locals came to refer to the area as “the Free State of McDowell.” Black doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs also flocked to the county, drawn to the promise of a better life. Even in the Jim Crow era, unions in the area were integrated, blacks in West Virginia enjoyed voting rights, and local political leadership included many people of color.

“Everybody had money,” says Clif Moore, a current state delegate for McDowell who was born in the county in 1949. “It was sort of like little New York. Like a little Manhattan. Everything was popping.”

But at mid-century, as machines began to take over the tasks of drilling and blasting coal and hauling it above ground, black miners were the first to lose their jobs. What had once been an all but certain gateway to the middle class began to close. African Americans fled the industry at even higher rates than whites; by 1960, the share of black workers in coal shrank to 6.6 from 12 percent a decade earlier. In 2014, the most recent year for which Bureau of Labor Statistics data are available, only about 2,500 blacks worked as coal miners, less than 3 percent of the total…Read the Rest Here

 

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on February 23, 2016 in Black History, The Post-Racial Life

 

Tags: , , , , , , ,

 
%d bloggers like this: