Black History in the Coalfields

Posted Jun 14, 2023, by Josephine Tarquinio

“Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history” - Carter G. Woodson

The African American experience has largely been excluded in the telling of stories of Appalachia and the coal miners that fueled our country, but it is an important piece of our region’s history. After the abolition of slavery, many families fled to the coalfields of Appalachia where they were free from Jim Crow laws and where jobs in the mines could give them greater financial opportunity. In fact, by the late 1800’s Black miners were experiencing “equal pay for equal work.”

Although they found greater financial, political, and educational opportunities than what may have been afforded in other regions of the country, they still faced racism and discrimination. Coal mining has always been a high-risk profession, and discrimination toward Black miners meant the majority were assigned to some of the most dangerous sections.

Due to high demand for coal, mines needed as many miners as possible and jobs were abundant. This led to a mixing and mingling of cultures as it drew in a large presence of African Americans and European immigrants who worked in the mines alongside local Appalachians. Coal companies often attempted to stoke the fires of prejudice amongst their diverse groups of miners to diminish the chances of unionization by building coal towns with sections for each race.

Credit: Library of Congress
Credit: Library of Congress

Carter G. Woodsen was a coal miner who is now often referred to as the “Father of Black History.” He worked in West Virginia mines to afford attending one of the only Black high schools in his area. His personal experience as a coal miner influenced his perspective on social and economic inequality. It motivated him to focus on the history of African Americans and shed light on their struggles, achievements, and resilience, including those of African American coal miners.

Woodsen received his doctorate from Harvard University and went on to serve as the dean at West Virginia University and Howard University. In February, Americans celebrate Black History month. This celebration has grown over the years, originating from Negro History Week which Woodsen inaugurated in 1926. 

There is a sense of pride throughout the coal communities of Appalachia. African American coal miners sacrificed just as every miner sacrificed, and their stories must be continuously shared so that history will not be forgotten with time.

Evans, R., Isaac, E., & Whitley, R. (2023, February 28). Black History and Coal Communities | Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. Www.osmre.gov. https://www.osmre.gov/news/stories/black-history-coal-communities

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. (2020, January 22). Segregation: Hinton, WV. Www.nps.gov. https://www.nps.gov/neri/planyourvisit/segregation-hinton-wv.htm

PBS LearningMedia. (n.d.). Racial and Ethnic Boundaries in the Coal Mines | American Experience | PBS. Www.pbs.org. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/minewars-race/

Starr, S. (n.d.). The forgotten history of the US’ African American coal towns. Www.bbc.com. https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20221023-the-forgotten-history-of-the-us-african-american-coal-towns

Spotlighting four Black people in history who shattered norms and created lasting legacies in the Pittsburgh region.

Public Source

Photo collage by Natasha Vicens. Photos via The LeMoyne Community Center archives, Sen. John Heinz History Center, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh archives and African American Registry archives

Green Philly

To read more about Black History in the Coal Industry, check out these books:

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  • Josephine Tarquinio

    Josephine Tarquinio (she/her) is the Development Specialist at CCJ and previously worked with our organization as an operations fellow. Having always felt a responsibility to serve her community, Josie enlisted in the Army Reserves at an early age and served for eight years while pursuing her bachelor’s degree in International Studies from CalU. During her studies, she was inspired by her time with a national service sorority and through completion of the Community Builders of Greene County program. Having then continued her education at Louisiana State University Shreveport, Josie received her master’s degree in Nonprofit Administration with a concentration in development. As a lifelong resident of Washington County, Josie feels a personal connection to CCJ’s mission. She is eager to support development efforts to push the work further and to continue building relationships with our members who are making the positive changes in our communities possible. Contact Josephine at josephine@centerforcoalfiedjustice.org

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