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African American Miners and Migrants: THE EASTERN KENTUCKY SOCIAL CLUB

African American Miners and Migrants: THE EASTERN KENTUCKY SOCIAL CLUB

by Thomas E. Wagner

ISBN: 9780252071645

Publisher University of Illinois Press

Published in Calendars/Travel & Scenery, Calendars/Multicultural

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Sample Chapter


Chapter One

"Coming Up on the Rough Side of the Mountain": African Americans and Coal Camps in Appalachia

The African American men and women who were recruited to work and live in the coal towns of Benham and Lynch were not the first blacks in Appalachia. African Americans have a long history in the Appalachian mountains. They accompanied the earliest French and Spanish explorers into the region as both freedmen and as slaves. William Turner believes that blacks in Appalachia were some of "America's first blacks—appearing almost a century before the landing at Jamestown. "

Slavery was practiced throughout the southern Appalachian mountains. Nearly a thousand black slaves, for instance, accompanied their Cherokee masters out of the region on the infamous Trail of Tears in 1838. By the outset of the Civil War, slaves could be found in every county of the region. Early scholars such as Carter G. Woodson acknowledged that but maintained that slavery was never as widely favored or practiced in the mountains as in the plantation South. In Woodson's view, mountaineers put a high value on personal freedom, equality, and independence, principles often reinforced by their Baptist and Presbyterian religious tenets. Politically, mountaineers favored abolition because of their opposition to the dominance of proslavery elites in state governments, the same elites that hindered development in the upland portions of Appalachian states. Moreover, slavery was not an economically viable option for most of the small farmers, manufacturers, and businesses found across the mountains.

Contemporary researchers such as Wilma Dunaway, however, are much more critical of slaveholding in Appalachia. Dunaway's research shows that slavery was a common phenomenon throughout the mountain South and was generally more brutal than in other slaveholding areas. In particular, she notes higher rates of forced family breakup and child mortality in the southern mountains than in the plantation South. John Inscoe, however, aptly refers to a "quiltlike character of highland racism." Most modern scholars point out the uneven nature of Appalachian racial practices. In Harlan County, Kentucky, for instance, slave ownership before the Civil War was concentrated among five families that owned 48 percent of the slaves in the county; the largest of the families owned fifty-eight. Historians also point out that racial attitudes were often paradoxical. Some Appalachian slaveholders fought to preserve the Union, lynching occurred in counties with strong abolitionist legacies, and blacks fled some highland counties whereas their populations grew substantially in others. "White highlanders' views of African Americans in theory and treatment of them in practice," Inscoe concludes, "were for the most part well within the mainstream of attitudes and behavior elsewhere in the South, a mainstream that was in itself by no means monolithic.... On either side of the Mason-Dixon line, nineteenth-century white America was racist, varying in degree and form of expression. The same was true of Appalachia."

The oppression of blacks in the pre–Civil War South gave rise to the Underground Railroad, which, according to Woodson, ran through and had many stops in Appalachia. Again, contemporary scholarship provides an alternative view: "The whole notion of Appalachia as a center of Underground Railway activity is suspect," Inscoe maintains. "Most major treatments of the Underground Railroad make no reference to southern Appalachian locales." Nevertheless, it would have been difficult for many men and women fleeing slavery to enter the northern states without crossing portions of what is now known as the central Appalachian subregion, which contains the mountainous counties of southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, and western Virginia. Passage would have required the active participation of at least some mountaineers and the passive cooperation of many others.

Racial violence rather than racial harmony was a reality of Appalachian life following the Civil War. In the Appalachian sections of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia, 128 black lynchings occurred between 1880 and 1939. The number of "legal" lynchings in which the law was used to justify racial murder is unknown. The social changes brought about by industrialization also led to mob violence in the mountains. As Robert Stuckert observes, "The use of black workers as strikebreakers was often a bone of contention. It was in the coalfields that racial violence occurred most frequently."

After Emancipation, railway construction and mine openings attracted black laborers and their families from the plantation South into the mountains. From the time of the Civil War to the turn of the century, the black population in the southern Appalachian mountains grew by 64 percent, to 274,000. The growing numbers of newly enfranchised voters in a relatively sparsely populated area affected the political makeup of the Appalachian portions of Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, and West Virginia. Black voters in the upper South, "where there was a relative lack of racial hostility between mountain whites and blacks," gave Republicans a political edge that would last into the twentieth century.

By the turn of the century, industrial expansion in the Appalachian mountains and a concomitant demand for more laborers caused companies to send recruiters throughout the South, looking for workers. A 1919 Department of Labor Report noted, "The Negroes most sought after in the Birmingham [Alabama] district have been the coal miners. There has been a constant demand in the mines of Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Virginia for the experienced miners here." Indeed, the largest migration of blacks into the Appalachian region took place between 1900 and 1930, and these migration flows were focused on the coalfields. Joe William Trotter has documented that phenomenon: "The African-American population in the central Appalachian plateau increased by nearly 200 percent between 1900 and 1930, from less than 40, 000 to over 108,000."

The black workers recruited to Benham and Lynch by International Harvester and U.S. Steel, as well as other black migrants to Appalachia in this period, did not necessarily see themselves as permanent residents of the mountains, but they came with the same expectations as those who did. Often, they came seeking wage labor to help their families in the South, who were trapped in ever-declining economic spirals of tenant farming and sharecropping. Black agricultural workers in the Deep South were particularly devastated by spreading infestations of the boll weevil, and they fled north to escape the economic consequences of that infestation. Trent Alexander notes, "The boll weevil loomed large in the black exodus not only because most of the black population resided in the cotton states, but also because the blacks in those areas were more likely to be laborers and sharecroppers, and thus particularly at risk." In her first-person account of African American life in the Appalachian coalfields, Memphis Tennessee Garrison recalled, "The people who had security, who had good farms and things like that weren't moving out here. It was the people who were having a hard time trying to make a living who came." The railroad routes out of the flat-land South into the Appalachian coalfields provided black migrants with two advantages: access to well-paying jobs and frequent opportunities to return home for cultural refreshment. Indeed, many saved their wages with thoughts of returning to buy farms in the South.

Over time, however, many black farmers who came for temporary work in the mines would become skilled and settled coal miners. Rural African Americans were as aware of the economic implications of industrialization as their white counterparts, and they responded accordingly. On their movement into the Appalachian coalfields, Joe William Trotter writes, "Through their southern kin and friendship networks, black coal miners played a crucial role in organizing their own migration to the region, facilitating their own entrance into the industrial labor force and, to a substantial degree, shaping their own experiences under the onslaught of industrial capitalism."

An important difference, however, distinguished rural black migrants to the coalfields from their white counterparts. Although many African Americans moving from the Deep South may have had dreams of buying land, most, as former sharecroppers, did not actually own any property. In contrast, most native whites and some foreign immigrants who came to the coal towns could lay claim to a landholding "back home." Although white Appalachian miners could see themselves as farmers who had intermittent jobs in the mines, in most cases black miners could not afford that luxury. Their home place was a social network located in a particular area of the South rather than the physical and economic reality of landholding. Their commitment to mining and coal-town life, at least initially, was driven by necessity and therefore more complete than that of white newcomers to the coalfields.

The black miners who migrated to Behnam and Lynch were not the first African Americans in Appalachia to be associated with mining. Blacks had come to the coalfields much earlier, although not of their own volition. William Turner observes, "Significantly, Virginia has the distinction of being the first state in which blacks were employed as coal miners. Near Jamestown, where black slaves first appeared, some five hundred blacks worked the mines in 1796." By 1833 an estimated five thousand slaves were working in the gold mines of Burke County in the mountains of western North Carolina. According to Ronald Eller, "Blacks had worked in southern Appalachian mines from the opening of the first collieries. As early as the 1850s, slaves were mining coal in the Kanawha Valley [of West Virginia], and after the Civil War many of the black laborers who constructed the railroads found employment in the mines."

Other African American miners got work experience under different but equally adverse circumstances. In the postbellum era, southern states often leased out their prisoners to private companies as laborers, and southern sheriffs wanted to keep their convict work gangs full because of the profits involved. Consequently, blacks in particular were brought up on false or flimsy charges and used as convict labor, often in mines. As Robert Stuckert reports, "Convicts, almost all of whom were black, were leased to coal companies in Appalachian Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, and Tennessee, and to railroad companies in western North Carolina and Virginia." Blacks impressed into coalfield work gangs rightfully resented their condition and often "mutinied" against their captors. Nonetheless, many became able miners who, having served out their "time," stayed on in the Appalachian coalfields and worked as experienced miners. "By 1890 in the Appalachian reagions of Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia," William Turner notes, "blacks ranged from 46 percent of the miners [Alabama] to 15 percent in Kentucky."

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Appalachian coalfields were already home to a sizable population of black miners. Their experiences were often determined by where they lived and for whom they worked, factors that ultimately affected the quality of their lives and strength of their ties to Appalachia. To more fully understand the experience of black miners, they must be seen in the context of the environment in which they lived and worked—coal camps and, later, coal towns.

Coal Camps in Appalachia

More than twenty thousand coal camps and company towns were established in the United States during the first sixty years of the twentieth century; one in every ten was located in Kentucky. These Appalachian coal towns were by no means a homogeneous lot. Crandall Shifflett describes them as complex social arrangements where the nature of life "depended on the nature of an individual operator, the life cycle of the town, the composition of its population, and other forces of change." Ronald L. Lewis concurs: "Company towns varied greatly, depending on when they were constructed and by whom." Many of the earlier towns were set up by undercapitalized coal operators, leading to very poor working and living conditions.

Constructing worker housing, or even building a whole town for workers, predates the American experience. British coal-mining companies began the practice during the late seventeenth century. New England textile towns built in the 1790s are among the earliest American examples of company housing. By the 1850s numerous company-owned mill towns could be found up and down the East Coast, and several company towns for iron and steel workers were in existence in Pennsylvania and Michigan. Many company town owners saw the communities as a means to manage their workforce. In their view, employees could be influenced through control of their living environment. Lowell, Massachusetts, for instance, was established in 1820 by Francis Cabot Lowell with this intent. Lowell believed that placing workers together in multi-unit housing in one community would build solidarity and loyalty among his employees.

An example of corporate feudalism during the early period of Appalachian coal camps occurred during the 1870s in the company mining camps of Tioga County, Pennsylvania, where the camps were operated as private fiefdoms. The companies maintained private ownership of the roads and railways leading into the county, thereby forbidding access to outside observers. Arbitrary rules were enforced in these camps by heavy fines and threats of worker dismissals and family evictions. By 1925 a federal commission investigating the coal industry found that "living conditions in central Appalachian coal towns were among the worst to be found anywhere in the nation."

Although sharp distinctions are not possible, there were notable differences between coal camps and company towns. The camps tended to be older, smaller, less well organized, and not as highly capitalized as company towns. Camps were often the fiefdoms of individual owners, whereas towns were usually backed by larger corporate entities. Nevertheless, the characteristics of coal camps and company towns also overlapped. In this discussion, we use the designations interchangeably and sometimes employ "coal towns." Yet there were decidedly fewer similarities between the coal camps and the model towns that eventually appeared in the coalfields.

Were there a quality-of-life index spanning coal camps, company towns, and model coal towns, many negative images of Appalachian coalfield life would be found at the coal camp end of the spectrum. Working and living conditions appear to have improved from camps through company towns to model towns. Company towns in the Appalachian highlands seem to have been present as early as 1885; coal camps, although difficult to trace, were established earlier. By 1920, between 65 and 80 percent of the miners in southern Appalachia lived in coal camps, company towns, or model towns. "Model towns," as we call them, were an extraordinary form of company town. Fewer in number and usually later in development, they differed from coal towns in that they involved a great deal of intentional physical and social planning.

As might be expected, company-developed mining communities were most often found in those parts of Appalachia that were most difficult to access—the mountainous coalfields of southern West Virginia and southeastern Kentucky, for example. In the words of Robert F. Munn:

The coal industry's involvement in the housing and social welfare of its labor force was the result of historical accident rather than conscious choice. The location of mines is, of course, dictated by the location of coal deposits. In many cases, especially in the Southern Appalachian coalfields, these deposits were remote from established communities. Local housing, stores, schools, and other facilities did not exist. In the period before good roads and the extensive ownership of automobiles, it was necessary for miners to live within easy walking distance of the mine. Thus, if a company wished to attract and retain miners, it had no option but to provide at least basic housing and a store.

(Continues...)

Excerpted from "African American Miners and Migrants: THE EASTERN KENTUCKY SOCIAL CLUB" by Thomas E. Wagner. Copyright © 0 by Thomas E. Wagner. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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