African American Miners

The Battle of Blair Mountain can also be viewed in the greater context of the Great Migration that occurred from 1910 to 1940. Many African Americans left the rural South, i.e. Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama, in order to look for better paying jobs and livelihoods. While most would move further north in the Midwest and East, a number did become coal miners in West Virginia. For example, the McDowell County black population alone increased from 0.1 percent in 1880 to 30.7 percent in 1910. It also important to keep in mind that there was also an already in the state of West Virginia, they up made up an estimated 20% of the total population in the 1920s.

The black man who migrated to the coal towns of Central Appalachia fared far better than his counterpart who stayed down on the farm. He had the advantage of relative independence in his work, known as “miner’s freedom.” (1) His paydays were closer together and with a difference in pay that could average as much as $6.00 per day, he could be free from debt in a relatively short period of time. He also had the freedom of movement; if he didn’t like the working conditions or the pay at one mining camp, he could simply pack up and move to another. (2)

Many black men were enticed to the Coal Towns after the Civil War being told they would be provided with a house, dry goods, and that they could bring their whole families. However, the reality was much different, like his European-American counter parts he would have to work from before daylight to past sundown and if he died in the mine his widow could send in a son to replace him.

Black miners appeared to value the lack of (white) supervision that was such an integral part of coal mining in the era before mechanization gained such a foothold. Additionally, migrant blacks found similarities between their former system of tenant farming and the company owned coal towns to which they moved. As in their sharecropping days, black miners started out their career in debt for the cost of tools, housing, food and often transportation from their former homes. One important difference however was that the black coal miner had far more earning power in the mines than he had on the farm. Thus, he was able to clear up his initial debts far quicker. An added bonus to blacks moving into the West Virginia coalfields was the franchise. West Virginia was the only state to give its black residents the vote.(Source: http://www.wvculture.org/history/wvhs1503.html)

At first attempts to try and unionize the African American workers in the 1910s was very difficult to do since many did not want to risk their livelihoods.

While segregation existed in the communities, inside the mines it was equal pay for equal work. However, not all work was divided equally among black miners and their white peers. Black miners were routinely given the harder, more dangerous or less skilled jobs. Rarely were black miners given positions of authority over white miners. While the white miners did not seem to mind working beside the black miners underground, they severely resisted any attempts to upgrade the African Americans to higher skilled positions. (Source: http://www.wvculture.org/history/wvhs1503.html)

By the time Blair Mountain occurred many did join the attempt to organize. During the battle, many blacks fought alongside their white counterparts. There are many stories in which both black men and white men ate side by side in a company mess halls that normally excluded both ethnic groups from intermingling with each other.

Between 1930 and 1950, the number of blacks in the coal mining industry in the central Appalachian states declined 38 percent and many moved to northern cities in the second wave of the Great Migration to Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Chicago.

1. Lewis, 80, 2. Lewis, 93.

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Published in: on July 11, 2011 at 7:46 pm  Comments Off on African American Miners  
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