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AfriGeneas Genealogy and History Forum Archive

Re: African American coal miners

One of the difficulties in amassing names of coal miners, is that they can be missed in records such as the census because of the nature of the jobs in a coal mining venture. As is par for the course, the blacks were often given the more menial and less paying jobs around the mine. Those who had little to no mining experience initially got jobs as general laborers. So, you may find them in the census as such, and if this was in 1880, and you don’t have anything else on them prior to the 1900 census, they very well could have been a bona fide miner for almost 2 decades then switched to a less labor intensive job and you would be none the wiser. In addition, African Americans will be found on the census performing jobs such as teamster, driver, fireman, engineer, and blacksmith to name a few, and they are actually working on the mining company payroll but unless you found piece of evidence tying them to a coal company employer, you cannot be sure of the connection. This is illustrated oftentimes in city directories when you find an individual listed for multiple years and you see the job changes play out over time and it is indicated from time to time that he is employed by a certain coal company.

Sandra mentioned that she has ancestors from the vicinity of Pittsburgh, PA (Allegheny Co) that were engaged in mining as early as 1860, which is quite exciting news; please send me the census reference (ED and page). I have found scattered evidence of miners in that area in the 1800s, but nothing prior to the Civil War. She also spoke of some of them being involved in the miner’s unions. I won’t go into great detail here, but suffice it say that African Americans were prominent both as non-union strikebreakers, and as die hard union organizers. The percentages of miners in those two camps varied quite a bit by geographic region. Some of you may have heard of Richard Davis from Ohio who was a big union organizer and I believe you can find his papers chronicling his United Mine Worker career in some repository. Historian Herbert Gutman wrote a very large essay on him. It is also my understanding that there are records of the UMW in existence from the early days. There are definitely a couple of major labor newspapers that survived, one being the National Labor Tribune, which I think came out of Pittsburgh. They of course had lots of coverage of union conventions, regional gatherings, etc, so if your ancestor was a union rep, you may find some things on him.

April, I also have ancestors from Pittsylvania county, VA! They appear as farmers, and were in the greater Danville area, further north up by Chatham, and east over in Ringgold. Surnames Anderson, Holmes, and Tanner to name a few. Several of them migrated to the coal fields as did yours, but they went a bit farther west to Braidwood, IL about 60 miles southwest of Chicago in the mid 1880s. As for WV, I know of the rich coal mining heritage there, but have not done much reading on it prior to the past 3-4 months. Joe Trotter’s book (Coal, Class, and Color) along with the one by Ron Eller (Miner, Millhands, and Mountaineers) are two must reads if you have coal miners from the state. And I think in an earlier post I mentioned the autobiography of an African American coal miner (from WV) called “Black Days, Black Dust”. I must also mention the magazine publication Goldenseal, which has many stories in various issues rich in African American coal mining heritage.

Glenda, thanks so much for pointing us to the website on the NC mine disaster in 1925; the site seems to be full of info and I can’t wait to explore it in more detail. I did not have any information on that particular explosion. I have the list of coal mining disasters from the US Dept of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) site and have been working through it trying to ascertain which events involved African Americans. One more down, dozens more to go!

Once again, a big shout out to all of you who have provided names of coal miners to be added to the site. I will be doing another upload to the site within the next 7 days and they all should be included. In the next 2-4 weeks you should see a totally new and improved version of the site, courtesy of the block 3 web design students in Mr. Murray’s class at my old workplace, Yorkville HS, Yorkville, IL. I went in several weeks ago to show them my site and discuss its intended purpose, then as part of a project the class went about making the site more user friendly and a bit flashy. I could have never taken the time to make such improvements so it was indeed a blessing. Their work should be complete in another week, and hopefully I can transfer over my current data and work out the kinks by early next month.

Oh, in April’s list, one guy, Floyd Heath, was employed as a trapper. If I remember correctly, a trapper is someone, frequently a teenager/boy, who manipulates something down in the mine that resembles a two-way door/ trap door. He uses it to control the airflow through the mine ensuring fresh air and the prevention of “black damp” or gas build up.

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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