Memoir tells of forgotten black miners in West Virginia

Sunday, July 21, 2002

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Bob Armstead was a gentle man in a rough profession.

A black miner in decidedly white West Virginia, he toiled in a place where coal companies had recruited tens of thousands of blacks for jobs everyone else thought were too dangerous.

For 40 years Armstead worked hard, staying underground as racism pushed others out.

"Some said the black coal dust was a race equalizer," he wrote. "They said we were all black because of the coal dust, so blacks and whites blended, and there was less prejudice in a coal mine. I really didn't see it that way."

Armstead's story, "Black Days, Black Dust," released earlier this year by the University of Tennessee Press, has become the first published memoir of a black American coal miner.

It's a story of a quiet, hardworking, cheerful man. It's also a 255-page primer on coal mining and a window into a nearly forgotten piece of history -- those few decades when tens of thousands of blacks moved into the mountains to help make West Virginia's mines among the most productive in the world.

In 1880, only 25,886 blacks lived in West Virginia, a state with 592,537 whites. But as miners unionized and went on strike, mine owners recruited blacks by the trainload from the Deep South.

By 1920, the state's black population had grown to 86,345. Whites made up nearly 1.4 million. In southern coalfield counties, blacks accounted for more than 68 percent of the population in the 1930 census.

Four generations of Armstead's family were part of the great coal mine migration, moving from the iron district of Bessemer, Ala., to north-central West Virginia in 1924.

Later, when other families moved on, the Armsteads stayed.

Bob Armstead died in 1998 at the age of 71, but his voice survives on the pages of his book.

Dwindling numbers

By 1947, when Armstead followed his father into Marion County's mines, the number of black workers had already dwindled. Machines had begun to replace men, and among those left, white men were preferred.

"There were people who actually recruited blacks. On this side of the mountain, some owner would have recruited. On the other, they wouldn't. It's a polka-dotted pattern," said Ron Lewis, a history professor at West Virginia University. "But in the end, as a system, it worked as racial preference."

Blacks were nudged out, and those who remained were generally low-level laborers in the most dangerous areas of the mine. Often, both their union and their seniority failed to protect them.

While Italians, Poles and Slovaks were overlooked because they struggled with English, black and Irish workers were frequently considered incapable of adapting.

"All men who weren't white native West Virginians faced losing their jobs," Armstead wrote.

When he was laid off, Armstead cooked and waited tables. He carried bags as a bellhop. He washed floors. He delivered newspapers. Along the way, he married twice and raised five children.

He moved from town to town and job to job, but he always returned to the mines.

Thousands of other black families left, abandoning assimilation in the hills for factory jobs in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Detroit.

"They just moved on," Lewis said, "and so they're lost."

So, too, are their stories.

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