Documenting Black Appalachia

Retired Coal Miner Ed Austin, April 1974, taken by Jack Corn as a part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Project DOCUMERICA (Flickr)

Migration has been a constant theme throughout my Black Perspectives series on African Americans and DOCUMERICA, a landmark 1970s photodocumentary project authored by the EPA. From Chicago, Illinois, to Birmingham, Alabama, the Black citizens and communities captured in DOCUMERICA help to tell a larger story about the second wave of Black Migration that began during World War II and continued into the early 1970s. They document the different ways that Black migrants grappled with the interconnecting challenges of political, economic, and environmental injustice.

Popular understandings of the Great Migration often promote a linear trajectory of Black migration from South to North. This was certainly true for many migrants, including Ebony publisher John H. Johnson, who in his autobiography Succeeding Against the Odds vividly recalls his own journey on the Jim Crow railcar from Arkansas City to Chicago. However, this move from South to North was far from the only experience. Black migration during the twentieth century did not occur in any single pattern or direction. How far (and in which direction) migrants moved was shaped by the complex intersections of class, gender, age, education and opportunity.

It is notable, too, how much of the Great Migration scholarship published over the past three decades has focused on Black migration to a small group of emerging Black urban centers. The demographic and cultural reasons for this focus are understandable, and work by Davarian Baldwin, LaShawn Harris, Marcus Anthony Hunter, and other scholars has transformed our understanding of twentieth century Black life in cities such as Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia. Nevertheless, with some notable exceptions, scholars have tended to have somewhat less to say about the Great Migration’s impact on Black communities of origin, and on Black migration outside of major cities. A closer exploration of these concerns is important for creating a fuller picture of the impact and legacy of Black migration on a national level.

The benefits of documenting how Black migration shaped communities of departure as well as arrival, and of expanding our focus beyond Black Metropolises such as Chicago and New York, can be traced through a DOCUMERICA assignment produced by white photographer Jack Corn. When Corn was invited to participate in DOCUMERICA by the Environmental Protection Agency, he was working at The Tennessean, a daily paper based in Nashville. Shooting throughout the spring of 1974, Corn saw his assignment as an opportunity to document “the plight of the American coal miner” across Appalachia, with a particular focus on mining communities in southern West Virginia.

Shooting above and below ground, Corn expertly documented how corporate dependency and labor exploitation impacted the lives of mining communities through issues such as poor-quality housing, dangerous working conditions, and chronic illness. At the same time, he authored an intimate portrait of working-class men and women on the frontlines of the nation’s “energy crisis.” For Anthony Joseph Cepak, Corn’s work for DOCUMERICA and other projects played a critical role in reshaping societal attitudes towards mining during the 1960s and 1970s – moving away from the historical celebration of mining in the context of American self-reliance and empire building, and towards “illustrating the devastating consequences of extracting coal from the earth.”

In the process, Corn cast light on the experiences of Black workers in West Virginia’s mining economy – an often-neglected history that helps to complicate our understanding of the Great Migration and its trajectory. In his landmark 1990 work Coal, Class and Color, Joe William Trotter traced how Black migrants were drawn to West Virginia during the first decades of the twentieth century by the promise of work in a booming coal industry. In 1867, West Virginia produced less than half-a-million tons of coal. By 1917 it was producing nearly ninety million. In 1890, less than 33,000 African Americans lived in West Virginia, accounting for just four percent of the total population. By 1930, this number had jumped to 115,000, and Black representation as part of the state’s total population had increased by 55 percent. The experiences of Black workers and their families were shaped by a “framework of class and racial inequality,” but, as Trotter notes, the industry also provided opportunities for improved housing, education, and wages, and stimulated the development of new Black institutions and “vigorous new political and civil rights initiatives” in southern West Virginia.

Martha Ann Crider, President of the Mountainerer Family Health Plan, May 1974, taken by Jack Corn as a part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Project DOCUMERICA (Flickr)

Corn’s photographs acknowledge this rich history of Black mining in the region. The majority of his images are portraits of retired miners such as Ed Austin, who worked in West Virginia’s mines from 1925 until 1956, and Harvey Thaxton, a 64-year-old World War II veteran. Some of his subjects are even older, including Otis Saunders, described as “in his late 80s,” who lived in Fireco, West Virginia, and remembered when it “was once a great mining town.” Corn’s images also document the continued influence of African Americans within the industry, with the photographer profiling individuals such as Levi Danials, the Director of Field Services for the United Mine Workers of America, and Martha Ann Crider, the President of the Mountaineer Family Health Plan. Through his use of lighting and portraiture, Corn’s portraits present this community in a dignified light. However, the photographer does not shy away from the ways that their connection to the mining industry had left many Black West Virginians in poverty and struggling with debilitating illness – most notably Black Lung Disease.

At the same time, Corn’s DOCUMERICA assignment alludes to the changing nature of Black communities in West Virginia by the early 1970s, and the ways that Black migration had reshaped these communities. Employment in West Virginia’s coal mining industry peaked in 1948, with mechanization helping to increase production but shrink the workforce during the second half of the twentieth century. The state’s Black population, which remained static during the Depression years and World War II era, plummeted from 115,000 in 1950 to less than 67,000 two decades later. Black flight from West Virginia was disproportionately led by younger residents, who sought to take advantage of increased educational and professional opportunities engendered by the gains of the civil rights movement. For many of the subjects documented in Corn’s assignment, a combination of age, financial precarity, and poor health was prohibitive to personal mobility. The result is a portrait of Black Appalachians increasingly left behind by deindustrialization, demographic change, corporate exploitation, and continued racial discrimination.

Corn’s photographs are a reminder that environmental justice scholars should not conflate the fight for environmental justice in urban areas with working-class communities of color, and with poor whites in rural areas. In parallel with highly racialized media coverage of the so-called “urban crisis,” the plight of the American coal-miner received significant attention during the 1970s. However, texts such as Barbara Kopple’s celebrated 1976 documentary Harlan County, USA overwhelmingly focused on the experiences of white miners. In this regard, Corn’s images can be read alongside the efforts of Fayetta Allen and other scholars to draw attention to the experiences of Black miners, and the Black experience in Appalachia. In an influential 1974 article for The Black Scholar, Allen denounced the neglect of “approximately 1.3 million blacks liv[ing] in the Appalachian region…their existence and plight are ignored.” In recent years, scholars such as William Turner, Edward Cabbell, and Karida Brown have taken up this call, pushing back on representations of southern Appalachia as “a purely white enclave” to better document the experiences of Black residents and their continuing struggles for racial, economic, and environmental justice.

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E. James West

E. James West is a UK-based writer and historian, currently working as a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Northumbria University Newcastle. Her is the author of 'Lerone Bennett, Jr. EBONY Magazine and Popular Black History' (University of Illinois Press). Follow him on Twitter @ejwestuk.

Comments on “Documenting Black Appalachia

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    History is quite important!

    This article insightfully describes aspects of the Blacks migration that remain obscure as educational as they are remain.

    Keep shining the spotlight on the plight and contributions of African Americans to the development of these United States of America…and the world.

    The African American Studies departments at various institutions and institutions like this African Americans Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) are bearing fruits.

    There is need to foster greater relationships with our families in Africa and across the world. We need that family unity!

    UC Ukaoma

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    This was an interesting article to read. I live in Hampton Roads, where there is a history of Black workers in the seafood industry. Yet, through racial capitalistic practices, were edge out of the industry. Where there were hundreds of Black workers in maritime and seafood industries after enslavement, yet those numbers have plummeted. We should think more about communities who witness an exodus of its people.

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    Glad to see this, as a 77 y/o Black native of Harlan County Kentucky (coal country) whose great grandparents were born in Southwest Virginia, four generations of men in family worked the coal mines. Author – “The Harlan Renaissance: Stories of Blacks in Appalachian Coal Towns.”

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