African-American Miners in the West Virginia Mine Wars

Despite its position in the popular imagination as exceptionally white and homogenous, Appalachia has always been far more demographically diverse. This paper explores the ways in which the emergence of the coal industry and the subsequent migrations that it generated produced a racially diverse central Appalachia, and how that diversity shaped the West Virginia mine wars of the early 1920s. The explosion of the Appalachian coal industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries resulted in an equal explosion in the demand for labor throughout the region. Coal operators in West Virginia utilized agents from the notorious Baldwin-Felts detective agency as labor recruiters, who were sent south to enlist African-Americans with promises of escaping the emerging Jim Crow system of white supremacy (Lewis 1987). In a display of their agency, African-Americans themselves operationalized kinship networks to accelerate this exodus from the Deep South into central Appalachia. As this recruitment drive drew an increasing number of African-American laborers into the ranks of miners in West Virginia, coal operators simultaneously began developing their own strategy of racial control. In response to their own conceptions of culturally determined work habits, coal operators pursued a ‘judicious mixture’ by endeavoring to employ roughly equal numbers of African-American, immigrant, and native white workers at their mines (Trotter 1990). In this paper I argue that these contingent and fraught border crossings - geographical and racial, coerced and voluntary - shaped emerging forms of solidarity which made possible the largest labor insurrection in United States history.