One of the United States’ newest national parks has brought attention to West Virginia, but the remnants of its African American coal communities reveal a richer history.
In the late 1800s, blue-collar workers came from Wales, Eastern Europe, and other far-flung corners of the world to mine coal, which eventually built the cities that propelled America to global superpower status. However, the vibrant and sometimes tragic experiences of the region’s African American communities, which were integral to the industry and a burgeoning Appalachian culture, are missing from the story.
Fleeing white-led violence and racial segregation laws (known as Jim Crow laws) in Southern states following the end of the US Civil War and the abolition of slavery in 1865, African Americans flooded north into West Virginia’s coal fields in search of work and a semblance of equality. In the decades that followed, entire communities sprang up in coal camps – and thrived, thanks to the high demand for the prized fuel source. By 1930, there were approximately 80,000 African Americans in southern West Virginia, a figure that had more than doubled in just 20 years.
The New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, one of the United States’ newest national parks, has brought this area to the forefront of tourism. Although most visitors come for the stunning canyons, white-water rapids, and outdoor recreation, they also have the opportunity to learn about this area’s lesser-known strand of history: the black communities that moved here more than a century ago to work in local mines and railways.
The National Park Service has created an African American Heritage Auto Tour to honour these residents’ contributions. The tour, which is best experienced over a couple of days, takes visitors through the New River Gorge region of southern West Virginia and beyond. highlighting significant destinations and events experienced by African Americans during a time when coal was king.
“Places like Camp Washington Carver [the first African-American 4-H camp in the United States] are a must-see,” said Eve West, the park’s chief of interpretation, visitor services, and cultural resources.
Doris Fields, a blues singer known as Lady D, grew up in Kayford, one of the area’s coal camps, in the 1960s. “I really enjoyed it,” she said. “A creek ran behind our house, and the railroad tracks ran directly in front of it. My father worked down the street. It was simply a good way to mature.”
Slab Fork, a similar coal camp that is now a nondescript community 12 miles south-west of Beckley, is one of the tour’s 17 stops.
This was not always the case.
Slab Fork, located atop the Winding Gulf Coal Field in the first half of the twentieth century, was a melting pot of languages, cultures, and, to break up the monotony of daily labour, diverse musical activities.
After a day of mining or railroad track laying, Irish immigrants would pull out their fiddles and sing ballads. African Americans would sing harmonies and play the banjo, while Eastern European miners sang folk songs and played brass instruments.
Bill Withers, a music icon, was born in 1938 into this dynamic environment. Withers’ contribution to the music world is legendary. The multi-Grammy-winning artist’s songs Ain’t No Sunshine, Just The Two Of Us, and Lean On Me, which were inspired by his childhood in Slab Fork and nearby Beckley, are well-known around the world.
Withers may have emerged as Slab Fork’s most well-known musician, but a slew of musical artists contributed to the region’s distinct African American culture, according to Fields. Even though her coal-mining father wasn’t involved in the local music scene – politics, she says – the larger musical environment that flourished in and around the coal camps quickly drew her in. Miners not only performed music in the camps, but also in nearby villages where the Appalachian sound was infiltrating popular music.
“I used to spend my afternoons with my grandmother watching musicians on TV. On Saturday evenings, “We [Fields and her friends] would walk over to Freddy’s [a music venue in Chesapeake Village] and peek in the door to see who was playing,” she explained.
“Of course, we were much too young to be allowed in, but you could hear the music from outside.”
A thriving musical ecosystem arose. To meet the demand, nationally recognised jazz musicians were booked to perform in or near coal camp communities.
“They’d play a set in Charleston on a Saturday night, then get together with the local musicians – the miners – and jam all night at the venue or in the coal camps,” said Fields, who is working on a project about black culture in West Virginia’s coal camps. “The musicians would play these new styles the next morning in church.”
“They would get together with the local musicians â the miners â and jam all through the night at the venue or in the coal camps”
Communities were flourishing in other ways as well. By the 1940s, the Harlem Heights neighbourhood in Oak Hill, West Virginia (one of the auto tour’s stops) had begun to develop into an upscale African American neighbourhood. During the mid-twentieth century, the enclave was home to black ministers, teachers, inspectors, and other professionals. It was founded by five families who built their homes on an open field. Many African Americans had moved to West Virginia because the schools there were better than in many Southern states, and by 1947, a school in Harlem Heights had been built to educate segregated children.
“When African Americans came here from Virginia and other states, they discovered that they could vote [in local politics], so they did.” “Unlike in those other places,” West explained. “And it was said that segregation existed above ground, but workers were equal underground, in the mines.”
Nonetheless, racism and tragedy were prominent, and the auto tour takes visitors through these events as well. It mentions the McKendree Miner’s Hospital, for example, where African Americans injured in mining accidents were treated in segregated hospital wards.
There’s also a stop at the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster, which occurred in 1930 when teams of mostly African American men dug a three-mile tunnel, resulting in at least 724 deaths from silicosis, a lung disease caused by inhaling deadly silica dust. Today, a memorial and burial ground commemorate the tragedy.
“Like all miners, they faced extremely dangerous working conditions,” Lou Martin, an assistant professor of history at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who specialises in Appalachian history, said.
In addition, the Ku Klux Klan was active in the local coal fields. Some towns in the area were off-limits to African Americans, or had sundown laws that prohibited them from visiting after dark. Two black coal miners were lynched in December 1919.
After a century, the coal fields have mostly died away. However, for Fields, West, and others, the contribution of West Virginia’s African American miners to Appalachian history is undeniable, and the new national park provides an opportunity to share it. “This is an important story to tell,” West explained. “It’s opening up the doors – and our eyes – to a more in-depth understanding of those around us.”