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Mon February 5, 2007
"Everybody Was Black Down There"
This volume, a study of the Alabama coal mining industry from about 1930 to the present, is a reworked doctoral dissertation and certainly lacks the zip of Lawrence (Sons and Lovers)or Hickam (October Sky).
By Don Noble
Like military units operating behind enemy lines, circuses, and courtroom trials, coal mining has long been an intrinsically interesting literary subject. D. H. Lawrence, in Sons and Lovers, wrote of the powerful bonds between miners in Nottingham, England, men who worked together ten hours a day, entrusting their lives to one another deep in the ground. Homer Hickam of Huntsville, Alabama, gained fame with his memoirs of Coalwood, West Virginia, especially with October Sky, made into the film The Rocket Boys.
This volume, a study of the Alabama coal mining industry from about 1930 to the present, is a reworked doctoral dissertation and certainly lacks the zip of Lawrence or Hickam. Woodrum follows 229 pages of text with 75 pages of notes, bibliography, and index. This is a scholarly book, and it is slow going, but it is also thorough, authoritative, and convincing.
Woodrum narrates the risings and fallings of coal mining in Alabama. He documents everything thoroughly?issues of race, health and safety, union power, and corporate greed?and only sometimes will the reader like what he is learning.
The unions had been driven from Alabama in 1921 and only made their comeback in the Depression. In 1930 there were about 26,000 coal miners and 13,000, 53%, were black. They constituted 60% of the United Mine Workers of America's Alabama membership. In 2000, there were 12,265 miners, and only 15% were African American.
The title, "Everybody Was Black Down There," pertains mostly to the thirties and forties. With all underground miners, black and white, facing exactly the same hazards and mutually dependent for their very lives, racial boundaries got more porous. Sometimes in those years, miners would even drink together in two segregated halves of the same caf?. At union meetings, most recognized each other as fellow "members," some called one another "brothers," and a few even shook hands. Those were the Edenic days when the mines needed every man they could get.
Even in those days, the only real weapon miners had was the strike. One might be surprised to learn that there were 14,000 national coal strikes during World War II, in spite of intense patriotic propaganda. Then one reads that the owners neglected safety regulations and refused to raise wages, and that the miners here in Alabama were suffering from inflation that raised the price of a bag of flour from ten cents to forty cents. The owners were, of course, profiteers.
After the Second World War, demand for coal plummeted. Railroads went to diesel and electric. Natural gas pipelines snaked up from Louisiana. Jobs became scarce and racial tensions increased. Under reduced demand for labor, the owners' powers increased, and as the owners played the race card relentlessly, pitting black miners against whites, the percent of black miners declined and so did the power of the unions to protect anybody. UMWA could have done more to protect their black members, but, sadly, they did not. In hospitals for miners, blacks were allocated too few beds, and those were often in the basement. As mines became increasingly mechanized, and men with shovels were fewer, black miners were denied jobs not only as equipment operators but as simple laborers.
It looked for a while as if exporting coal might be the salvation for Alabama miners, and in the sixties coal went out through the Port of Mobile to Japan, Latin America, and Europe. Unfortunately, The Southern Company commenced importing coal from South Africa, one million tons in 1976. Three hundred seventy-five jobs that could have gone to black miners in Alabama instead went to the black miners of South Africa, who were paid three dollars a day "slave labor" under the worst conditions in the world.
What imported coal didn't do to finish off mining, surface mining did. And then Drummond Coal bought and opened surface mines in Colombia, South America, employing over 1,000 miners and producing 16 million tons per year.
Woodrum closes with an account of the 2001 explosion at Jim Walter Mine #5 in Brookwood, where, he writes, "Miners claimed that managers, worried about keeping production levels high, harassed workers if they turned off mining machinery when dangerous levels of methane gas were present. The mine led Alabama in safety citations in 2000, compiling 525 violations and $77,078.18 in fines." Thirteen miners died in the September 23 explosion. This is a sad and savage tale.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.