Story+ Project

Coal & America: Stories from the Central Appalachian Coalfields

(2018)

Coal is still king in many parts of Appalachia, even if it sometimes seems like the throne has been abdicated. It informs identities, not only for the men and women who dig it, but also for those like Loretta Lynn, who are “proud to be a coal miner’s daughter,” or son. It offers relatively high wages in areas where decent paying jobs are scarce. In good times, those wages circulate through the local economy, bolstering businesses and generating tax revenue to support schools and much-needed public services. These are not, however, good times. Coal employment has been in a tailspin for the past three decades, even as annual production figures have remained at or near record highs. Since 1980, the industry has shed more than 160,000 jobs, with 60,000 of those coming since 2011. To be sure, the Central Appalachian communities hardest hit by that trend are no strangers to dire straits—coal, after all, has always been a boom and bust market. But this time seems different. Despite President Donald Trump’s campaign promises to “bring coal back,” and his administration’s “America first” energy policy, trends in power generation and in the mining industry itself point toward a world that will soon need less coal, and even fewer coal miners. It sometimes seems as if everyone has an opinion about both the origins of this bleak future and how coal communities might best prepare to meet its challenges. But what about the people who live in these communities? What can we learn by letting coal miners and their families speak for themselves?

This Story+ team will seek answers to those questions (and others) by collecting oral histories about the last half-century of coal mining, from the people who lived it. After a two-week orientation in Durham, where team members will be briefed on coal’s history and trained in oral history methods, the team will spend two weeks conducting field interviews in Central Appalachia. By the end of the project, which will conclude with a two-week processing period, the team will have produced a public history website detailing the recent history of the coal industry in Appalachia from the perspective of miners and their families.

Project Sponsor(s): 

Jonathon Free, Postdoctoral Associate, Duke University Energy Initiative

Graduate Mentor(s): 

Alexander Yoshizumi, Nicholas School of the Environment

Undergraduates: 

Morgan Ruff, Nicole Lindbergh, Mary Helen Wood

Outcome: 

rock with 'I love coal' painted on its side
This coal knick-knack, a piece of painted coal, was given as a gift to our Coal and America team by one of our wonderful oral history narrators!

The project, part of Duke University's Energy Initiative, will persist through the 2018-2019 school year as a Bass Connections project called Coal in America: Chronicling and Analyzing Its Economic and Social History (2018-2019). The students will continue there the storytelling work they began during Story+. According to project sponsor Jonathan Free, the students are telling the untold stories. They are preserving oral histories from Appalachian coal miners and are learning more about how to help the region in the future. The stories will be archived both for the public and for the interviewees themselves.

Project Sponsor Jonathan Free was interviewed about the project by West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Listen here!

First shift of miners at the Virginia-Pocahontas Coal Company Mine #4 Near Richlands, Virginia. Source: National Archives and Records Administration.

Topic(s)

  • Labor History
  • Public Humanities
  • Oral History
  • Energy

Skills required

  • Audio & Video Editing
  • Collaborative Work
  • Community Engagement
  • Interviewing & Oral History
  • Website Design
  • Working with Primary Sources & Archival Research
  • Writing & Editing