COAL: The Black Diamond

Coal has been long spoken of as the principle material factor in industrial development. Although this seems a surprising statement in some ways from our present perspective, upon reflection from a historical vantage it is a self-evident truth. We could not possibly venture to discuss the character, motivation, or nature of the Great Migration without a proper view of the industrialization of the United States. During the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, radical changes in mining raw materials, manufacturing goods, and transporting merchandise permanently altered the economic landscape of this nation. While other world powers struggled to import enough raw materials and merchandise to compete on the world market; the United States struggled to achieve internal balance as sectional, political, racial, and economic rifts put a select class in the position to control industry and wealth, leaving many Americans to live in poverty. The story of coal and its relationship to migrant African American labor (in Birmingham and Pittsburgh and elsewhere) is a significant portion of this chapter in our history.
In roughly 1850, railroads supplanted canals, steamboats, stagecoaches and the like as the primary form of transportation in the States. The rise of the rails took place amidst the American Industrial Revolution; and was at the same time a cause and a product of this same period of industrialization. With the rise of mechanized manufacturing in the late eighteenth century, coal made its appearance on the American industrial scene as a fuel in the manufacturing engines of factories. However, it was not until the 1830's and 1840's that coal started to widely replace wood and charcoal in manufacturing and iron processing. As new methods of iron production became more widely used, more coal was required. Coal hadn't been necessary in older, more traditional methods of iron production, which used charcoal and waterpower to produce, roll, and puddle iron. The anthracite coal found through much of the country could not be used to produce coke, and it was not until the advent and popularization of "hot blast" refining, which used anthracite coal, that coal would commence to dominate the industrial scene.
The United States is a country far more spread out than its European counterparts. In the thick of the Industrial Revolution, there were still vast distances between many populated areas, traversed only by frequently impassable roadways and canals. If necessity is the mother of invention, it is no wonder that in time the United States came to dominate the invention and refinement of modes of transportation. The expansion of the railways conspired with the increases in industrialization to form a national climate in which many people relocated themselves to take advantage of the increasing economic activity elsewhere. One such sector of the population consisted of those migrant Blacks who sought to take advantage of the coal hungry expansion by moving from the agricultural base to a life in the mines. Mines had long existed side by side with agriculturally-based communities in the South. For example, in Alabama throughout the nineteenth century, the communities surrounding Birmingham included many farming communities and a number of mine camps. Within a single family, individuals might on the one hand take up the responsibility of the family's land and its cultivation, or, on the other, venture out to seek employment at a local mine. The integration of these two businesses is not surprising since the products of both labors are very beneficial even within a single family or community. That is to say, the later concepts of specialization and separation were not so widespread. It made sense to run a farm and have one or more sons help in its operation while other family members went to the mines. However, as the demand for coal, iron, and steel increased, so did the recruiting efforts of coal companies. Men were called upon, and found it somewhat lucrative, and certainly exciting, to leave their land and go out to work in industry or mining. These offers had a special appeal to Black laborers in the South.
African American laborers worked in the Alabama coal fields as far back as the turn of the 1800's. At that time, plantation owners, to varying degrees, designated certain slaves to work the mines on the property and supply coal for heating to the plantation. Some owners expanded their mines to such a degree that the entire property came to be primarily profitable through this work in mining. Some slaves found it possible to purchase their or their family's freedom through this mine work. After the Civil War, many plantation owners turned to convict labor to replace the slave labor they had lost. The same new rails which had so recently transported slaves South were used to move convicts. Some mines were even constructed with garrisons on the premises to incarcerate the convicts, many of them unjustly convicted or sentenced so that the state might pad its coffers with the fruits of the labors of more and more men.
The coal mines in the South were dominated by African American labor from the beginning, in fact. Whether or not their labor was extorted forcefully or no, the presence of African-Americans in the mines of the South was a precedented occurrence. Coal mines were set up in the South as communities centered around the mine. Company housing was available, and dominated at times, but it was not necessarily mandatory. The communities were segregated and the mines were as well at times. The wages varied for both the position and the race of the worker. Although the black miner in the South found that his presence was often tolerated and always downtrodden the conditions of his life in the North were often as poor, although in a distinctly different way.
Working conditions in coal mines were universally poor. Mines were usually of the drift or shaft description, which meant that men worked for prolonged periods of time far beneath the earth's surface. The average American coal mine begins 190 feet below the ground and during these times, at the turn of the 20th century, to work at these depths was very dangerous. The initial plunge into the mine was taken in either an elevator or a cart (down an inclined tunnel). Work was done in "rooms" of coal which were comprised of opened-out spaces in the seams of the coal, supported by pillars of coal which were left remaining. A miner worked with a helper, blasting, chiseling, shoveling, and loading the coal. Pay was commonly around three dollars a day for a white man, and between one and two dollars for his helper, depending on the amount mined. Water lay stagnant at the lowest points of the mine and had to be continually pumped out. The air quality was of the worst sort, with soot, dust, and poison gas all about. The carts were moved, in the beginning, by donkeys, and in time, by machine. Blacks occupied the worst positions in the mines often held to lower level jobs with high risk, especially in the South. In the North the bosses were most concerned about production rather than traditional prejudice; but with this outlook came another sort of danger.
Life in the coal camps of the North was very isolated. Often the coal seam was in an extremely isolated locale and thus the mine was the only reason for the community's existence. Although at times this lent itself to an agreeable small town atmosphere, it could also lead to contention. In these little company towns often three generations of a family were all employed simultaneously in the same mine. The boys in the town might work in a mine from the age of eleven on up, and sometime even younger. Local mine baseball teams and women's clubs sprung up to provide social outlets. Schools were sometimes formed, very often desegregated, though not always. With so many different manners of people flooding to the rapidly industrializing North, the labor managers in the mines had to deal with many different groups of people. The signs were often posted in a dozen languages in some Western Pennsylvanian and West Virginian camps. But while the mines themselves were often desegregated and the different peoples worked side by side, often in times of labor conflict, the bosses played the different groups off of each other. This worked against many groups but especially African Americans. African Americans were attracted and transported to northern mines to begin working legitimately in them, but as time went on - and the labor struggle gained momentum - frequently they were used specifically to break strikes. Black workers became associated in the minds of white workers as "scabs." While the unions excluded black membership and the black population at large was in dire need of reasonable employment, this dangerous (and often lethal) situation of black strikebreakers being imported into mines would occur again and again.
Coal consumption is still very high. Much of our electricity and all of our steel is produced using coal. However, the technological advances in the industry have resulted in many mines being mechanized and the miners being out of work. Other mines ceased to be profitable and were shut down. Many of the principles which applied to the downfall of coal were repeated in the history of the steel industry.

Society Home

Birmingham-Pittsburgh Traveler