<%@LANGUAGE="VBSCRIPT" CODEPAGE="1252"%> Appalachian Journal Review

Appalachian Journal, vol. 32, no. 3 (Spring, 2005), p.385-386.
Used with permission. Copyright, Appalachian Journal and Appalachian State University, 2005.

Black Days, Black Dust: The Memories
of an African American Coal Miner.

By Robert Armstead (as told to S.L. Gardner).
(Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2002)
$17.95, paper. ISBN: 1572331763, 272 pp.

     For a number of reasons, this book is an example of the best kind of memoir. Armstead’s narrative is personal and flowing—an easy read. But the story is more than personal. In its telling, Armstead is also chronicling the transformation of coal mining technology in the 20th century. By starting with the story of his coal mining father and his own childhood in the coal camp, Armstead follows how the revolution in both industry structure and machinery impacted individual lives—not only his own but that of his family and friends. His descriptions of the actual work underground are fascinating and resonate, for me, with the many stories I have heard from underground miners.
     Readers who are acquainted with stories of the early coal camps will find many of the familiar observations—the concern for the horses in the mines over that of the lives of the men (Armstead’s father was a horse driver), the forced use of scrip, the dangerous conditions. Armstead brings those stories into the modern era with his descriptions of coal mining into the l970s when the longwall was introduced, the union was battered by internal dissent, and many coalfield residents migrated to urban areas.
     But this is not the only story, for Armstead documents a second chronology—that of race relations in the coalfields. The book is not "about" race, but it is about how being black had an impact on the life of this man. Although the northern West Virginia coalfields never had the large concentration of black miners that typified the southern coalfields, they were a significant number and an integral part of the workforce. His view of the community, union, management, and coworkers is articulated through his consciousness as a black man. His stories are often poignant—as he recounts the community’s reaction to the triumphs of the boxer Joe Louis or the prowess of the early black baseball players. One of his most important discussions is that of the mechanization of the mines in terms of its disproportionate impact on black miners. Armstead not only survives the massive lay-offs that occurred in that period, but eventually became one of the first blacks in the area to be made a foreman and, eventually, a safety inspector.
     This book is an invaluable contribution, along with Memphis Tennessee Garrison’s oral history and Joe Trotter’s Coal, Class and Color, to understanding race relations in the Appalachian mining industry. Indeed, an interesting comparison could be made between the northern and southern coalfields on this basis. In the southern coalfields, the large number of black miners laid the basis for significant political organization and activity. Northern black coal miners never developed that level of power.
     Finally, Armstead is a keen observer of gender roles (although he never calls them that). He discusses the gendered division of labor in his home as he grew up, the gender role played by his second wife (his first marriage was a short one), and the introduction of women into the coalmine workforce. Toward the end of his work life he had a younger woman boss, of whom he speaks with great respect. In this sense, the book is somewhat unique, for many other miners’ stories make women either invisible or merely secondary players.
     One could argue that Armstead was an "ordinary” man and his story is simply one version of many that could be told by thousands of others. But the contribution of this book lies precisely in the way in which it becomes clear that miners like Armstead and his father provided the muscle, intelligence, and work ethic to build this country industrially and then change its social fabric through unionization and the Civil Rights Movement. S.L. Gardner deserves our appreciation for understanding what this narrative had to offer and for making it part of our Appalachian literature.


Lynda Ann Ewen is Professor Emerita of Sociology at Marshall University, Co-Director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Gender in Appalachia, and Editor of the Ohio University Press series “Ethnicity and Gender in Appalachia." She received the Cratis Williams/James Brown Service Award from the Appalachian Studies Association at the 2005 Conference.