<%@LANGUAGE="VBSCRIPT" CODEPAGE="1252"%> Dominion Post Review
Fairmont miner/writer mined gems in Marion County


If you want to understand Marion county and its people better, read the memoir Robert Armstead left: "Black Days, Black Dust."

When I think of Marion County, I think of:

* Three rivers -- the West Fork, Tygart and Monongahela joining at Fairmont.

* Sports, because this activity is a major preoccupation in Marion and it can boast of great athletes, coaches and teams.

* Fairmont State College.

* Hard-working Marion County coal mining families.

Before reading Armstead's book, my familiarity with miners' families was limited to the European ethnic homes I visited as a child.

But Bob's "Memories of an African-American coal miner" opened my mind to his social experience, much of it restricted by segregation and prejudice.

At the same time, his memories provide a large understanding of mining itself.

By the way, he writes about the rivers and hills and hollows where children of miners grew up.

An anecdote or two refers to Fairmont State.

Grant Town's Sad Sam "Toothpick" Jones, writes Armstead, was "a good buddy of mine." Jones went on to make his mark in big league baseball.

The book is the memories of Armstead as told to S.L. Gardner.

Dr. Ron Lewis of the WVU History Department, a board member of the WVU Press, worked with Gardner during the manuscript's gestation and development during the 1990s. It was brought out by the University of Tennessee Press.

There is only one reference to WVU in the book. Armstead notes that although the university was desegregated by federal law in 1955, black men 13 years after still had to drive 125 miles to the West Virginia Colored Institute for mine certification tests.

White miners hopped the 25 miles over to WVU to train.

This memoir, though, is not a sour lament of the black experience in Marion County, or in the mines, or in the state, but it does not gloss over harsh realities.

"Like most black communities in coal camps, they were either a long walk from the mine or were right next to the mine and the railroad tracks where it was noisy and dirty."

Of his hard-working father, he writes, "Many times (after a shift in the mines) he was too exhausted to eat supper. I watched him collapse behind our coal stove, still dressed in his work clothes. It hurt to see him suffer."

He calls his mother "miracle mom," a woman who fed, clothed, nursed to health a large family.

Religion enabled his mother to carry on and provide guidance to the children despite separate and unequal treatment.

The same religion soothed and gave strength to Robert's father during the years until his death from lung disease at age 75.

The church experience his mother instilled in the large family and the fellowship of families in segregated schools and coal towns enabled them to prevail.

You can go deeper in studies of all these things via this memoir.

The book is well-documented, with copious references to other publications and a thorough index.

To understand mining from a miner's point of view, this book is essential. It takes its place equally on the shelf with Duane Lockard's excellent memoir and critique titled simply "Coal." Lockard, an Ivy League professor, is a former Marion County miner.

I finished Armstead's book, I wished he were still alive because I would have liked to have spent some quality time with him.

Robert would also die of afflicted lungs in 1998 at age 71.

Before he died, he wrote, "Coal mining was more than a job for me. It was a way of life. As coal miners, my father and I lived on the edge -- close to poverty and sudden death.

"Though mining didn't make me wealthy, my choices in work and in life made me a rich man where it counts -- a wonderful family and many good friends."

Hereafter when I think of Marion County, I will remember his experience preserved, thankfully, in print. Bob Armstead mined gems.