What Does Transition Look Like? Oral History Project Follows Former Miners

Our contributing blogger this week is Dr. Lou Martin, Assistant Professor of History at Chatham University. If you are interested in contributing to the After Coal blog, please e-mail aftercoalfilm@gmail.com. Enjoy!

As a historian, I am always more comfortable studying the 1950s than the present, let alone the future.  But as I have become involved in efforts to save Blair Mountain—one of West Virginia’s most important historic sites—I have come face-to-face with miners and their families who will suffer as we transition away from burning coal.  Last summer at a protest against mountaintop removal, one coal miner asked, “If you close down the mines, what do I do?”

“For many, mining is not simply an occupation, but a family tradition and an identity.”

Having studied the 1950s and 1960s in West Virginia, I know that coal miners at that time were just as likely to lose their job to mechanization or mine closure as they were to retire with a pension.  While miners and their families have suffered traumatic dislocations in the past, they have also proven themselves to be remarkably adaptable, able to overcome tremendous obstacles to start new lives.  Having trained as an oral historian, I thought it might be useful if I recorded some of the ways that former miners have more recently made the transition away from coal.

Before I began the interviews, I thought this project might shed light on government resources available to out-of-work miners, ideas for new careers, and strategies to budget for the transition.  Then, Paul Rakes, a history professor at West Virginia Tech, started talking about what it had meant to him to be a coal miner.  He remembered going to get his dad’s payday at the company store and seeing miners standing around talking about their work.  “Somewhere deep inside,” Rakes said, “I admired these guys.  They were these folks that were in this unseen world, and I heard all about the dangers…They were in this physical world where they were men, so to speak.”

After he became a coal miner, he said, he “felt this sense of pride of being one of them.”

For many, mining is not simply an occupation, but a family tradition and an identity.  Rakes’s recollections helps put into context what Pat Drago found when she retired from teaching courses on PTSD for the U.S. Navy and moved to Fayette County.  When she started working with out-of-work miners, one of the biggest challenges was “getting them to recognize that there is life after coal.”  She said that that may sound “small on the surface but is really deep…because some of these coal miners have been in this for generations.”

Nick Mullins.
Nick Mullins pens a blog called ‘The Thoughtful Coal Miner’.

These observations suggest to me that, for many, transitioning away from mining is not the same thing as simply filling out an application for another job or getting retrained.  When I began this project I knew that the government programs that were supposed to help West Virginians in the 1960s had fallen short.  My hope with this project is that coal miners will have a chance to read the words and thoughts of other miners who have started new careers.

From the interviews I have done so far, one pattern I have noticed is that when it came time for these men to pursue goals outside of the coal industry, they tended to be more disciplined and harder working than the average person.  Rakes remembered going into the college classroom after twenty years in the mines:  “I was pretty intimidated going in… I just thought I was doomed.  So I thought they had the advantage, but it was the other way around.”  He said:  “The real advantage, I think for me, was just a sense of discipline…When you get older, you get more disciplined.”

Nick Mullins left the mines of Virginia and headed to Berea College in Kentucky.  He had struggled in high school with college prep courses like Algebra, but when I asked if he worried about doing well in college, he replied, “I knew that I wanted to get this education, hell or high water…I was a bit scared about Algebra I, and I actually got a book during the summer and started studying a little bit…but the teacher that they’ve got, Marylynn Blackburn, she’s amazing.”  Mullins requested the hardest first-year reading course and says, “That first semester, it was a doozy.”  Yet, he earned a 3.81 grade point average and is now finishing his second semester.

Somebody asked me recently why I don’t just go talk to the people at the Small Business Administration, West Virginia Works, and other government agencies.  They would have statistics and concrete information for anybody looking to start a new career.  I intend to do that, but I never intended for these interviews to be a substitute for the work the people at those agencies are doing.  It is my hope that the stories of former miners—whether they became small business owners, construction workers, farmers, and retirees—will provide a broader picture of previous transitions and dig into issues beyond resumes, training, and job openings.  I hope that the real experiences and hard-earned lessons of these former miners will serve as an additional resource to anyone who has to find a new path in life, just like so many of the miners that came before them.

Lou Martin

Asst. Professor of History, Chatham University