An African American Oral History Narrative: Labor, Race, Class, and Gender in a Coal Mining Community

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Whitley, Lindsey Robinette
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Middle Tennessee State University
This thesis is based on a thirteen-hour life history interview with Mr. Kenneth Keys, an African American man who grew up in a coalmining camp in Virginia in the 1940s and 1950s. I co-created the first two interviews for the African American Oral History Project under the direction of Dr. Martha Norkunas and went on to meet with Mr. Keys three more times over a period of four months. The thesis examines Mr. Keys’ narrative in terms of race, class, gender and labor in Appalachia in southwest Virginia in the first half of the twentieth century, focusing on the town of Steinman, Virginia. It also draws on additional oral histories, primary source documents relevant to Steinman, and scholarly literature on coalmining communities and black labor.
Mr. Keys describes his childhood in Steinman, Virginia. He discusses his chores, and boxing and playing baseball with his friends. He talks about his parents lives, including his father’s work as a coalminer and his antiunion activities. He mentions the hardships of everyday life and the experience of growing up in the middle of an all white neighborhood. He discusses the commissary store, and the extensive use of scrip. He also reflects on women and children’s labor as contributions to the informal household economy, including his mother’s business doing laundry (which resulted in the only cash income in the family), family gardens, hunting, fishing, and keeping and slaughtering animals for food. He also discusses his house, racialized housing conditions, the neighborhoods of the coalmining town and his perception of race relations in Steinman.
Appalachia, Class, Coal Mining, Gender, Labor, Race