- Black Days, Black Dust: The Memories of an African American Coal Miner
A worker who begins his autobiography by expressing appreciation to his bosses usually is not worth hearing, but Robert Armstead, who thanks "all of the Consolidated Coal Company foremen and top supervisors I worked with during my years as a United Mine Worker contract miner and supervisor," provides a compelling and complicated history of race and class in the soft coal mines of West Virginia.
This book is a modest epic about work, race, family, class and most importantly, social mobility. Coal mining, Armstead states, "was more than a job for me. It was a way of life." His story begins with his first memories as a child in 1932, trudging to the company store to buy food with scrip earned by his father. The Armstead family was part of the 45,000 black workers who migrated from the segregated south to West Virginia in the 1920s.
After his retirement in 1979, Armstead began to write up his memories and joined up with S.L. Gardner, who had written about the coal camps for the Fairmount Times West Virginian, to compose the book, which was completed just days before Armstead died of lung cancer and black lung in 1998 at age 71.
The book portrays workers in the United States at mid-twentieth century; it presents an account of individual accommodation and the advancement of a good and willing employee, rather than the classic story of workers' collective struggles for social change.
The subject of race is, of course, fundamental to this book. As a child, Armstead, "armed with the love of my family, . . . accepted segregation. We all did," but integration, in the mines and in the communities, eventually prevailed. Still, he claims, "Because my skin color is different from the majority of people, I feel that stigma of color."
Armstead's fascination with the work process is one extraordinary aspect of this book. His detailed descriptions of mine work and the changes brought by technology, improved safety conditions and the concentration of mine ownership, are meticulously described, and then supplemented by a detailed glossary of mining terms and an extensive bibliography. His father started [End Page 87] working the mines with horses and 73 years later, when Armstead retired, he was bossing a continuous miner.
This book is a story of social ambition and mobility. Armstead became a supervisor at Loveridge in 1970, and mentions, almost casually, that "when the union had a strike, as management I continued to work through the strike. . . . I also enjoyed my contract perks as a supervisor" including a clothing allowance and "higher take-home pay."
He boasts of supervising record-setting tonnage and insists, "Dad taught me to respect authority. His domination contributed to me being a good employee in the mines." One of the conditions that hastened his retirement was the attitude of younger miners "who complained continually about conditions, their assigned jobs, and the bosses," even though the older miners "didn't think of complaining because we had to support our families."
Considering the momentous events that the book describes, from integration to the first women in the mines to the changes in technology, this book could be useful in a worker's history course, especially as an example of an individual worker—and an African-American worker at that—finding his way through a difficult environment.