Photo Essay - African Americans in Appalachia

Miner, 1942Coal miner waiting to go underground, Pennsylvania, 1942. (Library of Congress.)

Appalachia has always possessed significant and influential populations of color. Black Appalachians—like all Appalachians—have lived in rural settings as well as urban settings, and current residents may have come from families that settled in the mountains hundreds of years ago, while others are first generation migrants into the region. Appalachia has proven to be a region of diverse possibilities for African Americans seeking educational opportunities, jobs in mining, or careers in urban centers.

The coal industry, in particular, has shaped the lives of many African Americans. Among those whose legacies have become inextricably intertwined with coal are the memoirist Robert Armstead, the labor organizers Richard L. Davis and Levi Daniel, and the sculptor C. Edgar Patience.

AppalachiaAppalachian regional map. (Courtesy of the author.)

The region, so named for the mountain range that runs through it from northeast Mississippi to southern New York, historically comprises three subdivisions—Northern, Southern, and Central—each with its own history of settlement and race relations. As the first major mountain range west of the Atlantic coast, the Appalachian Mountains were the first "frontier." By the mid-1600s, explorers were trekking into the mountains and within fifty years, settlements had been permanently established by whites from England, Ireland, and Scotland.

Andrew JacksonAndrew Jackson, Seventh President of the United States of America. (Library of Congress.)

As white settlers demanded more land after the Revolutionary War, the native peoples were forced to move west, a policy well underway by the time of the infamous Indian Removal Act of 1830 enacted by President Andrew Jackson. Jackson's policy resulted in the infamous "Trail of Tears", which led to the deaths of thousands of Native Americans, as well as their African slaves.

Berea CollegeThe Berea College class of 1901. (Berea College Archives.)

In the early years of settlement, whites, Indians, and African Americans lived in close proximity to each other, and later generations included multiracial and multiethnic people. The Melungeons, a group thought to have European, Native American, and African ancestry, were identified in Central Appalachia early in the 19th century. In this photo from the archives of Berea College (Kentucky), a diverse group of students from the class of 1901 poses stoically.

Happy Mose"Happy Mose", 1911. (Library of Congress.)

The lives of African American and white Appalachians were intertwined socially and culturally. The most obvious representation of this relationship is the banjo, a central instrument in traditional mountain music that originated in Africa. While the banjo is not often heard in contemporary music, the African American banjo tradition has been kept alive in the modern era by Appalachian artists such as Rhiannon Giddens and her band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

Underground Railroad"The Underground Railroad" by Charles T. Webber, c. 1893. (Library of Congress.)

Appalachia was divided by Civil War loyalties. Northern Appalachians joined the Union, Southern Appalachians joined the Confederacy and those in the Central Appalachian area were at a crossroads. Two years after Virginia voted to join the Confederacy, mountaineers in the west and southwest areas of Virginia formed West Virginia as an independent state and joined the Union.

There was an active Underground Railroad running through Appalachia from Chattanooga to Pennsylvania. Among those facilitating the flight of fugitive slaves through the Appalachian states was the African American abolitionist William Still. Incredibly, one of these fugitives was Peter Still, a long-lost brother who had been left enslaved when their mother escaped to freedom. William Still later wrote a popular book, The Underground Railroad, extolling the fugitives' bravery.

MinerMiner picking coal out of narrow seam [...] Brown Mine, Brown, W. Va., 1908.(Library of Congress.)

African Americans found a measure of inclusion in Central Appalachia, where they were able to work free of exceedingly harsh conditions, and many received equal pay for their work. Under these circumstances, a significant number of African Americans moved to work in the coal fields of southeast Kentucky and southern West Virginia.

Scotts RunStorefront, coal mining camp, Scotts Run, West Virginia, 1938. (Library of Congress.)

The coal fields of Central Appalachia were a major destination of African Americans leaving the Deep South during the Great Migration, and between 1870 and 1930 the African American population in Central Appalachia increased dramatically. While not all miners lived in coal camps, a significant number did reside in the company towns built by the coal company. These towns usually included a company-owned store where miners could buy goods.

Coal towns, though no longer owned by mining companies, number in the hundreds and are scattered throughout Appalachia. Some coal towns, such as Madison, West Virginia, have seen their populations grow in recent years. Other coal camps, such as San Toy, Ohio, were abandoned many years ago and have become ghost towns. Scotts Run, West Virginia, pictured above,

Lynch SchoolThe exterior of the Lynch Colored Public School, now the Eastern Kentucky Social Club Lynch Chapter clubhouse. (

Coal camps differed in quality and in terms of services offered, schools, hospitals, public services, etc; however, the camps offered similar accommodations to all the workers. Lynch, considered a model company town in Kentucky, offered a decent life to African American coal mining families.

Shovel"The Silver Spade", a Bucyrus-Erie 1950-B stripping shovel, operated by Consolidation Coal Company.(

After World War II, the use of automation in the mines increased dramatically. Machines doubled production and vastly cut the need for manpower. Between 1950 and 1965, deep mining was replaced by strip mining, reducing the need for laborers even further. Company supervisors were reluctant to use African Americans as machine operators, which resulted in massive layoffs. In a familiar pattern, African American miners began to leave the coal fields for more urban Appalachian communities and beyond. Despite this migration, African Americans continue to be the largest minority group in Appalachia.

Frank X. WalkerFrank X. Walker. (Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths, courtesy of

Frank X. Walker, associate professor of English at the University of Kentucky and author of many books of poetry, including Affrilachia (2000) and Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York (2003), coined the term "Affrilachian" to describe African Americans who live in the Appalachian region. He has stated that it is his "responsibility to say as loudly and as often as possible that people and artists of color are part of the past and present of the multi-state Appalachian region extending from northern Mississippi to southern New York." (