Tuesday night, EKU students were given a glimpse of life in Appalachia.
Gary Bentley, a former coal miner from southeastern Kentucky and the author of Into the Black, a series of short stories detailing his experiences as a miner, spoke to EKU students and staff on the history, impact, and state of coal mining in Kentucky’s Appalachians.
In detail, Bentley described the impact and history of early coal companies, from creating boom towns, to tearing apart communities. Early on, he paints a picture of Harlan County as the “New York of Appalachia”, a thriving community that attracts performers, actors, playwrights, and public figures. Miners are regarded by the federal government as “irreplaceable”, and are even urged not to enlist in the military.
As history tells us, however, these miners were regarded as far from such by the coal companies themselves.
Bentley compares the life of the early coal miner to something “similar to indentured servitude.” Miners are paid with “script”, a non-federal currency that they must later pay back to the company. He tells a story about a miner from the era who says “I can’t afford to die; I owe my life to the company store.”
From there, Bentley describes the movement to establish working unions in the 1930s – aiming for safer working conditions and a fairer wage. What ensues are years of conflict between miners, union organizers, coal firms, and law enforcement officials in which there was no neutral. “If you weren’t a gun thug,” says Bentley, “you were a union man.” Telling stories of house invasions, murders, and public outcry, the period is described as the Coal Wars.
Bentley proceeds with history, detailing the post-World War II meltdown of the mining industry in which employment fell by 70 percent. The 1970s and early 1980s introduced the “bust” period in Kentucky mining due to the embargo on Middle Eastern oil. Mining faced another boom, but once again to the challenge of miners asking for safer employment. The 1973 strike against Duke Power presented a new milestone for miner’s rights in Harlan County, in which 180 miners went on strike. Following was violent retaliation from the company and replacement workers known as “scabs”. The audience is shown the scale of the situation through clips of the award-winning documentary Harlan County, USA.
From there, Bentley gives a personal glimpse on life in the region, both for a contemporary miner and any other individual.
Reading the audience an excerpt from one of his stories, he describes being trapped, cold, and alone at the bottom of a mine shaft. Despite his injuries, he carries on to work the next day, and finds normality in working overtime shifts through injury and sickness. In a field where men duct tape their injuries and turn to drugs as pain relievers, Bentley says that his romantic perceptions were quickly erased. “We stopped 2 miles underground so a couple guys could crush up pills and snort them off of a bucket,” he said. “Instantly, my perception was changed.”
In his readings, Bentley describes the people, experiences, and lessons learned that shaped his life underground. He reflects on a coworker who stopped going to school in the fifth grade, but had wiring skills that rivaled that of an electrician’s. He describes the loss of another co-worker and the sense of community that he felt with other miners who helped each other cope. Bentley depicts a tight knit community, with people of different religions, backgrounds, political views, and individual struggles. Despite all the nostalgia, however, he never shies from showing its dark side. “Work got harder and hours got longer,” Bentley said. “As men were taking pills, doing crank, and whatever it took to not feel pain during the long hours, it was all taking a toll on them and their families.
Life in the region can also be challenging for those who don’t work in the mines, as Bentley describes in his Q&A session afterwards. Options besides mining are rarely present, even for those with college degrees. Bentley describes the situation of a man he knew who wanted to stay close to his family after graduating from college, and subsequently worked an entry-level job at a local car lot.
Other realities are brought to light as the audience is encouraged to ask questions. Bentley addresses the tendency for coal advocates and lawmakers to create jobs in “the wrong areas” instead of helping Appalachian families affected by the coal collapse find alternative ways to sustain themselves. With no previous interest in diversifying Eastern Kentucky’s economy until now, officials (in Bentley’s eyes) are sticking to relying on an industry that will never reclaim its peak and made up 4 percent of the state’s economy at its most recent boom.
Bentley goes on to share his own efforts and ideas for reviving the economy of a once-booming region. “I spoke to Matt Bevin in Hazard last May, asking him to sponsor the Reclaim Act. It’s a bipartisan deal that would take money from the abandoned mine land’s funds and accelerate two million dollars over a period of five years to areas affected by the coal industry. It would reclaim those abandoned mine lands and create economic change.” The governor has since not replied to Bentley’s later requests.
The solution to the lack of economic diversity? “Technology and agriculture are our two biggest options,” Bentley says. He explains that because southeastern Kentucky lacks rivers and transportation that cities like Louisville thrive on, it needs to turn towards innovations in technology and self-sufficient farming that create less reliance on outside industry.
Bentley’s writing are published weekly and can be found at www.dailyyonder.com.