Contribution of the Conditions in the Coalfields Report to the Erasure of Black Coal Miners in Southwestern Pennsylvania


In 1928, the Senate Committee on Interstate Commerce drafted the Hearings on Conditions in the Coalfields of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio, a 1657-page report on the strikes and unfair labor practices that were roiling Northern Appalachia at the time. These hearings occurred at a critical juncture: in the next two decades, the policies of the New Deal and the United Mine Workers of America would briefly lift coal mining communities into the middle class, while also, with the help of mechanization, weeding out the few remaining black coal miners who had migrated to the northern fields. This article interrogates how the hearings interacted with the later policies to reinscribe coal mining as a white occupation in southwestern Pennsylvania. A critical reappraisal of this evidence is particularly called for in light of the results of the 2016 presidential election, which was carried significantly by the votes of the historically blue union strongholds in the coalfields and former coalfields of Pennsylvania. I proceed by performing a rhetorical analysis of the Conditions in the Coalfields report, adapting Richard Asen’s 2010 framework for reading policy debates as rhetorical texts – in particular his theory on the power of policies and policymaking to shape the “representation” of populations that they target or exclude – to draw some conclusions about the way the hearings, in conjunction with the policies that followed them, contributed to shaping expectations about the identity and status of coal miners in the United States. By paying critical attention to which voices were included during the hearings and how, and by conducting a comparison of the claims made by each stakeholder group with those of the senators sitting on the committee, I am able to make the following observations: 1. The senators, in their interaction with witnesses, repeatedly reinforce the claims made by white local residents and their allies to coal mining jobs, while rejecting coal operators’ attempt to justify their importation of black labor and; 2. The senators also echo white residents’ and allies representations of the white miners and their competing black workforce, while rejecting coal operators’ attempts to redeem the moral status of their non-union workforce; 3. While the testimony of black miners is included in the report, the black coal miners’ voice as a class with an interest in the outcome of the policy debate is completely absent. In conclusion, the Conditions in the Coalfields report provides crucial context for understanding how today’s political mood has been cultivated in part by the U.S. government’s continuing choice to favor the representations of their white constituents in times of crisis. Far from representing an about-face, therefore, the 2016 election results in Pennsylvania trace their lineage back directly to the progressive policies of the New Deal.