Everybody Was Black Down There
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Everybody Was Black Down There

Race and Industrial Change in the Alabama Coalfields

Title Details

Pages: 328

Illustrations: 10 b&w photos

Trim size: 6.120in x 9.250in



Pub Date: 02/01/2007

ISBN: 9-780-8203-2879-9

List Price: $34.95

Everybody Was Black Down There

Race and Industrial Change in the Alabama Coalfields

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  • Reviews

In 1930 almost 13,000 African Americans worked in the coal mines around Birmingham, Alabama. They made up 53 percent of the mining workforce and some 60 percent of their union's local membership. At the close of the twentieth century, only about 15 percent of Birmingham's miners were black, and the entire mining workforce had been sharply reduced. Robert H. Woodrum offers a challenging interpretation of why this dramatic decline occurred and why it happened during an era of strong union presence in the Alabama coalfields.

Drawing on union, company, and government records as well as interviews with coal miners, Woodrum examines the complex connections between racial ideology and technological and economic change. Extending the chronological scope of previous studies of race, work, and unionization in the Birmingham coalfields, Woodrum covers the New Deal, World War II, the postwar era, the 1970s expansion of coalfield employment, and contemporary trends toward globalization.

The United Mine Workers of America's efforts to bridge the color line in places like Birmingham should not be underestimated, says Woodrum. Facing pressure from the wider world of segregationist Alabama, however, union leadership ultimately backed off the UMWA's historic commitment to the rights of its black members. Woodrum discusses the role of state UMWA president William Mitch in this process and describes Birmingham's unique economic circumstances as an essentially Rust Belt city within the burgeoning Sun Belt South. This is a nuanced exploration of how, despite their central role in bringing the UMWA back to Alabama in the early 1930s, black miners remained vulnerable to the economic and technological changes that transformed the coal industry after World War II.

An ambitious study of Alabama coal mining from the New Deal until the present. This important work, rich with details, examines the relationships among race, technology, work, and unionization in the twentieth century.

—Judith Stein, City University of New York

How did it come to pass that a once formidable, interracial union with a substantial black membership came to have such a negligible influence among Alabama’s working people during the tumultuous civil rights era? Woodrum suggests that the UMW ‘occupied a key space in the battle to determine race relations in the Birmingham district,’ but that there was a high price to be paid for its calculated ambivalence on the question of racial equality. For anyone wanting to understand why so many Southern white workers fell under the sway of demagogues like George Wallace, this impressive study is as good a place to start as any.

—Brian Kelly, author of Race, Class and Power in the Alabama Coalfields, 1908-1921

Thorough, authoritative and convincing.

Tuscaloosa News

[Woodrum] adeptly analyzes the intersections of race, class, labor policy, technological change, and globalization in what has historically been not only one of the most dangerous industries in the United States, but also one of the most studied. . . . By placing race at the center of his analysis, however, Woodrum adds a new twist to the story of job loss, community abandonment, and deindustrialization. . . . Woodrum presents a complex picture of race, class, and working-class identity, wherein interracial solidarity among the rank and file and the union's commitment to a progressive social agenda ebbed and flowed. . . . His study is therefore not only an important read for those seeking a better understanding of race and industrial change in the past, but also for workers, unions and community activists seeking a way forward in the modern era of global production and trade.


A major new book for labor historians and for scholars of the 'new southern history,' Everybody Was Black Down There is a revealing examination of coal mining in Alabama from the New Deal to the present. . . . An eloquent account of black agency and activism in the southern labor movement . . . This nuanced book updates the history of labor in the Alabama coalfields.

Journal of American History

About the Author/Editor

ROBERT H. WOODRUM is a visiting assistant professor of history at Clark Atlanta University.