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Exploring Primary Sources: Coal in Kentucky Exercise: Photographs

This module serves as an introduction to primary source research through investigation and evaluation of documents related to the coal industry in Kentucky.


In order to understand the history of coal in Kentucky, we must consider the history of labor relations in Appalachia. Factors such as working conditions, worker safety, and fair pay contributed to labor tensions and unrest throughout the region. Miners began to strike and at times the National Guard was called in to intervene between striking miners and mine operators. Some viewed this presence as a peace-keeping measure, others saw it as an attempt to stop the strike. The situation garnered national attention, and outside groups and individuals sought to document and interpret the events, leading to a depiction of coal conditions and Appalachian culture broadcast on a national stage.

Below you will find three photographs taken in Kentucky coal towns, with brief background information for each. As you look at the photos and work through the discussion questions with your group, think about the context in which these photographs were taken and consider what unique knowledge and perspective we can gain from this primary source format.  


Brainstorm. List 10-20 words or phrases about the documents/items. (Start with the details of the documents, like topic, names, publication, etc. What do you find interesting? Strange? Do you find anything appealing or disturbing? Things you don’t understand or are unfamiliar with?)

Articulating Problems. Formulate 2-4 possible problems that could be developed from the above list of words and description of materials. (Problems can be found by looking for tensions between ideas, conflicts between your own experience and what the text/image presents, assumptions underlying the arguments of the text/item, or if you notice any gaps or missing information overlooked by the source).

Focus questions:

Bias:  Bias can be difficult to infer from photographs, but try to identify some biases in play. What do we know or what can we infer about the creators or subjects of these photos? Whose perspective is represented? 

Context: Think about the when and why of this primary source. What gives their stories authority? Why did the photographer capture this moment? What makes this a valuable resource to the topic?

Power: What power relationships can you identify in the materials? Try to think in terms of format in addition to content.

Reflections: What can we learn from these materials? How is our understanding of the topic enhanced through these snapshots of a specific moment in history?

Materials: Photographs

National Guard

From the Herndon Evans Photographs collection, dated 1931.

Herndon J. Evans was editor of the Pineville Sun and local correspondent for the Associated Press (AP) in the early 1930s, with a particular interest in the labor unrest and union efforts in Harlan and Bell Counties. Through his journalism he worked to undermine the presence of outside groups and individuals who sought to portray the unionization efforts in Kentucky coal fields as terrorism. 

Miners leaving a mine entrance in a cart with police watching

From the Harlan County Mine Strike Photographs collection, dated 1939.

In 1939, in response to a general strike, some 900 Kentucky National Guard were ordered to Harlan to intervene between striking miners and mine operators. The National Guard contingent was viewed by some as a peace-keeping force and by others as a move to break the strike. The National Guard remained in the county for nine months. 

Man stands and faces man in military uniform as children look on

From the Russell Lee: Wheelwright, KY Photographic Collection, dated 1946. Typewritten label on back of photograph: "Group in front of miner's home."

Photographer Russell Lee was sent to Wheelwright in the late 1940s as part of a survey to document the living and working conditions in the coal industry. The project was a joint effort between the Department of the Interior and the United Mine Workers of America. At the time, the coal industry was under government control, having been placed there by President Harry S. Truman in order to end a 59-day strike by the United Mine Workers of America.