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Exploring Primary Sources: Coal in Kentucky Exercise: Newspapers

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


Unionization efforts in the Kentucky coal industry focused on mine safety and advocating fair pay and safer working conditions for miners. However, perceptions of the purpose and product of union organizing varied. Some individuals and politicians framed unionization and related strikes as issues of national security, labeling organizers and striking miners as communist threats. It is important to consider the use of power to change the narrative from a conversation about mine safety to a conversation about domestic terrorism.  

The newspaper clippings below highlight opinions and perceptions of strikes and the importance of miner safety, as well as references to government involvement. As you read through the excerpts, discuss with your group how these events are presented, by whom and who is the intended audience.  


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:  Identify some biases in play. What do we know or what can we infer about the speakers? Whose perspective is represented? Who is the target audience?

Context: Think about the when and why of this primary source. What gives their voice authority? What should we be wary of? What makes this a valuable resource to the topic?

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

Place: Think about the places referenced, using a map of Kentucky if needed. Where are these places? Where are the newspapers created and distributed? What does that tell us about the audience?

Reflections: What can we learn from these materials? How is our understanding of the topic enhanced through these first-hand recollections?

Materials: Newspaper clippings

The Jeffersonian, January 30, 1948

Jeffersontown, KY. Opinion piece on using state funds to recover bodies buried in a mine collapse.

Licking Valley Courier, June 10, 1943

West Liberty, KY. Opinion piece on wage increases for white collar miners.

Public Ledger, July 18, 1922

Maysville, KY. Piece on government arbitration to end strikes. Railway strikes are also referenced.

Richmond Daily Register, August 14, 1922

Richmond, KY. Includes news of strikes and mine cave ins.