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Exploring Primary Sources: Coal in Kentucky Exercise: Oral Histories

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


Oral histories are invaluable primary sources, because they capture the personality and perspective of an individual's story in a way that physical documents cannot. Although a diary or manuscript may contain much of the same information or content, listening to an individual tell their memories and experience connects listeners to the raw emotion and humanity of their story. Tone of voice or pauses can give unique insight into the individual's feelings, emotions, confidence, and convictions. 

In the three partial transcripts below, interviewees relate their personal experience living and working in the Kentucky coal fields. Topics discussed include work conditions and worker safety, mine operator oversight, segregation and integration within coal camps, and picket line experiences. As you read and listen to each person’s experience and consider the perspectives represented, think about what unique knowledge we gain from first person accounts through oral histories. 

The Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History provides access to a wealth of interviews focused on many topics in Kentucky history. There are multiple projects concerning Kentucky coal, but three interviews from two projects are used in this module. To the right you will find links to three separate oral history interviews as well as selected transcript excerpts below; two with coal miners, one with the widow of a coal miner. In addition to discussing the interview excerpts below, students are encouraged to visit the corresponding links to listen to the selected excerpts and/or more.  


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).

Posing Fruitful Questions. List 2-4 open-ended questions for one problem that could lead to more in-depth research.

What is at Stake? Thinking about the description, brainstorming list, problems, and questions, write 2-5 sentences answering the following: So what? Why does this matter? Why would someone care about this topic and why?

Focus questions:

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

Context: Think about the when and why of this primary source. What gives their stories 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? 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 first-hand recollections?


Materials: Oral history interview excerpts

Appalachia: Social History and Cultural Change in the Elkhorn Coal Fields Oral History Project

Interview with Edith Easterling, Jake Easterling, August 22, 1987 

(07:01)  Safety conditions at Henry Clay Mine

 I: “So what was—what were the conditions like at Henry Clay when you started there?” 

Jake: “Oh it was bad. They preached safety to us all the time, and we thought we was working safe, but until the mine inspectors, they got mine inspectors in the mines, you know, state and federal put mine inspectors in the mine, we didn’t know nothing about safety. They showed us and told us, and they was right, and we—it was hard for us to learn, it was really hard for us men to learn to work safe. Tried to, and done the best we could for a long time until we caught onto it, but it was hard.” 

I: “What did that really mean, working safe? I mean, what did you have to do?” 

Jake: “Well, they had to sprag cars, you know. And a lot of men got their fingers cut off and their hands cut off and you’ve seen a lot of the hands in that shape. And we had to quit that. That spragging a car and it moving was just off limits.” 

I: “What is it now, what is--” 

Jake: “The car would be moving on the track, you know, and you sprag it to get it stopped. Put a sprag in the wheel.” 

I: “What is a sprag?” 

Jake: “It’s a thing about that long, and about as big around as your arm, a piece of wood.” 

I: “Oh I see, you just stick it in there--” 

Jake: “Throw that in the wheel and stop it.” 

I: “And that’s how a lot of people got their hands cut off?” 

Jake: “That’s the way they got them fingers cut off, a lot of them...” 



Jake: “And just different things that would hurt people that way, you know, in the mines. A lot of things that, we didn’t know, but what it was safe to do, that we wasn’t supposed to do at all. We had to quit it, just had to forget about that.” 

I: “So it wasn’t so much that the company was putting people in unsafe conditions, it was just that people really didn’t know--” 

Jake: “They just bared down on us so hard to come up with so much coal, you know. They didn’t care how we got it. We done this behind—done unsafe work behind their back, in other words. And they’d say something about it, but most times they kept their back turned because they’d know we’d done it. That was all there was to it, they’d know we’d done it. And setting timbers, if we had time we’d set them and if we didn’t have time we wouldn’t fool with them. But there was some bosses who would cut a shine if they caught us without timbers, but it was just a shine, they didn’t do nothing about it, they just let it go, you know. Then they let nobody off or fire him over not setting his timbers, unless they just wanted to get rid of him, that was a good way. But it didn’t work that way all the time.” 

Appalachia: Social History and Cultural Change in the Elkhorn Coal Fields Oral History Project

Interview with James E. Childers, June 11, 1987 

(12:07) Segregation in coal camps

Jim: “Lot of colored—there was a lot of colored there.” 

I: “Yeah? Tell me about that.” 

Jim: “A lot of colored lived in the—lived in those camps. Yeah, a lot of colored, yes.” 

I: “So what, uh, did they mix with the white people, or did they pretty much--” 

Jim: “Oh yeah, yeah, they associated. They associated with the white people. Oh yes, yeah.” 

I: “Was there very much trouble?” 

Jim: “No, no, no. They had a—the camp had a police, they had a police in the camp. That, uh—they had some trouble with those colored people, you know, uh, getting in rackets and so on, yeah.” 

I: “Did they live in a certain part of the camp?” 

Jim: “Yeah, they lived in one section mostly by their self, yeah. They mostly had a colored section, yeah.” 

I: “Was that true for most of the camps?” 

Jim: “Oh yeah, yeah.” 

I: “Uhm, did the black people, did they go to church with other people or did they have their own church?” 

Jim: “Uh, I don’t think they had much church back then, I don’t think they had much church, no. Not in my remembrance, they didn’t much, no.” 

I: “But did they go to school with the white children?” 

Jim: “No. No, not then. Not then.” 

I: “So what-- 

Jim: “Well they had a colored school, they had a colored school down in Hellier there, yes.” 

I: “Oh did they? What was it called?” 

Jim: “I just don’t remember what it was called, I was just young you know, I don’t remember just what it was called.” 

I: “So the children from Edgewater, the white children, they went to school in Hellier too?” 

Jim: “They went to school at Hellier, right.” 

I: “But there was a school for the black children, that was separate--” 

Jim: “Oh yeah, no colored—they didn’t go together, no.” 

I: “What about as far as, uh, did they shop at the same stores or eat at the same places?” 

Jim: “Oh yeah, they all shopped at—all, mostly everybody that worked for the coal company, they had what they called a commissary, store of their own, a company store.” 

Women and Collective Protest Oral History Project

Interview with Nannie Rainey, September 23, 1986 

(29:55) Memories and regrets regarding the strikes 

I: “When you think about the picket lines now, and the time you spent there, what do you remember the most about it?” 

Nannie: “The most things I remember about it? I remember how they, how the ones going in to work called us bad names. I can still remember that. One man, I can remember him calling me a bitch, and I can remember them going in and calling us whores. Cause they said we wasn’t no account cause of standing over there with the men, you know, and things. And I remember some of their women going by and calling, hollering at us that they was going to get pot balls and beat us up. And I can remember once when I got a phone call and somebody said if I didn’t stop picket lining then they was going to beat me up, cause they know where I lived. And they’d call me on the phone, say, you know, bad things to me. And, uh, I can remember all that. And I can remember how the place was mean to the men that worked down there. And uh, I can remember how the company men was, you know, how they did the men. But you can think back and you can see things, you know, you might’ve done different, you know. But...” 

I: “What would you have done different?” 

Nannie: “I think I'd done a whole lot different. I think I’m--I’d have tried—I'd been like them other women, I think I really would’ve laid down in front of them. See I never did do that, but when I get back looking back how rough it was and everything, I think I’d joined in with them and laid down on the road. If I’d just, you know, know now what I did. Cause they was really, when you think back, them men was really having a rough time of it.” 

I: “Why do you think you didn’t do that then?” 

Nannie: “I was scared a little bit. [laughs] And I really thought they’d run over, cause they come, you know, they come right up close to them women, and almost run over them. I think one of them did get hurt once, did you know? But I don’t remember who it was.” 



I: “Well like, tell me about when people were hollering all these things about you, these men and these women saying this stuff about you, how did you handle that?” 

Nannie: “I just ignored them. And went on, you know.” 

I: “Did you ever talk to Tub (husband) about it?” 

Nannie: “Yes, I talked to him, and he told me just not pay no attention to them.” 

I: “Do you think he ever got upset about you being out there with people saying that about the women?” 

Nannie: “I think he got upset a whole lot, cause you know, he said that—he first didn’t want me, you know, to go there. Because you know, he said men said things like that. But then, I said well I’m not no better than they are. They’re over there taking it, and you know they’re out for their husbands, so I might as well go out there for him. Try to help him. So I just went over there too, you know.” 

Link to Oral History Interviews

(Links to external site)

Note about oral histories: The excerpts contained in this module represent barely a fraction of the stories of coal communities contained in these and other projects. Students are encouraged to visit to learn more.   

PDF of Partial Interview Transcript