African American Women of West Virginia

Memphis Garrison
Memphis Garrison was an African American woman who grew up in the Huntington, West Virginia area and went through the various hardships associated with the 1960s and 1970s.

Mosaic in Black and White
Some time ago, we began to collect oral histories – life stories if you will – from older, black women who were or still are public school teachers. Underlying the project is a commitment to West Virginia and Appalachian history and a belief that the history and life stories of black people in West Virginia, especially of black women, have been neglected. In fact, to our knowledge, the history of black women in West Virginia has never been collected systematically and therefore there is relatively little documentation of their lives. We chose oral history as a method because we are interested in hearing the personal perspectives of the participants. In other words, we wanted to give voice to the women themselves. This work is their story.

Conflicts of Interest: Black Women’s Experience in Contemporary Coal Industry Disputes
During the turbulent labor struggles of the twentieth century, the coal industry in the United States was marked by significant contests over union organization and industrial power. Many historical interpretations of labor-management strife in Appalachia have dismissed the participatory roles of women as stakeholders in these contract negotiations and strikes. By using ethnographic research methods and narrative analysis, my previous work as a scholar affiliate at CSEGA has demonstrated that women were indeed an integral part of the bargaining process. Tangible outcomes of various labor disputes clearly depended on community involvement and women’s activities, and I rely on these findings as the foundation of this new research project, conducted during my tenure as a Rockefeller Fellow in 2001. Given the substantial sociological and historical literature that calls into question the dichotomy between women’s (“domestic”) and men’s (“public”) spheres of activity, women’s roles in coal communities cannot be conflated into a universal set of tasks performed by all women at all times as a means to the same ends. By the same token, racial and ethnic divisions serve to further splinter the interests of members of coal communities. Because of the complexity of these issues, my research centers on understanding the fundamental intersections of race, class and gender in these communities. As a result of this fellowship opportunity, I was able to glean new forms of information from life history interviews and participant observation by conducting an ethnographic study among black women in southern West Virginia today to evaluate their multifarious interests and differing strategies for participating in conflicts associated with the coal industry. In this project, I collected and analyzed narratives from black women who have been affected by these conflicts and have specific strategies of coping with these disputes. The results of my research contribute to a greater understanding of community dynamics at the nexus of race, gender and class during industrial conflicts in Appalachia today.