Dennis W. Robertson

“In our Appalachian communities we have never been taught to wait for somebody to help us. We have always been taught to overcome, ourselves. And when we make up our minds and put our nose to the grindstone and want to help ourselves, we will come out of this.”

Dennis W. Robertson, Benefits Counselor/Program Recruiter/Black Lung Clinic; Keystone, West Virginia:

“Growing up, the [coal] camps were pretty sophisticated, in a way, and there were a lot of people in the camps then. McDowell County had close to a hundred thousand people in it. Although they were segregated at that time, we had nine high schools in the county. Now we have one. Population is below 24,000 now, where it was once at 100,000. It was pretty booming then. Thriving. 

As a kid, my parental guidance was that school was the most important thing. It was critically important in my family, at least. I can’t say it was for every family. The two things that they didn’t tolerate were a lack of dedication and devotion to learning, and a lack of dedication and devotion to behaving yourself. For me in school, all the primary subjects Reading, English, Math, no grade below a B was tolerated. That was quote, unquote, unacceptable. And as far as our conduct, any grade that wasn’t an A or a checkmark, just depends on whether you were elementary or older, than that was unacceptable. If you can’t do anything else, you can behave yourself. There was no tolerance of it. 

Most of my family came through southwest Virginia down through the area near Roanoke, down in that area in Franklin County. On both sides of the family, my mother and my father, ran through there. It was the talk of, ‘You can make good money’ [in coal]. 

You go back to the original terminology in coal mining, and they talk about mining the coal and then taking it to the tipple. It was sort of like a structure that moved the coal from the mine to a place where they were going to prepare the coal for shipping, and they actually would then tip the coal over so it would slide down the incline on a hill and then it would slide down into a structure called the tipple. My grandfather was what they called a bone picker, this was back in the ‘30s. He separated coal and things like that. I can remember him talking about tremendous levels of dust, and this was like eight hours of this. That’s what he did. 

When my father came along, he started out as a general laborer and they went to machinery. I don’t think he cared for the continuous miner, but he liked the shuttle car pretty good, so that’s basically what he was in there but he also did work on cutting machines, Joy loader, all of that. I can remember one time he got trapped. The whole crew on that section got trapped and they struggled with that for an hour or two. 

[As a child, our Christmas was] not materialistic, not really gobs and gobs of stuff. They were family times more than anything else. It wasn’t about getting, and having the best and the finest things. They were simple things, like a bag with fruit and candy and nuts and a toy, or maybe two toys. Some toys were bought for all the kids, and you shared these things together. [On Christmas Day] You’d been told if you don’t go to sleep, Santa won’t come and as I got older, I had a sense of gratitude and a sense of responsibility toward the younger siblings, to make sure they were happy. To get your happiness off of [other] people being happy were the things you were taught in Appalachian life. 

I never attended a multicultural school until I reached Bluefield State College in 1966. We actually went to different schools then. We were the last graduating class that was segregated in McDowell County, 1966. The camp itself was all these various cultures. We played together. We came out of schools and played together and did other things together. But that was the prevailing political climate at that time. 

It was a little better here because people didn’t realize that it was like an unwritten rule that black and white miners had worked together since the ‘20s and ‘30s and wasn’t hardly anywhere else in the country, but it was here because it was national security to get the coal out of there. Anybody that was perceived as a problem to getting that coal out of there you, had to go. They just didn’t tolerate it. There wasn’t but one thing…that was the coal miner, and that’s all you were seen as, in most instances. If you saw [racism], it was more like a private thing, how people politically feel, privately. But as far as working, anything like that, the people who worked were the people who could get the most coal out. 

When they desegregated in ’67, when we went to school, to high school, my Principal had a doctorate from the University of Michigan. Several of the teachers under him had Masters Degrees from various schools and I don’t think there was anybody in our high school that was a teacher that didn’t have less than a BS. You know, rigorous demands. That would be unheard of back then, but learning was not, in a sense, an alternative. You had to learn. And even back then when they had corporal discipline, it would be a time to institute it because of a failure to devote yourself to learning. It was considered critically important. They saw it as the way out. The avenue to overcome the obstacles that they had faced. 

We were right in the transition between hand loading and mechanization as I became an adult, and began to study coal history a little bit. My dad, in order to keep his job, had to go to school on Saturday and take West Virginia University (WVU) extension courses in AC and DC mine machinery in order to maintain his job. They were going to mechanization, there was no recourse. You either had to do that, or leave. 

[After high school] I actually did work in the mines. I started out doing heavy labor there at the mining office where my dad worked, and then we gradually worked our way inside. I thought it was good money. If it were just left up to me, I would have continued to stay in mining. But [my father] gave me a choice, see, he loved it himself, but he didn’t want it for his children. He wanted what he considered better life. He loved it all his life, but he was in it then, he didn’t have any other recourses. He had an eighth grade education as far as attending school, but he wanted better for his children. I was the first one,  so I was under the gun prove things. Actually, in my family, to the best of my knowledge, I was the first one to graduate, to get an actual college degree. I wasn’t the first one to go, but I was the first one to actually get a college degree. 

[I worked in the mines] just the summers during college. That was enough, believe me. At that age, it was cool, to me. It was exciting and dangerous, but the labor kind of got to you. I can remember this: the first day after I got in the coal mines, actually worked in the coal mines I came home and I didn’t even make it in the house. I made it to the porch and I laid back on the porch and my mother had cooked my favorite meal and I really didn’t get to eat it because I was so tired. I think I woke up about eleven o’clock at night and just went to bed. At that time [my favorite meal] was what they called cube steak and French fries. That was interesting, but I didn’t get to eat my favorite meal, I was that tired and the next day I had soreness like I couldn’t even imagine. I found out I had muscles I didn’t realize I had.

I started just outside the mine putting in the switch, helping put in the switch. If I weighed 155 pounds, I must have been soaking wet. But anyway, I don’t know how many cars I hauled of gravel to put that switch in, but I know how sore I was. I could hardly walk the next day and they were kind of teasing me, saying, ‘Now you know what hard work is. Do you want to do that for the rest of your life?’ My father gave me some help [making that decision], he gave me a choice between going to Bluefield State or going to Grace Hospital in Welch, because he was going to send me there. Whichever choice you want. So that Fall, I started at Bluefield State. 

[There were dangers underground] but you don’t recognize it unless you’re a seasoned veteran miner. The beautiful thing was, I was around the miners and they all had, like, a brotherhood. My dad was their brother, so they watched out for me. They would show me certain things about cracks in the top. I got to see various kinds of machinery operating, at times. One of the most significant things I can remember is rolling a shuttle car about 22 breaks, and I can remember another instance in which I was on my hands and knees and the top was scraping my back. It’s been that low, and I’ve stood in places where the coal was higher than eight or ten feet. 

I wasn’t supposed to, but I actually did work in lines and cleaned and built lines. Roof bolts. I remember the first time I got on a belt to ride, to ride it in to the coal mine, They went to panicking because they said I got too close to where the crusher was, and I got the nerve to jump off. Believe me, it takes a little nerve to jump off and especially the first time you kiss a timber. But you learn. They had a little fun with me pulling miner cable to them. They kept telling me to pull, ’You ain’t pulling Dennis.’ They were sitting back laughing. After they had their fun, they just hooked the miner cable to a shuttle car or something and pulled it themselves.

One of the greatest lessons I learned in life about working hard and doing work that was hard is there’s two ways to do it: the hard way, and the easy way. They taught me how to work the work instead of the work working me. 
Most people have a perspective of coal miners as being uneducated. Their education was different from the typical education that you get out here. Their education meant they would live instead of die. They knew how to stay alive in a coalmine that could very easily kill you. So they had an education. They didn’t have a collegiate education, but the education they had was incredible. I think of people who went underground and later wrote books about mining. They taught themselves, but they also learned from those coal miners. 

I remember the first time I heard a timber pop, or crack, from the weight and I learned how to read certain things, and what they meant. I remember the first time they set a shot off and it literally shook everything, and I’ve seen heavy machines move like a giant hand moved them and that concussive force that you feel…unless you’ve been underground, or in the mines, you cannot really explain it. I mean that muffled sound, and it was like WOOMPH and everything just shook. I’ve heard that, ‘Fire in the hole,’ and when they say it. you’d better be ready. 

They would always look out for me, and get me back to where it was perceived by everybody as safe in case something doesn’t go right. It was interesting. I’ve cleaned belt lines by the miles. I’ve helped move belt, some extremely difficult belt. And I’ve cleaned around belt heads, and that was incredible. This actually happened; people might dispute it or disagree with it but this actually happened. They had a silo, and the silo had plugs and stuff on it that you had to grease and on the silo you could see things that you could put most of your foot on. We had about a 30-pound grease can and you had to move out along the edge of the silo with your feet like that and hold on and keep this can from falling and grease those plugs. I’ve been in places where there was what you call flow dust. It’s almost watery like, and you could hold your hand like this and it would go through the cracks and stuff … it was like trying to keep water in your hands. That dust was just that fine. I’ve blown my nose for a minute or two, and it would be black before it would start to clear up. 

I know one thing, I’ve made a mistake on, I’ve kind of learned the hard way, which I wish I’d done better with. A lot of times, we used the same lights that actual miners did and every now and then I’d forget to hook it back up right, and that meant that a miner was going to have lesser light or no light at all at times. That was a lesson I learned the hard way, too.

[Darkness in the mine] It’s like having one of these little pen light lights, and way down there you can see those little pen lights and they’d tell me, ‘Dennis that’s the miners,’ and I’d say, ‘Couldn’t be. What did they do, shrink?’ And as you started walking toward it, you’d see how big it is, but you could be that far up in there. And if you didn’t know where you were going you could get lost sometimes, because some of those belt lines were miles long.

[After college and the mines] I taught school for several years from ’72 to ’73. There were a couple of other jobs [but] I don’t remember that much detail about those. I actually worked in the Department of Employment Security. In 1980, I had a job selling insurance. In fact, I was the first person in the insurance company who was a black, what was considered a minority, from ’80 to ’86. I worked for a bank for a few years in southern West Virginia. It became a very infamous bank. You might have read about it, the First National Bank of Keystone, where they had a bankruptcy there. Then, I started doing this [Black Lung clinic] because I found it interesting [combining] coal mine history and helping coal miners get black lung benefits. I started in ’86, and my dad died in ’87, so it really became a focus for me, and it’s become my lifetime focus since then. 

It’s a combination job; benefits counselor and program recruiter. In other words, the work that we do and the people we work with, they don’t just jump up and come running in here. You have to actually recruit them. I’ve been up on hills and up in valleys knocking on doors to kind of build myself up. I help them fill out applications, and have been learning a lot of laws. What you can and cannot do, what you do and don’t do [in black lung benefits]. There’s two different ways that you can file for black lung benefits. You can file a state claim, or you can file a federal claim. 

In Appalachia, cultures that basically stuck to themselves had to learn to adapt to work with each other. You know, in a coal camp you had all these different cultures. It’s nothing for me to eat kielbasa, I eat Slavic foods, you know we exchanged things, spaghetti and German foods. I like kraut and wieners and I’ve been around German people and Irish people and English people and Africans for many, many, years. I’ve seen Italian stonemasons making walls, some of those walls, very old then, some of them starting to crumble, it’s incredible the workmanship. 

It was nothing for kids from different cultures to play together. The big thing for us was it was a better opportunity, better money. There are some people who will say, ‘well they didn’t pay you well.’ We were being paid much better than what we were. If you need a quarter, and you’re only making a nickel and somebody gives you a dime, that’s big money to you. You ain’t worrying about the fifteen cents you don’t have and don’t even know about. You just know that you just went from a nickel to a dime. People called us poor, but we weren’t poor in the things you can’t see and can’t touch. We were not poor in character, and honoring, and dignity, integrity, and morals and ethics. We weren’t poor in religious beliefs. It was material things mainly, but we didn’t even know we were poor until we were told we were. We were happy up until then. We had no concept of poor. 

I can’t imagine the number of different culture’s foods I have eaten in my life. There was like an unwritten rule…you will not disrespect anybody else’s culture because you are all here to mine coal. They talk about zero tolerance and stuff now? It was zero tolerance. You respected every man there. When you went in that coal mine, as they say, that rock don’t respect skin color. It falls, and it falls on everybody. 

In a sense, we were raised with a different perspective. We didn’t see it the way that a lot of other people in the early civil rights movement did. It was no big deal for black and white miners to work together. People don’t even mention that, and nothing has ever been raised about that, but black and white people and various cultures worked together in the ‘30s, twenty years before the ‘50s. Nobody ever said a mumbling word. Everybody was told, if you’ve got a problem going in there you, need to get on down the road, because we’re not going to tolerate problems. Coal was a national security issue, and the only people who were going in there, were the people who could get it out of there. 

If something happened in a coal camp, everybody cried because everybody knew the family and men that was lost or hurt or injured or whatever. We came together; you know what I’m saying? Everybody got through these negative experiences. They talk about the welfare systems and everything. The welfare system back then was neighbors. Neighbors. You can’t let your neighbor go home if something bad has happened. Neighbors would trust and respect. This is probably one of the last places on earth that you ever left your doors open. Nobody worried about somebody breaking into one of his or her house most of the time. That was a rare thing because who had what to steal? Everybody had the same things. What were you going to steal? 

We had a sense of loyalty and devotion to each other. People who come back here now, one of the first things they want to know is who’s still living and who’s died? Is such and such a one still living or if they moved or whatever where are they? I’ve got a lot of issues about the Internet, but one of the good things about it is that a lot of people have been able to reconnect through it. 

Families broke up. If a coal miner died, that house and everything had to be given back to the company. That meant that five or six children might have to go to three different people and families far away. Some families broke up, and some of them weren’t found until the Internet and relatives began searching for them. You see them come back together now, and they remember those times. It really happened. I’m not telling you what I read in a book or saw on TV on some history channel. I’m talking about what we literally saw, and experienced. 

[Appalachian stereotypes] I’ve heard the question, where do the barefoot people live? The only people I know that went barefoot were kids in the summer time. If somebody in the neighborhood saw you with shoes that were worn out, they’d get together and buy you a pair of shoes. Especially with children and the sick and the elderly. There was a kinship and a brotherhood and a sisterhood that would not let a brother or sister go down like that. 

When our families have left this area and gone to other places, people ask, ’why are you all so friendly? Why do you get along with everybody?’ Because we’ve done it all our life! We don’t know how to not do it. I remember when I went to New York City and I walked every bit of ten, fifteen, or maybe twenty blocks and I never spoke to a person. That was the worst thing in the world I had ever experienced. If I said, ‘how you doing?’ people would back away from me. You didn’t talk to people like that. Down here, that’s disrespectful. You don’t have to actually know who it is to acknowledge the fact that they’re alive, or say hello. A man tips his cap to a lady. He didn’t have to know her. It was just a respect thing. 

My mother taught me this; she could go into a doctor’s office where nobody was speaking to nobody, and she’d speak to every last one of them. The next thing you know, people were talking. They were kind of apprehensive with each other to begin with, but after a while they got to be what we called neighbors. 

[Volatility of coal employment] I saw this in the ‘50s. I saw this in the 60s and I saw this in the ‘70s and the 80s. Anybody that knows anything about coal knows it is cyclical. We will get through this too, just like we did then by swallowing pride, on all sides. Everybody gets entrenched. That hard-ass political idealism. It’s going to be my way or I’ll take the whole thing down. That’s what we’re saying. Everybody carves out his little piece of territory. 

In our Appalachian communities, we have never been taught to wait for somebody to help us. We have always been taught to overcome, ourselves. And when we make up our minds and put our nose to the grindstone and want to help ourselves, we will come out of this. We are actually contradicting what we have been taught all our lives. We have never been told to expect somebody else to get us out of it. You might have to do it with your hands and feet… climb out yourself. When we get back to that, our old fashion values and principles and idioms, we will. It’s going to happen! We’ll do it ourselves. 

We certainly don’t get help where we’re supposed to be getting it from. That’s why we have been taught [to help ourselves.] If your neighbor down there has found a way to do it, hey, show me how to do that. Help us do that. There are other towns doing it…what are you all doing and we’ll see if we can do the same thing. Just like neighbors help neighbors, why can’t towns help towns? Why does everybody have to have their individualistic thing that, okay, we got ours, so that’s your problem. That is not Appalachian culture. 

It’s going to take the Appalachian culture and cultures that are similar to show this nation, because externally, it’s not going to happen. It’s going to have to happen within and go out. It’s not going to come from out, in and we’re sitting here waiting on it. We have to do it. We have to believe in ourselves. We have to overcome it. We have to learn the things. We have to send our children to school to learn the technologies. 

When we stop feeling sorry for ourselves, and say regardless of the policy of you all, we’re going to do what we want to do, not only are we going to get out of it, we are going to help you out of your mess, too. 

If we learn to put aside our egos and our pride and get back to what we were founded on, rock bed principles of caring for one another, lifting each other up, what’s going to happen to us? We will never be, I don’t believe, what we once were, but we can be much better than what we are. It’ll come back to a degree. It’ll never be what it was in the heyday of the ‘30s and ‘40s. We can still come back to a thriving culture that hopefully has learned its lesson, so that when in times the coal cycle is down, we can have enough alternative industries to sustain ourselves until coal hits its high level again, whatever that may be.”