The historical record shows that the earliest coal mining in America of any commercial significance involved slaves working in the coal pits in the vicinity of Richmond, Virginia in the mid 1700s. The Black Heath Company, Chesterfield Coal and Iron Mining Company, Midlothian Mining Company and others employed hundred of slaves and free blacks. These men were employed in a variety of different occupations in and out of the mines, from basic laborers to blacksmiths. The work force at many mines was oftentimes supplemented by slaves hired by contract from slave owners in the vicinity. In other states, particularly Pennsylvania and Alabama, there were substantial efforts to mine and create a demand for coal, using varied levels of black labor. These endeavors met with mixed success. As early as 1860, at least a dozen free black miners can be found working in Allegheny county, outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This constitutes some of the earliest documentation of black coal miners working in the northern coal fields, known as the Central Competitive Field.
The growth of the industry was rapid in the 19th century spurred by the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of the railroads. On the eve of the Civil War, coal mining operations were present in over twenty states and U.S. production stood at more than 20 million tons. The demand for coal continued to increase throughout the decade as railroad trackage soared and the “black diamonds” became the fuel of choice for individuals heating their homes. During Reconstruction, the coal and railroad industries became two of the primary employment opportunities for the newly emancipated black laborer as many of the more adventurous former slaves left the South. Many found work with a large rising number of newly formed mining companies, financed by Eastern capital, which had moved in to establish their dominance in the rich coal beds of the Midwest and West. The owners ran headlong into the initial attempts of their predominately white miners to unionize. One of the strategies employed to combat unionization was the use of black strikebreakers. Mine owners utilized labor agents in the urban areas across the country, and sent labor recruiters into the South to entice disenfranchised blacks. These southern recruits consisted not only of experienced miners, but many agricultural laborers who were suffering under the sharecropping system. During this time period a new form of subjugation was emerging in the Deep South in the form of convict labor. Throughout Alabama and parts of Tennessee and Georgia, a concerted effort was made to arrest blacks, issue excessive sentences, and then lease them to coal mining companies.
(African-American Coal Miner Information Center, U.S. National Archives, Working in the Seams, Revisiting Appalachia, BlackPast).