For most of the 20th century, there was at least one member of Tony Armstead’s family working in the mines of Marion and Monongalia counties. In the fall of 1981, the Morgantown man became the fourth and final generation of this African-American family to make a living underground. The story of this West Virginia family is detailed in an article, “Memories of a Mining Family: Tony Armstead Recalls Four Generations,” in the current issue of GOLDENSEAL magazine.
In the article by Fairmont author Sharon L. Gardner, Armstead describes how his great-grandfather and grandfather brought their families to West Virginia from the Alabama coalfields in 1925 in search of better pay and improved working conditions. They found work in the mines and settled in the community of Watson, near Fairmont, where Armstead’s father Bob was born in 1927.
Bob Armstead began working in the mines at age 16 and, over the years, learned to operate all the mining machines. Hard work eventually paid off when, with encouragement from his supervisors, he earned certification to be a mine foreman–quite an achievement for an African-American man in the 1960s. Lured to work in the mines by the promise of good pay and his father’s success as a foreman, son Tony got his first mining job at age 23 at Consol’s Blacksville No. 1 mine.
“I was a little scared at first,” says Tony in the article. “The darkness bothered me, but after a month or two, I adjusted. Dad had told me about the roof cracking and rumbling, so I accepted that quickly. The noise made me think about the wood fires in my grandparents’ home.”
Tony Armstead, who left the mines after four years and two layoffs, now earns his living managing rental property he owns in Morgantown; however, he continues to cherish his family’s history in the mines–a history that reflects the changes and progress of the coal industry and society over the last 100 years. His father Bob died in 1998.
Sharon Gardner met the Armstead family while working on a series of coal mining articles for the Fairmont Times-West Virginian.
“I was immediately struck by both Bob’s and Tony’s fascination with and love for mining. They would sit around the kitchen table and tell stories about working underground,” she said. “It was a big part of this family’s life.”
In addition to the GOLDENSEAL article, Gardner has written a book based on her interviews with Bob Armstead and hopes to have the volume published within the next year.
This issue of GOLDENSEAL also includes several stories about coon hunting and coondogs, an article on Slovene immigrants in Richwood, and a profile of an 85-year-old granddaughter of slaves whose dreams were fulfilled in West Virginia’s southern coalfields.
GOLDENSEAL is West Virginia’s magazine of traditional life and is a quarterly publication of the West Virginia Division of Culture and History. It is available for $4.95 at Kroger stores and the Book Exchange in Morgantown, and at C V News and C and J News Center in Fairmont or by calling (304) 558-0220, ext. 153.
Visit the Division’s website at www.wvculture.org. The West Virginia Division of Culture and History is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer.
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