Brown opens exhibit on black coal workers in Appalachia

The Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown University will hold an exhibit detailing African Americans and the coal mining industry.
The Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown University will hold an exhibit detailing African Americans and the coal mining industry. | Contributed photo

Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice (CSSJ) will open an exhibit that details the experience of 20th-century black coal workers in the Appalachia region

“The Black Shackle: African Americans and the Coal Economy” will take place through the end of October at the CSSJ. The exhibit focuses on African Americans who migrated to Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia  to find work in the coal mines. This exhibit was completed through the work of Karida Brown, who recently earned her doctorate in sociology from Brown.

Brown stated in an interview with North Carolina Public Radio that this project reconstructs the history of Lynch, Kentucky, which was a town where many coal workers of African descent lived. Brown also noted that the population of the town has diminished. Brown co-curated this exhibit with University of North Carolina Archivist Biff Hollingsworth.

“The concept of the participatory archive reframes the institution and the practice of archiving from a tomb (a place where things go to die) to a womb (a life-giving space),” Brown said. “Unlike traditional collections that are bought or acquired through impersonal channels, the participatory archive inserts agency and allows people to become partners in the history-making process. They choose what and when to donate and have a seat at the table when it comes to their collection.”

Brown conducted over 200 interviews with residents and former residents of Lynch and other towns located within Harlan County, Kentucky.

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