From the bowels of the earth, it came first. Then it was sliced from the tops and sides of mountains: black, shiny coal. They called it “black gold”...bringing life to one man, a death warrant to the next, prosperity to a nation, deprivation to a region.
The coal rumbles down the mountainsides in big, arrogant trucks that hug the roads like the coal operators do their profit margins. One man says, “I've been listening to those trucks for 58 years and never got used to 'em.” Another calls the sound “music to my ears.”
Whatever the sentiment, the black stuff hangs in the air, settles on buildings, chokes lungs, corrupts people, arouses passions, replenishes the welfare system and encourages paternalism. Yet, against these conditions that have existed in varying degrees some sixty odd years, “hillbillies” and their families survive, leaving the nation a legacy we can no longer afford to ignore.
This article is about the people and conditions of Harlan County, the second most productive coal field in Kentucky, with a reserve of 438 years based on its 1979 rate of production. Last year, the state of Kentucky was rated the first in the nation for total tonnage in coal. But more than a quick frisk of their hearts and holdings, this article is about us because it is through these 'hillbillies' that we can come to a better understanding of ourselves and where we have failed as a society.
Heading down Route 421 South, past the Pizza Hut, then on past the Sizzlin Steak House, I took my first right over a narrow bridge and then over railroad tracks into Sunshine. Sunshine is a community of run-down and worn-out, three- and four-room houses left over from the days when it was a coal mining camp, owned by the Big Boss—the coal company.
Oblivious to any potential danger, a dog sat peacefully in between the railroad tracks that run through Sunshine. The dog looked straight ahead—past the knee-high grass—at a man standing in front of his shack. His face took me by surprise. I had never seen such a reposeful look on any animal—four-legged or two. This was the first of several paradoxes that became apparent in Harlan County.
A fifteen-year-old girl named Rosie Smith lives with her mother and several brothers and sisters in Sunshine. They live in a six-room, government-bought trailer. Rosie's father died in 1971. Her step-