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WVU researchers keep coal mining community alive through oral history and photography

WVU Today

Communities in Scott’s Run were made up of immigrants, African Americans and Appalachians, as this photo of a picket line shows. (WVU Today)

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Researchers from West Virginia University are preserving the memories of a coal community through oral history and photography. 

Supported by a grant from the WVU Humanities Center, the research team used historical images from the West Virginia and Regional History Center’s online photographs database, West Virginia History OnView, to document the history of the Scott’s Run community in Monongalia County. 

The interdisciplinary research team is made up of faculty, staff and students from the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences and WVU Libraries:

“When the Humanities Center announced the funding opportunity to work with scholars from multiple disciplines, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to bring together the overlapping interests and skills of colleagues in communication studies, English, history, social work and the library to collect some oral histories of community members,” Gouge said. 

Through a series of interviews with current and former community members who gather on Saturdays at Scott’s Run Museum, the team captured residents’ memories and observations as they viewed the collection of photographs.  

“Our team tried to allow community voices to frame the photographs with their memories. We really resisted any impulse to tell their stories for them by framing what they said,” Gouge said. “Instead, we led with community voices and made sure to include everyone we spoke with to the fullest extent possible. The result is a rich, multi-voice narrative that captures some of the stories of the Scott’s Run community as community members were inspired to tell them. We are proud to have had the opportunity to document these incredible voices.”

The Scott’s Run area consists of a five-mile stretch of communities near Morgantown, including Cassville, Jere, Osage and Pursglove, among others. 

During the early 1900s, the area experienced a booming mining industry as World War I increased the demand for coal and shifted its agricultural roots to industry. Farmers sold their land to coal companies while families simultaneously immigrated to the area from around the world to find work in the mines. 

“Many of them had relocated from the south and other countries. The population was a diverse mix of immigrants, African Americans and Appalachians,” Hash said. “But they all talked about how they were a family. People went to each other’s houses. All the kids played together, but they didn’t know why they couldn’t go to school together – the African American kids and the Caucasian kids. But they still call each other family, even today.” 

While Scott’s Run was well positioned for this industry at the time given its coal capacity, proximity to Pittsburgh and access to transportation resources like rivers and railroads, it was overcome by economic downturn during the Great Depression and has since been affected by natural disasters like floods.  

“It’s such a unique network of relationships. The community members grew up in isolation because there wasn’t a bridge to Morgantown at that time – there was just a ferry,” Hash said. “One gentleman reflected that everyone was poor, but they didn’t realize they were poor because they were all the same. Coal was the equalizer.”  

Despite Scott’s Run’s trying circumstances, the researchers discovered a resilient community.  

“It really is a type of community that just doesn’t exist anymore. While most of the history you read about the community is negative, people are still committed to it,” Hash said. “The community members were children during the Depression. They have very pure recollections whereas others just see the negative. If you believe everything you hear, their story is one of despair and exploitation. But the residents told stories of perseverance, dedication and people loving each other.” 

As a professor of social work, Hash routinely engages with Scott’s Run’s three community-based organizations: Scott’s Run Settlement House, The Shack Neighborhood House and St. Ursula’s Food Pantry, established by three different religious denominations—the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church and the Catholic Church, respectively, during the Great Depression. She uses those community partnerships as examples of successful long-term grassroots community-building in her classes. 

“I always take students to Scott’s Run to experience the different agencies,” Hash said. “They are still what I consider truly community-based organizations. They don’t say here’s what we offer—you come get it. They say, what does our community need? What would benefit and build up our community and meet the needs they have? In a way, despite its knocks and economic devastation, Scott’s Run is an ideal community.” 

The team published its work in an exhibit at the WVU Libraries and has since donated it to the Scott’s Run Museum. Redding also created a digital narrative featured in the exhibit that faculty continue to use in their classes. Watch the video and read more about the project.

West Virginia and Regional History Center archive has an extensive collection of photographs documenting West Virginia history and culture across the state,” Hostuttler said. “Our team hopes the Scott’s Run project will inspire and serve as a model for others to choose a collection of community photographs from the archive and work with community members to document their memories and the people who define them through oral history.

CONTACT: Katlin Swisher
WVU Eberly College of Arts and Sciences
304.293.9264, [email protected]

Follow @WVUToday on Twitter.

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