The Price of Life: From Slavery to Corporate Life Insurance

Miner loading coal in Lynch, Kentucky in the 1920s. Used with permission from the Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College Appalachian Archives Lynch Photo Collection.

In the past decade, the coal-mining region that runs from Ohio to West Virginia has logged nearly 1,000 cases of “black lung disease” plaguing workers who’ve faced prolonged exposure to coal dust. But Senate Republicans have stalled legislation that retired coal miners desperately need to access the healthcare plans and pensions they were promised.

Donald Trump became the forty-fifth president of the United States in part based on the claim that he would restore jobs by reviving the nation’s coal industry. But coal embodies capitalism’s most telling paradox: that the most lucrative industries are often the most dangerous. From the time it was first discovered in the United States in 1701 in Chesterfield County, Virginia, coal promised to revolutionize the world of energy and transportation. Yet, coal is responsible for untold damage to the environment and has led to the exploitation of workers—as laborers and assets—stretching back to the age of legalized slavery.

Two and a half decades after coal was discovered in what is now the Richmond Coal Basin, Abraham and Archibald Woolridge leased land from Major Henry Heth to establish a mining firm. Heth, a British émigré to the United States, had settled near the nation’s oldest coal mines in 1759. He fought in the American Revolution as part of the 1st Virginia Regiment, shooting through the ranks from captain to major. After the war, Heth became a successful entrepreneur, starting a family business at the Black Heath Coal Pits that was later taken over by his grandson, Confederate general Harry Heth.

The end of the transatlantic slave trade and subsequent expansion of U.S. domestic trade enticed Major Heth to make the most of his access to capital in land and slaves. Since slaves could no longer enter the country legally, planters focused on smuggling them in (which was unpredictable), breeding them (a lengthy process), and renting them. In 1810, Heth placed an ad in the Richmond Enquirer soliciting “30 or 40 able bodied Negro Men, for whom a liberal price will be given” to “be employed in the Coal Mines.” From twenty slaves in 1801, Heth successfully acquired 114 slaves by 1812. In addition to the slaves he purchased, Heth would employ scores of enslaved miners rented from nearby merchants at the Black Heath Coal Pits.

Most enslaved persons were subject to harsh punishment and grueling work. Strategies of coercion and intimidation were integral to economic production, especially in the cotton kingdom. Industrial slaves like those operating in Virginia coal mines enjoyed a great deal more flexibility and a different work regimen. Because industrial slaves were deemed more highly skilled and more valuable than plantation slaves, they experienced greater mobility when moving between their homes and places of work, as well as more say over living arrangements and romantic partnerships. They were even sometimes given cash incentives to enha...

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