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 enhance productivity.
Coal mining’s benefits were designed to compensate for its dangers. In 1810, Chesterfield county marked the site of the first recorded explosion of a U.S. coal mine. Another followed in 1818. Then, on March 18, 1839, a particularly gruesome explosion at the Black Heath Coal Pits resulted in the tragic deaths of more than forty workers, though only the names of the two white mine superintendents were published in local newspapers. The Richmond Enquirer compared this disaster to calamities in English coal mines, where more than a hundred people had been killed between 1812 and 1815, though the paper claimed scientific improvements would reduce future rates of mortality.
Despite the optimism that dominated these ventures, coal mining continued to be a fatal enterprise. Decades later, a petitioner to Virginia’s General Assembly still fretted about the “deadly hazards” to which enslaved miners and wage laborers were subjected. Coal miners, he noted, “encounter dangers at every stage.” His report cited the presence of methane, “an odorless, colorless, flammable gas,” that engulfed “poorly ventilated” mines as the primary cause of these calamities. Even trying to investigate the source of a potential methane gas leak proved hazardous, as an 1876 article from the Rural Messenger stressed:
Mr. Thomas Carol, the foreman . . . was informed that the mine was filling up with gas, and went down to the pit to see about it. He held in his hand an open lamp, such as is commonly used by the pit hands. The moment he reached the bottom of the pit, and started to go into the mouth of the shaft, the gas communicated with the lamp and a horrible explosion occurred.
Or consider the 1836 Chesterfield County Circuit Court lawsuit in which the jury awarded the plaintiff, Mr. Hill, $400 because an enslaved worker he had rented to a Mr. Randolph for one year died in a coal mine after inhaling what the court brief calls “impure and noxious air.”
Mining was not simply hazardous to capitalists whose profits could literally go up in smoke, but for enslaved workers who risked a slow, quiet death from inhaling poisonous gases. These perils did little to disrupt the industry. Instead, eager industrialists used insurance to protect their investments in their workers. Slaves were not sent into the pits unless they were insured, and slaves were not insured unless they received medical exams. These exams enabled a calculus concerning the worker’s health, the loss of his potential skill set, and the cost of insuring him.
Medical experts have long known that underground coal mining destroys lung tissue and decreases the flow of oxygen to the bloodstream, leading to chronic shortness of breath. Yet what is now identified as black lung disease was not officially recognized as a medical illness until the end of the 1960s. Since the nineteenth century, coal miners have been familiar with chronic lung deterioration, sometimes called “miner’s asthma.” But this condition had been considered a mere occupational hazard, not an “occupational disease,” which would have made it a liability for employers.
Establishing the validity of black lung disease required that miners do battle with the federal government, the medical profession, and even with their union. The automation of labor practices in 1930 had dramatically increased the quantity of coal dust to which miners were exposed. But workers were dissuaded from fighting for healthier working conditions by labor leaders who agreed to mechanization in exchange for increased wages and benefits. Miners also had to transform how medical professionals viewed their plight. The medical specialists most knowledgeable about working conditions were employed by the same corporations the workers sought to petition.
Only with the creation of the Black Lung Association in 1968 did workers, doctors, and grassroots organizers finally band together in a formal organization dedicated to their cause, launching a series of strikes and education campaigns. In 1972, they pressured the federal government into passing a bill extending benefits for victims of chronic lung disease. A decade later, the movement succeeded in transferring some liability for the health of coal-mine workers from the federal government to private employers. Black lung disease was finally classified as an injury that qualified employees for worker’s compensation (even if regulatory agencies have at times confessed that it is practically impossible to know which mines are in compliance with established standards).
Might we have discovered black lung disease much sooner if the medical exams of enslaved coal miners had been introduced as evidence for ailing twentieth-century laborers? In the twenty-first century, it is easier for politicians and concerned citizens to access information on the value of enslaved coal miners from the antebellum era than on miners today, whose salaries and medical records are protected by privacy laws. This makes it difficult to determine the extent of the dangers coal miners now face. Meanwhile, they pay exorbitant life insurance premiums, provoking questions about who stands to profit.
During the past decade, there has been increased scrutiny of “corporate-owned life insurance” (COLI) policies used by Procter & Gamble, Bank of America, Citibank, McDonnell Douglas, Hershey’s, Nestlé, Walmart, and American Express. There are two kinds of COLI policies. “Janitors” or “dead peasants” insurance policies cover rank-and-file employees. “Key man” or “key person” policies are reserved for employees who generate outsized profits for a firm, like top executives. In either case, surviving family members have sometimes been pained to discover that a former employer generated millions of dollars from the death of a loved one.
In 2006, U.S. Congress passed the “Pension Protection Act,” which stipulates that corporations must make employees aware of insurance policies taken out in their names. Yet there are still many cases where families report being alarmed to discover that a firm holds a policy on a loved one’s life. Corporate-owned life insurance is typically classified as an asset, meaning that it is governed by the SEC and thus is rarely discussed explicitly between employers and employees.
Legal experts tie the justification for COLI to an 1881 Supreme Court decision holding that you can only benefit from another person’s life if you possess an “interest” in that life—a relation of intimacy rather than a relationship that would be enhanced by the policyholder’s demise. Multimillion-dollar corporate-owned life insurance policies would seem to undermine the legal rationale that a COLI policy should prohibit a firm from being “enhanced in value by . . . the death, disability, or injury” of an employee.
When the Virginia mining company Alpha Natural Resources (ANR) began bankruptcy proceedings in 2016, it asked the court’s permission to eliminate $3 million worth of insurance for about 1,200 workers, and yet filed a motion asking to pay fifteen top executives more than $11.9 million in bonuses. ANR fought to “conceal the identities of executives taking these payments” as well as to “conceal all of the information parties in interest would need to evaluate the propriety of the bonuses.” In a moment when corporate-owned life insurance policies face heightened scrutiny, exchanging the value of promised insurance benefits for compensation packages has become a new way to traffic in the value of a worker’s life and skill. This sordid scenario illustrates that even people who do not see themselves as the descendants of slaves are implicated in forms of valuation forged during the age of legalized enslavement.
In 1987, less than two decades after coal miners secured the right to better healthcare and safety protections, material evidence of the historic links connecting these free workers with their enslaved brethren came to light. While breaking ground on a new construction site, developers discovered a small burial plot alongside the Midlothian turnpike. Forensic experts concluded that the burial plot belonged to a free white family. As construction continued, they happened upon a cemetery four times that size—a cemetery where hundreds of dead slaves had been dumped.
Sometimes we have to dig beneath the surface to get at the subterranean trajectories that have shaped the way we understand the value of life—the shared predicament of people of diverse occupations and races, from the antebellum period until the present.
Michael Ralph is the author of Forensics of Capital (University of Chicago, 2015) as well as the forthcoming multimedia platform, The Slave Insurance Treasury, the world’s most comprehensive ledger of insured slaves.