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February 2013 Issue

Breaking Rocks and Barriers

Sheralin Greene was the lone black woman coalminer.

By Richard Lord*

"If I wanted to keep my job, I had to keep my mouth shut.”

For 15 years Sheralin Greene broke barriers every day as a coal miner in Harlan County, Ky., where 98 percent of miners are male and 90 percent are white.

“There are very few female miners,” Ms. Greene, 52, said. “And there were very few black miners. A black female miner? I was it.

“I wanted to work in a union mine, but it was too hard to get hired,” she said. “I got my job in the mine because I kept bugging them. I even told them that I would work for free to prove myself.”

But the mine operators were skeptical that Ms. Greene, with her 115- pound frame, could be as productive as male miners. She started working in 1980 aboveground, picking rocks from the piles for $5.50 per hour.

“But I wanted more money. I want ed to go into the mine, below the earth. They let me go, but they didn’t want to pay me the same as a man. But after four months, they raised my salary to $10 per hour. They saw that I could do the same work as man.

“It wasn’t easy to gain the approval of the other miners. I had to prove that I was capable and then they respected me. I was the first female pull rock machine operator.”

After she was accepted by the male miners, the teasing started — not aimed at her as a woman or an African American, she said, but as another miner.

“It was the same kind of teasing that happens within a family,” she said. “It wasn’t aimed at me because I am a black woman. Anyone could have found a snake on the conveyor belt or a dead rat in their food.

“The one difference that I had from other miners is that I made my physical boundaries clear. They knew them, so they didn’t test them. But we could joke about it.

“I knew, from the beginning, that if I wanted to work in a man’s world, I had to play by their rules. If I had complained, if I had reacted differently, it would have been a problem. So I didn’t complain about anything. If I wanted to keep my job, I had to keep my mouth shut.”

After leaving the mines, Ms. Greene and her husband, Eddie, started a Tshirt store. But it has been very rough. The decline in miners has affected the economy throughout. There are fewer consumers, which hurts the retail businesses.

In the fall of 2012, 2,000 miners were laid off in the area. Many have relocated to Alabama, where mining activity is growing rapidly.

They are doing okay, but the stores they left behind are not.

“I don’t know what we’ll do with our business, if it can make money or not. But somehow we’ll survive.”

 

*Richard Lord is a photojournalist living in Ivy, Va.

Last Updated: 03/16/2014
 
 

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