U.S. Steel and Gary, West Virginia: Corporate Paternalism in Appalachia.
By Ronald Garay
University of Tennessee Press, 2011, 265 pages. Hardcover, $48.CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Back in 1970, I began traveling widely throughout the Appalachian coalfields -- from western Pennsylvania and West Virginia down to eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia and northern Alabama.
One of the most striking coal towns I ever visited was Gary, just south of Welch in McDowell County. The complex of coal towns U.S. Steel built around Gary had some of the most attractive company buildings, stores and miners' homes I ever saw.
Steel companies in general, I thought, built some of the nicest towns in the coalfields. And they were open to hiring more black miners than most other coal companies.
Having returned to the Welch area many times over the past 42 years, it has been depressing to watch a downtown bustling with stores, restaurants, clothing shops and movie theaters evolve into somewhat of a ghost town.
Many wonderful people still live there. But most storefronts and buildings along the once-vibrant McDowell and Mercer Streets, just above the banks of the Tug River, are now vacant and abandoned.
In his engaging book, "U.S. Steel and Gary, West Virginia: Corporate Paternalism in Appalachia," Ronald Garay tells a powerful story.
Beginning in 1902, the country's biggest steel company began building what became a vibrant complex of towns around Gary, housing people working in 14 different mines producing high-quality metallurgical coal.
But U.S. Steel, exercising nearly total control over what happened in its coal towns, changed Gary from a vibrant place through the 1960s into increasingly abandoned neighborhoods, beginning in the 1980s.
"During the 20th Century, Gary assumed the mantle of industrial powerhouse in the hollows of southern West Virginia. Gary mines were crucial to steelmaking in World War II," Garay writes.
Between 1942 and 1945, Gary's mines produced one quarter of all coal mined in McDowell County and one quarter of all coal used by U.S. Steel during the war.
Gary employed a significant number of black miners. Its school system began to integrate during the late 1950s, but was not fully integrated until 1964.
But "the relative ease with which Gary Hollow schools were integrated reflected a racial harmony unique about Gary and its satellite towns," Garay wrote.
African-American miners throughout Southern West Virginia were often assigned more difficult jobs inside the mines and poorer living conditions with their families.
But "for years, Gary coal miners, regardless of race or ethnicity, had worked alongside one another, performing equal tasks for equal pay (the UMWA had seen to that)."
The United Mine Workers always represented workers at the company's mines.
U.S. Steel also maintained racial equality in its neighborhoods. "Everyone lived both figuratively and literally on the same side" of the tracks, Garay pointed out.
In November 1973, Francis Martin, a black miner from Gary, was elected to the International Executive Board from District 29 of the UMW -- the first black miner elected to the board in the 20th century.