New book authored by Rice’s Douglas Brinkley documents coal mining communities in postwar America

Exhibit with photos from book currently open at U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

American Coal cover photo

A new book co-authored by Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley paints a picture of the lives of individuals in coal mining communities and their vital contributions to the first wave of post-WWII growth in the U.S.

American Coal
Photo credit: University of Texas Press.

“American Coal,” (University of Texas Press, 160 pages, $45) is a collection of more than 100 recently discovered images of the hardscrabble lives of coal miners and the communities in which they lived in postwar America from noted photographer and photojournalist Russell Lee.

“Lee had made his name during the Great Depression when alongside Dorothea Lang and Walker Evans he used his camera to document agrarian life for the farm security administration,” said Brinkley, who is also on the board of directors of the National Archives Foundation. “In ‘American Coal,’ Lee trained his lens on miners and their families to show their difficult economic circumstances and to remind people of their essential contributions to America’s energy needs.”

In 1946, the Truman administration made a promise to the coal miners on strike: As part of an agreement to begin working again, the U.S. government would sponsor a nationwide survey of health and labor conditions in mining camps. Lee, who was an influential member of the survey team, photographed the working conditions of coal miners and illustrated their difficult circumstances.

The book includes Lee’s original, detailed captions as well as an essay by Brinkley and co-author, documentary photography expert and Lee biographer Mary Jane Appel. Brinkley and Appel place Lee’s work in historical context and illuminate how the photographer shed light on the deplorable living conditions for these individuals. Lee’s evocative images documented miners and their communities at work and at play, at church and in school and in moments of happiness and heartache, ultimately showing fellow Americans the strength and humanity of these underrecognized essential workers.

“American Coal” draws from the thousands of photographs that Lee made for the survey, which are currently on display in the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration’s exhibition “Power & Light: Russell Lee’s Coal Survey.” Brinkley participated in a March 21 talk about the book, and a recording of the event is online here. The exhibit in the National Archives’ Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery runs through July 6.

Douglas Brinkley at podium giving speech
Rice historian Douglas Brinkley.