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Researchers work to honor enslaved coal miners of Chesterfield

The remains of Grove Shaft Mine at Midlothian Mines Park ventilation shaft.
Crixell Matthews
Area researchers say that there are still stories to be told about who worked at the Grove Shaft Mine during the 19th and 20th centuries. What remains of mine's ventilation shaft at Midlothian Mines Park is shown here. (Photos: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Dotting the landscape around the village of Midlothian in Chesterfield County are dozens of openings to abandoned coal-mine shafts. Those openings — some of which burrow hundreds of feet underground — connect to a network of tunnels that twist and turn throughout the area. 

“These coal mines powered everything from the building of America to the making of cannons for both the Revolutionary and Civil wars, and they did so because of the work of enslaved people,” said Mary Finley-Brook, a University of Richmond professor who's currently at work on a book that includes a history of coal mining in Chesterfield. 

“That coal was able to build not only the railroads and the industry that many people talk about, but really this being the capital of the Confederacy, is very much tied to these mines,” Finley-Brook said. “Because of the James River and because of settlement patterns, the Midlothian mines and the Chesterfield coal developed faster than in other areas. It was very much then tied to the Confederate Army and to Tredegar Iron Works, and to the expansion of the war.” 

Explosions were a regular occurrence at all the mines into the early 1920s. Soon after, the sites began to close because of labor costs — not being able to rely on unpaid work of enslaved people — and a difficulty in securing insurance. The explosions resulted in hundreds of deaths, and in the 19th century that included the enslaved, some of whom lived underground in makeshift stables with mules.  

“These are methane explosions,” said Finley-Brook. “When people visited these mines, in the earliest years, they could hear it hissing, they could hear it bubbling, they knew that methane was deadly.” 

She said that even though mine owners installed some safety measures, which included huge doors to help control the air flow, and tried to be careful with the open flames that miners wore on their helmets, it wasn’t enough. And despite the deadly explosions, work continued. 

In 2009, a dedication ceremony was held at Midlothian Mines Park, site of what remains of the Grove Shaft Mine. It’s where county officials unveiled historical markers detailing the mines, the explosions and the workers — including the enslaved.  

But Audrey Ross, a Midlothian native and local historian, didn’t want to attend because she had a strange feeling about the site.  

“We know there were many bodies that were never recovered. A lot of times the names were not listed [on the markers],” she said. 

Her relatives, including her grandparents and others going back five generations, worked as coal miners in the area. Through her 30 years of research for the First African Baptist Church in Midlothian — which was first founded deep in the mines — she learned more about the enslaved people who perished in the shafts.  

“We knew that most of the families in the Midlothian area were descendants of coal miners,” Ross said. 

But years later, a voice inside told her she had to visit the mine site, regardless of her trepidation. So, Ross set off on the trail to see the ruins. 

“And the feeling that I got was so heavy. I actually felt like, surrounding me, were the voices [saying], ‘You have come,’” she said. 

'No tribute'

The park, as well as the Village of Midlothian, has historical markers explaining the mines, the explosions and the workers — including the enslaved. But the contributions of the enslaved workers aren’t fully explained. 

“This was America's commercial coal mines ... and they produced this great coal, but [there’s] no tribute or no recognition or acknowledgement of those that worked [here],” said Ross, who is on the board of directors for the Mid-Lothian Mines & Rail Roads Foundation. 

Finley-Brook agreed, adding that the signs whitewash history — and that the stories of the enslaved were never officially recorded. 

“It was always focused on how many white people survived, how many white people were killed, how many white people attempted to help. Or how local owners of enslaved people were trying to collect their payments.” she said, explaining how only a portion of history has been enshrined.

Ross said the best way to tell a more in-depth story about area mines is to rely on personal narratives that aren’t in any history books. 

“For the most part, our history was narrated, the history of our church was narrated, it wasn't documented in any books in the county,” Ross said.  

Trying to understand the history of her family and of the enslaved mine workers in the village of Midlothian led her to reach out to local families in her church. 

“I realized they had so many stories, a lot of information, a lot of photos,” Ross said. “And it just opened my eyes to so much more that needed to be done to honor those people who had gone on, who never really had a chance to share what they had accomplished, or even to be made to feel that they were important.” 

Complete stories

Ross said updating the signs in the park, as well as in the village of Midlothian, will show that the success of the area was predicated on unpaid labor of the enslaved. 

“[Their contributions] should not be ignored any longer,” said Ross. “Because the coal mines made not only Midlothian rich, it made the state, it made the county … .” 

Ross is at work on a plan to create more complete signage that doesn't just offer “a limited” or “narrow view of someone” who toiled in the mines. 

"I have photos of persons that worked in the mines,” she said. “I have more descriptive information, more detailed information, where people can see the contributions of everyone that was a part of it. One of my goals is actually paying honor and tribute to those who lost their lives and give them a voice.” 

Now, when Ross walks through Midlothian Mines Park, she doesn't feel the sort of apprehension she previously did. “It's a joy when I walk through,” she said. 

Ian M. Stewart is the transportation reporter and fill-in anchor for VPM News.