I never had the chance to meet my great granddaddy. Born in Clintwood, Virginia, Cossie Quillen Mullins was tough I’m told. He was devastatingly handsome, somewhat mischievous as a young man running moonshine, and raised his family by crawling into the belly of a mountain, day in and day out.
Having left Virginia behind as a young man, he ventured west into Harlan, Kentucky, and later met my great-grandma Marie Lambert at her parent’s boarding house. She was reserved, proper, and of the Holiness faith. I’m told they were quite the pair during those days.
Nonetheless they married, and had three boys, my great aunt Cotella later joining them, a daughter from a previous marriage. Together they would raise their children in Coxton, a coal camp just outside of Evarts, Kentucky.
My brother and I took a drive to Coxton a few summers back. Not much is left of the once thriving community, but there’s a presence there when the wind blows that can’t really be described. There seems to be an overwhelming sense of lonesome that hangs in the air. Harlan County is a special place to me, it always has been.
As a child I got off the bus at my great grandmother’s house. Having left Harlan some years back, stacks of UMWA magazines would collect dust in the corner of her living room in Williamsburg. Occasionally I would comb through them admiring the pictures of men with “lights” on their caps wondering what it was they did that was so important. Long after my grandpa’s passing, my grandmother would still receive magazines addressed to him. He was a union man, but only after years of back breaking labor deep within the earth.
A treasure year after year at Christmas as a child was an ornament my Uncle David had fashioned for each of us of a miner walking down a dirt road. Lighted cap atop his head, dinner bucket at his side. I recall David telling each of us, “That’s daddy.” Each year that phrase would come back to me as I unwrapped it along with other decorations.
Today protests continue near Clover Lick #3 mine in Harlan County after the onslaught of a mass bankruptcy with Blackjewel, a major mining corporation. I’m reminded of my great granddaddy, and the many men like him. The men who gave it all they had. The men who raised families on script and in dirt floor houses. The men who like him, smothered to death, gasping for air in their last days.
Daylight until dawn, generation after generation, men have valued and honored the profession of their forefathers before them. Protecting and collecting the diamonds of Appalachia, only to be disregarded like used goods.
I have prayed, grieved, even wept for complete strangers this week. I can’t begin to imagine what it would be like to have my entire livelihood uprooted and taken away in a split second. The hardship these miners and their families face is catastrophic.
My mind wanders to Coxton, I envision my granddaddy covered in coal dust sitting on the porch taking off his boots, thanking God for another day. I feel certain he would be proud of those taking a stand, claiming they’ll stay until they get their pay. I can assure you his wife, my Mammaw Marie would have already walked holes in the floor praying over their safety, their children, their health, and for God to move in a mighty way as only she could.
The dark and bloody ground of Harlan County is one that has seen its share of pain; it has been marinated with the sweat and tears of generations of coal miners who like Cossie Mullins gave their very lives for the sake of the company.
The place where I trace my bloodline is unlike any other in the state. Many have spent their lives thinking of how to get away, a brave few remain. It’s been called the bleeding heart of Kentucky, but I disagree. I think those who crawl into the darkest places ensure the rest of us can shine. What a debt we owe, one we can never repay.
Erinn Williams is originally from Williamsburg, and now resides in Owensboro, Ky. The daughter of a teacher and a preacher, she hopes to make a difference through her words. She serves as a teacher's assistant in Daviess County, and writes for two newspapers in Western Kentucky. She can be contacted at email@example.com.