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Digging Our Own Graves
Coal Miners and the Struggle over Black Lung Disease

Employment and production in the Appalachian coal industry have plummeted over recent decades. But the lethal black lung disease, once thought to be near-eliminated, affects miners at rates never before recorded.

Digging Our Own Graves sets this epidemic in the context of the brutal assault, begun in the 1980s and continued since, on the United Mine Workers of America and the collective power of rank-and-file coal miners in the heart of the Appalachian coalfields. This destruction of militancy and working class power reveals the unacknowledged social and political roots of a health crisis that is still barely acknowledged by the state and coal industry.

Barbara Ellen Smith 's essential study, now with an updated introduction and conclusion, charts the struggles of miners and their families from the birth of the Black Lung Movement in 1968 to the present-day importance of demands for environmental justice through proposals like the Green New Deal. Through extensive interviews with participants and her own experiences as an activist, the author provides a vivid portrait of communities struggling for survival against the corporate extraction of labor, mineral wealth, and the very breath of those it sends to dig their own graves.

  • "It is unlikely that coal will be back, as promised. 4 What is clearly back, however, is the virulence of black lung disease. This is an essential book to understand that persistence and damage." The Journal of Working Class Studies

    "This book offers us a long view on the power of organizing around workplace health and safety that can help frontline workers — from teachers to grocery and sanitation workers — strategize now, but also develop long-term strategies for workplace organizing around the impacts of the less-understood, long-term impacts of COVID-19, which are going to force us to bring disability politics more centrally into workplace organizing." Jacobin

    "Barbara Ellen Smith has been conducting research on black lung and coal mining for almost

    half a century. Her scholarship is of the highest order not only in terms of its breadth and depth

    – her reference material runs to more than 50 pages – but also in terms of her explanation and

    understanding of complex issues across a wide variety of disciplines. She is a scholar at the top of

    her game. Digging Our Own Graves was one of those books that I read slowly so I could enjoy and

    marvel at the quality of its scholarship. Its prose is enlivened by the inclusion of 59 photographs

    by Earl Dotter of individuals and events associated with black lung disease and the mining of coal.

    This is a wonderful book, an example of outstanding scholarship." BJIR

    "Digging Our Own Graves is a lesson on a public health disaster.  Smith explores the deep roots of a worker power struggle in Appalachia that continues today." —Celeste Monforton
    (Fellow) Collegium Ramazzini

    “A valuable contribution to this important history.” —Grant Crandall

    “Barbara Smith’s updated edition of her book, Digging Our Own Graves provides a significant addition to the history of the battles against black lung from its beginnings to our current efforts against resurgent severe disease.” —Bob Cohen