“I am ready to act, if I can find brave men to help me.” —Carter Woodson
As schools, communities and politicians across the country celebrate Black History Month in February, they will be remiss if their lessons don’t include the coal fields of Fayette County, West Virginia. There, in the 1890s, a teenage African American followed his brothers into the coal mines, serving what Carter Woodson called his “six-year apprenticeship.” In the evenings, the young Woodson would gather with other black coal miners, read the newspaper and listen to their extraordinary stories of life underground, and their struggles during the Civil War and Reconstruction era.
The daily history lessons among African Americans in Appalachia were not lost on Woodson. He later wrote that his “interest in penetrating the past of my people was deepened and intensified” during these sessions among coal miners in Fayette County. Woodson managed to return to high school in Huntington, West Virginia—the access to education for African Americans being one of the reasons his family had chosen to come to Appalachia—and earned his diploma in two years. He moved on to earn a degree at Berea College, which had been founded in the hills of eastern Kentucky by abolitionists in 1855, the University of Chicago and then a Ph.D. in history at Harvard University.
Woodson went on, of course, to become the “Father of Black History,” and one of our country’s most celebrated historians. Few people realized, however, that West Virginia once again played prominently in Woodson’s career in 1920, when the young black professor lost his job at Howard University and became a dean at the West Virginia Collegiate Institute. There in West Virginia, Woodson finally received a substantial grant from the Carnegie Foundation that allowed him to return to Washington, D.C. and set his Association for the Study of Negro Life and History on a course for world acclaim.
Woodson’s and Black History Month’s largely overlooked origins in West Virginia are not the only casualty in our selective memory on American history.
A century after Woodson’s tenure in the coal mines in West Virginia, another “first” took place in Fayette County. In 1970, the first mountaintop removal operation was launched on Cannelton Hollow in an area once called Bullpush Mountain. Thirty-eight years later, mountaintop removal practices—the process of literally blowing up mountains, and dumping the waste into waterways and valleys, in order to cheaply remove coal—have destroyed more than 450 mountains and neighboring communities, displaced miners and stripmined the cultural landscape in the Appalachian region.
This catastrophic form of coal mining has robbed Appalachia of too much of its history in the process. If anything, it should remind the nation that the neglect and degradation of a region and its history have always mirrored the neglect and abuse of the land.
In a speech at Hampton Institute in Virginia, Woodson once reminded the audience: “We have a wonderful history behind us … If you are unable to demonstrate to the world that you have this record, the world will say to you, ‘You are not worthy to enjoy the blessings of democracy or anything else.’ They will say to you, ‘Who are you anyway?’”
Appalachians understand this bitter historical reality more than any other citizens in the U.S. Black Appalachians, especially.
Last year, for example, I was supposed to speak at a school in Chicago in February. But the organizer called me at the last moment and asked to reschedule until April, since a book I had written about “those people down there” didn’t relate to Black History Month. But Black History Month was launched by an Appalachian coal miner, I told my host. Booker T. Washington, the most celebrated black spokesman from last century, also emerged out of the coal mining communities in Appalachia; Martin Delany, the first black nationalist in the 19th century, who helped to launch Frederick Douglass’ first newspaper, came out of West Virginia. So did Henry Louis Gates, the prominent African American literary critic at Harvard University.
I went on. Do you know that Bessie Smith, the “Empress of the Blues,” took her songs from the streets of Blue Goose Hollow in Chattanooga, just as W.C. Handy, the “Father of the Blues,” composed his masterpieces from the sounds of his native hills of northern Alabama. That Nina Simone, the “High Priestess of Soul,” always performed folk ballads from her native western North Carolina mountains. That, in fact, black guitar and banjo players were the stylists for much of the early country music, gospel and folk songs.
Did you know that four months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus in 1955, she took a seat at the Highlander Folk School in the backwoods of Tennessee, where she attended strategy session on social action led by so-called “radical hillbillies.” That the first desegregated school to graduate a black student in the South was in the mountains of Tennessee?
And did you know that the United Mine Workers have always been an integrated union? Coal miners and coal mining communities in Appalachia and around the country should be celebrated during Black History Month, not dismissed or forgotten.
The struggle of humanity against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting, author Milan Kundera wrote about his native Czech Republic. He added in an interview with American novelist Philip Roth, “Forgetting is a form of death ever present within life.”
There is a lot of “forgetting” and death taking place in our nation’s memory about Appalachia’s destruction today.
Carter Woodson, who was mocked when he first arrived in Washington, D.C. for his “hayseed clothes,” never forgot the importance of his origins.
Hopefully, some brave men and women will act to preserve Woodson’s and Appalachia’s great heritage before it is stripmined into oblivion.
Visit EcoWatch’s MOUNTAINTOP REMOVAL page for more related news on this topic.
This article is reprinted from the Zinn Education Project website.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>