The typical cave discovery tells us how people lived thousands of years ago. Likewise a family’s personal history tells the story of the family but it also indirectly records society and how it affected them as individuals, as a family, and as a community. Many families take great care to safeguard their family stories and pass them down to future generations through recorded documents and oral history. This ensures that all future generations are aware of the struggles and hardships endured by their ancestors that shaped the early generations. Family history was most often recorded by those who had inherited their wealth or social status and others, who had inherited nothing, would often suppress their family history as a matter of shame. The Webb family boasts no family historian, genealogist, or biographer. Those that are aware of the facts have long passed and the few that remain can only reveal bits and pieces of fading memories. This paper is an attempt to piece together the memories, stories, and historical data of the time to tell the story of my family.
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Life in a company town
With the construction of railroad lines in the first decades of the new century coal mining operations and coal towns began springing up almost overnight. To accommodate the influx of workers mine owners had to offer housing and other luxuries to the families migrating to the newly established communities (Buckley, 2004). The majority of Southwest Virginia’s mountain residents lived settled sparsely in hollows (“hollers”) between the hills, along creek beds, and on hillsides so many companies had to entice workers from outside the region to move their families into areas that appeared unlivable. This was easier for companies mining in the Appalachian fields since the area accounted for over 90% of the total amount of coal mined in the United States during the 1920’s (Buckley, 2004). The early success of extracting ‘black diamonds’ would be short lived as the onset of such tragic events as World War I and the Great Depression subdued king coal.
The early days of coal town living was never discussed amongst my family. My grandfather was born just one year after the fighting in World War I ceased and he lived to survive many other tragic events in American history but never recounted any tales outside living in a coal camp with his family. It is unclear where he was originally from as he never talked about his days growing up or his parents except to tell his father’s name in brief stories of glory days gone by. An interview with his youngest daughter did not shed any light on his mysterious past. She recalls growing up in the same small town in Southwest Virginia but she struggled to recount her experiences growing up in a mining community. My mother was not able to provide much more detail and only confirmed the information I had already attained. Historical fact paints a good picture of their experience and may help explain why family history was not more of a priority. It is unclear whether the family purposefully chose to conceal this time in history or not. The premise may have been to protect future generations from the dark days of struggle the family endured. Only those who have left this life know that answer and those of us who remain must speculate.
The coal mining towns were typical of industrial towns in other parts of North America and Western Europe. The houses were usually identical, functional and of simple design. The mining towns were representative of frontier communities. Initially there were few amenities but as the towns grew conditions improved. Schools were opened in the mining towns soon after families arrived in the district. Hotels, a post office, retail businesses, banks, newspapers and churches and sometimes and opera house or theatre were features of all the major communities. Lodges were important in many communities and the members performed a variety of social and cultural functions in the towns (Buckley, 2004). The company store was not just the local grocery store. It was often the center of life in a coal mining town. Every town had one, and everyone shopped there. The company store was usually located near the railroad tracks in the town. Everything that a family might want or need could be bought in the store, from food to clothing, from hardware supplies and the miners’ tools to furniture and appliances. My grandfather often compared the company store to our modern day mall and would describe his days of shopping after having received just over two dollars for a whole days work.
I never remember hearing my family tell stories about hardship or struggle. In fact, I do not recall ever hearing my grandparents or parents talk about tragedy and triumph, good conquering evil, or good vs. bad. It is as though my entire ancestry had taken a vow of silence. There were no discussions around the dinner table, no meaningful conversations about future goals, and no retelling of early family experiences. Even my earliest memories capture only a glimpse of the events that shaped our family’s values. Since the days of my great-grandfather all that seems to have been known was working and living in a coal town. This was considered such laborious work but it seemed to appeal to my ancestors. The code of silence not only encompassed family values but permeated every aspect of family life and living. There were never discussions about diversity of religion, gender, race, or nationality. Even the major events of the time did appear to strike the heart of our family. It is as though they had shut off the world around them and relished in one another’s presence.
My father was a stern man. He did not speak much but he had an aura about him that did not require him to. Working around the home was expected and long hours were customary. Dinner had to be prepared and ready to serve as he arrived home from work and the menu always consisted of the family staple: pinto beans and corn bread. Although never spoken we understood that we did not question our father. His rule was not a democracy and at times he ruled with an iron fist. As boys we were expected to do the ‘manly’ work around the home and our sister was expected to take care of the house and learn to cook. I believe education intimidated my father. He dropped out of school at 13 years of age and never returned. He struggled to read and write and may have compensated by entrenching himself in his trade. There was only one high school graduate in three generations of males in our family. Young men were expected to drop out of school, if necessary, and go to work in a coal mines. In the last 100 years there have only been two college graduates in our family and those experiences were not celebrated. Education was never criticized openly but neither was it lauded in the eyes and ears of the children.
I never remember relationships being very important in our family. Affection was not shown openly and never discussed in the presence of children. Those who were married seemed to love one another but did not use words to express their fondness. It was simply understood that their devotion coexisted. This lack of communication carried over in all the relationships within the family. Sitting down to have a meaningful conversation was not something anyone considered doing. Somehow, as children, each of us knew that significant communication was not valued by our parents or grandparents. Parents simply had a way of looking at a child that communicated it was time to stop and toe the line or suffer the consequences. The consequences were most often administered by the males in the family and each of them had a difficult time maintaining control and would often discipline in ways that would be considered child abuse today. For example, I can remember my grandfather laughing while he was telling the story of throwing large rocks at his boys after they had gotten into trouble. He was laughing as he remembered hitting them with the rocks.
Spillover from company town experience
My grandfather survived the Great Depression but I do not believe he was unscathed. He was a teenager at the time and forced to give up his childhood and enter the workforce at a very early age. He would tell stories of being 13 and working in coal using picks and donkeys pulling small cars in water up to his chest just to make enough money to help feed his family for the day. For as long as I can remember my grandfather was an alcoholic. He drank from the time he woke up in the morning until he fell asleep at night. I believe he wanted to avoid the scars from so many years of hard living. Unfortunately, each generation that followed mirrored his reluctance to talk about the issues that made life difficult. He had become complacent living in a coal town and his children had become content because it was the only life they knew. In a sense he served the family as he had been served by the company. Each of his children lived in homes that were similar and each of his boys worked long hours in the coal mines starting around the age of 13. The girls stayed at home to help keep the house, tend the garden, and prepare meals for their brothers.
I never remember our family talking about religion but it must have been important to our community because there are six churches in an area that is only 0.2 square miles (Bureu, 2000). Each hollow has its own small church with many of them still functioning today despite having a population of just over a thousand residents. Religion was a taboo subject although no one in the family ever forbade it. There was a sense that no subject was worthy of discussing openly as a family. This would fall in line with the ideology of our earliest remembered ancestor Andrew Webb. Church and the idea of God were not promoted nor denied amongst our family. The attitude resembled the same attitude of the character John Walton from the television series The Waltons. The men in our family were very good-natured and wise, but also fearless, ready to stand up to a challenge and tell it like it is. This personality sometimes causes him to get very brash, even towards his children and wife on occasion, and he can also get into the mindset of a workaholic when heavily stressed. They were somewhat non-religious although there were brief moments when God was acknowledged as Creator.
The code of silence established by my ancestors runs deep in our family. The current generation does not communicate any differently than those before us. Most often the family can be found together in the midst of tragedy and then the visits are short lived. Family reunions have never been a priority. Although most of the family lives in the county communication is almost nonexistent. Even while gathering information for this paper I found it difficult to talk to relatives about our family history. We had never discussed such things and the idea of having to ask for information about our ancestral past was daunting. There are times I am very aware that my attitude and communication style, or lack thereof, closely mimics that of my ancestors. It is a daily struggle to do things differently and one that sees moments of victory and defeat.
I work each day to better communicate with my children. It seemed much easier when they were younger children. As they get older it becomes more of a task for me to communicate because I do not have any experiences to compare it to. My father never talked to me and never allowed his children to see him cry. My children have seen their father show a range of emotions. This has not always been an easy task and one that takes thought on my part. I am careful to explain to them that emotions are a natural and healthy way to promote self care and are every part of being a man. I also explain that there are times when emotions are not appropriate and should be subdued until a more appropriate time to show them. This is something I can never remember my grandfather or father ever discussing. Their lack of doing has made raising children more difficult and stressful. The major difference in our home as compared to what I am aware of in my parents’ home and grandparents’ home is a willingness by my wife and I to talk to our children when they have questions. When they are not asking questions we are. This keeps the lines of communication open and hopefully will instill in them a greater sense of family and increase their world view.
Becoming a sensitive multicultural counselor
At the age of 18 I enlisted in the United States Army. There was a passion in my heart to move beyond what I knew growing up. I knew there was more to the world around me than coal. My only experience with other cultures came from brief encounters in school and television. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to enlist and move outside the box that had been built by my great grandfather and propagated by those who would follow in his footsteps. A whole new world was opening up before me and my life has been enriched by the adventure. As I look back I am dumbfounded. My parents had never spoken of other cultures or about how we should interact with people of a different race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. I often hear people use the term culture shock when being thrust into a different culture for the first time. This is something I did not experience after enlisting. I had never been around people of color, Mexicans, Latinos, or Puerto Ricans but I did not experience uneasiness in my new environment.
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There was something deep inside of me that made this new experience right. I cannot explain where it came from or who had instilled this inner strength in me but I believe it was this inner strength that made this major life transition successful. This is a strength I take with me into the counseling field. Through counseling I am able to once again experience a journey into a variety of different cultures. I believe I am also able to listen to others as they tell their story. I spent a lifetime listening but believe that through my experiences in the military my listening skills have been honed so that I can truly hear what people are saying. My experiences strengthen my belief that I am not judgmental towards those I counsel. I avoid reading client histories before a meeting because I do not want to make rash judgments about who the individual is. I have found that the individual is nothing I expected and only vaguely resembles what I read in documentation after our initial meeting. I do believe that another strength I bring to the counseling field is my willingness to learn from others. I do not see myself as being master of anything but a student of all things. One skill I took from my ancestors that increases my success in the counseling field is my work ethic.
My work ethic may very well be the greatest tool passed down by my family but it also lends itself to great struggles and stress. I sometimes allow myself to be taken advantage of by others in order to complete a task. My basic belief is that we should prefer our brother in matters of life and success. This is not necessarily our biological brother but more a reference to the people around us. There are times when I am silent and should not be. The silence creates a wall between the client as well as co-workers. Accompanying the silence is an inner critical voice that is often harsh and unrelenting. This causes me to question interventions I use with clients and to doubt the skills I have gained through experience and education. I am also not readily accepting of my own heritage. I feel like I fight daily to prove to myself and the world that I am not following in the footsteps of those before me because I do not like where they have been. This could create a problem when working with families that have children rebelling against family norms. I might see myself being more sympathetic to a young person trying to come out from under a bleak ancestral tree. I might also be more tempted to be satisfied with surface problems and avoid digging deeper with clients and their families to get to the underlying issues. This would be placing a Band-Aid on their mental health problems and not facilitating solutions.
Having brothers that followed in the footsteps of our ancestors made choosing a different path more difficult. To my knowledge I am the only male in our family to ever graduate from high school. Everyone else dropped out to work in the coal industry by the time they entered their freshman year and most before leaving elementary. This would make me the first male to enroll in college and the first member of our family, male or female, to graduate with a Master’s Degree and the only member of our family working in a profession that requires licensure. Breaking away from the generational pattern has not been an easy task. I chose to stay in the same community that I grew up in and our family name is not prominent or known for contributions to better the community. An advantage is that I am very familiar with the culture of our area but I have also been privileged to experience a variety of different cultures and learn from them. I owe this success to my decision to enlist in the military just after finishing high school. This did not allow me time to settle for what was acceptable in the community and it challenged me to move outside my comfort zone. The reward has been an expanded world view.
I have experienced other cultures that many in my community will only know from books and movies. As I write this paper I am reminded of the character Peter Petrelli from the television series Heroes. He is a dreamer that always believed he was meant for something more than the existence he knew. I too have believed that I was destined for something more than coal towns and mining. Innately, whether we voice it or not, as human beings we have a desire to make our lives matter, to count for something. And yet, while the desire is there, it can be very challenging to determine how to make a difference and feel content with our offering to humanity. Recruiting providers to the area is difficult and time consuming. Those who do decide to work in the area often choose to leave after only a short stay or they simply do not understand the culture. I am able to incorporate my experiences in other cultures with a complete understanding of the indigenous culture. With an increased knowledge base I am able to work at passing on to my children an increased understanding of other cultures while respecting the culture of their ancestors. This ensures a lasting legacy for future generations of our family that choose to live in this community.
At the age of 40 I am much like my father. I am a stern man and would prefer to be a man of few words. My wife of 17 years, my opposite, compliments me very well and is the main reason I do not rule my house with an iron fist like my father. We fit together like gears in a wheel. She does however prefer the more traditional roles for women and would much rather stay home to cook, clean, and take care of our two children than work. Next to my wife my two sons have had the greatest impact on my life. Seeing them born really reinforced my belief that we have to be responsible, hard working caretakers of a very precious treasure. I wanted them to see that education was important so I returned to college when I was well into my 30’s. My wife and I want them to know that family is important so we do a lot of things together as a family. We talk to one another and to each of them daily because we want them to value communication within the family. Mather, Black, and Sanders (2007) wanted to dispel the mistaken belief that people from the Appalachian region had boxed themselves off from mainstream American culture. They point to stereotypes and fictional Appalachian tales “invented by local color writers” (Black, et.al.) as the source of confusion about the people living in the area. We work each day to ensure our children understand their culture but we also encourage them to be open to different cultural experiences so their lives will be richly rewarding.
Black, D., Mather, M., & Sanders, S. (2007). Standards of Living in Appalachia, 1960 to 2000. Washington: Populaton Reference Bureu.
Buckley, G. (2004). History of Coal Mining in Appalachia. Encyclopedia of Energy , 1, 1-12.
Bureu, U. C. (2000). U.S. Census Bureu American FactFinder. Retrieved July 30, 2009, from American FactFinder: factfinder.census.gov
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