Saturday, July 14, 2012

Black Lung Is Back: For My Family It Never Left

NPR highlighted new evidence that the killer of coal miners - Black Lung - is back. For my family, it never left. In the early part of the last century, my maternal grandfather, Rufus Necessary, was a coal miner in Wise County in Southwest Virginia. He had a wife, Lula, and several children; 2 daughters and 2 sons. He came down with black lung prior to 1912. The mining company moved him into the office to do bookkeeping. Sometime in 1912 just before the birth of his youngest child, he died. Lula and the children were taken in by relatives but it was not a permanent solution. The family decided to distribute the older children to various relatives nearby. That left an 18 month old baby girl who bore her father's name, Rufus Necessary.

Ruth nee Rufus at 2 with Mike the dog
What was to become of her? None of the family members wanted to take on a younin' so through the local church network the word went out. Living not too far away in the little town of Appalachia were a childless couple, Rob and Lottie Jett. They adopted the little girl and changed her name to Ruth Jett. Rob worked for a small coal-hauling railroad where he had started out as a telegrapher and worked his way up to finally becoming a superintendent. Little Ruth grew up in somewhat more fortunate circumstances in the little town. Almost unheard of at the time, she eventually went to William and Mary and started a new life as a teacher. She eventually married and had a family, continued teaching and studying, and ended up with masters degrees in English and Counseling and a PhD in English education. She finished her long career as a professor at a local college in Roanoke, Virginia.

But Ruth still bore the scars of the death of her father. She loved her adopted parents and they doted on her. As an adult she was close to one of her brothers and they visited back and forth. Still there was a gnawing feeling of loss and abandonment flying under the surface. Black lung had stripped her of her biological family.

The mining companies and industry groups continued to deny reality and death certificates almost never bore the words "black lung" as cause of death. Today with a resurgence of the disease exacerbated by the addition of silica to the deadly coal dust not much changes. The industry denies, allies in Congress want to investigate the folks who did the latest study, the President doesn't want to push the issue in an election year, and with the general gridlock, there is no hope of action now.

 In 1912, Lula Necessary was faced with a bleak future and devastating choices. She had no government safety net, no access to the courts, and no skills with which to make a living and support her kids. She had to give away her children and hope for the best. Records show she eventually found work as a domestic servant and may have married. Her children all did well and entered the middle class as professionals. Rufus and Lula's grandchildren also became professionals and raised families of their own. None of us bear the scars but we do have the sad family memories and an abiding belief that it should not have to happen to others.

My mother, Ruth/Rufus, and her family were victims exactly 100 years ago. In that time, how many more miners and their families have been destroyed?

Why am I posting this on my strategic leadership blog? Simple,

Black Lung is back because of lack of leadership at every level. The feds, the states, the coal companies, the unions, and industry associations have all been complicitous.

100 years is too long to wait for the elimination of this killer.

Where are the leaders?

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