January 28, 2005

Exhibit honors African-American coal miners

by Bonnie Marx

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Grit and determination helped tens of thousands of African-Americans overcome discrimination in decades past to find work in Southern Illinois' once-teeming coalfields.

You'll see the resolve in their faces in a photographic exhibit created by a Southern Illinois University Carbondale graduate and an SIUC professor. The exhibition is now open at the Schmidt Art Center at Southwest Illinois College's Belleville campus.

A special showing with speakers is set for 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 3. Speakers include Joe Angleton, a retired coal miner and longtime president of District 12 (covering Illinois and much of the Midwest) of the United Mine Workers of America and the incoming director of the Illinois Department of Mines and Minerals, and the Rev. Ownly Williams, a retired coal miner and one of the first — if not the first — African American presidents of his UMWA local in Southern Illinois. Williams now is pastor of the Harvest Deliverance Baptist Church in Harrisburg,

"Working in the Seams: An Initial Photographic View into the African-American Coal Culture in Southern Illinois," pays homage to the region's oft-overlooked laborers of color and their descendants.

Images in the exhibition are the work of Daniel V. Overturf, associate professor of cinema and photography, and Lee Buchsbaum (BUCKS-bomb), who earned his master's degree in cinema and photography at SIUC and now lives in Boulder, Colo.

The exhibition opened in Carbondale at the African American Museum of Southern Illinois. Since then it has been shown at the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., West Virginia University at Morgantown, the Sparta Public Library, Southeastern Illinois College at Harrisburg, the Rend Lake Conference Center, Vyska-Skola Banska Technical University at Ostrava, Czech Republic, and the National Coal Mining Museum of the Czech Republic at Ostrava.

"Through these portraits, viewers will be able to see the faces and glimpse into the lives of dozens of African-Americans across Southern Illinois who either worked in the coal industry, or whose brothers, husbands, fathers or uncles did. Their faces provide a graphic link across what has been a largely uncharted history," said Buchsbaum, the project's principle photographer.

Funding for the ongoing documentary project comes from the Illinois Humanities Council and the SIUC Coal Research Center.

Schmidt Art Center's normal hours of operation are 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursdays. Admission is free.

Projects like this demonstrate how the University provides leadership in creative, scholarly and research activities, one of the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.

(CAPTION, Photo #1: Breaking ground — The Rev. Ownly Williams, a retired coal miner and one of the first — if not the first — African American presidents of his UMWA local in Southern Illinois, will be one of the speakers at a special showing of an exhibit that traces the roots of African Americans in Southern Illinois coal fields in Belleville. Ownly is shown in the sanctuary of the Harvest Deliverance Baptist Church in Harrisburg, where he is pastor.

(Photo by Daniel V. Overturf)