Black Coal Miners – A tribute to a hidden past

We know that much of our history is hidden, sometimes deliberately because of atrocities  committed that no one wishes to acknowledge and other times simply through circumstances. Not everyone wants to be at the forefront, ready to document their lives or pose for a camera yet as Afro-Caribbeans/Africans  in the UK  research their own past they discover they were present in almost every facet of society throughout the ages at one time or other.

Courtesy Nottingham News Centre

Historian and author Norma Gregory heard it said there were no Black miners in 19th Century Britain and instantly she knew that was not the case as members of her own family had been miners. She set about researching to find and expose a credible truth. In doing so she came across many who had worked in the mines in the 1960’s and discovered a deeper truth that as early as 1808 Black miners were involved in the collieries both underground and on the surface. Another truth she uncovered was the overwhelming sense of camaraderie that existed irrespective of race or ethnicity; the feeling that underground there was no room for divisive attitudes which could easily cost a life or limb and more than one in both cases at that.

Those of us of a certain age remember the miners’ strikes of the 70’s and the subsequent closure of many mines and one former miner explains that although there was a sense of unity in the pit he dared not venture to the front of the picket line knowing he would be targeted by the police and singled out on account of his colour. 

Below are the summaries of a couple of the miners whom we have chosen to highlight in this article:

Andrew Nembhard’s father was a miner. He remembers the diversity and camaraderie of working down the pit. His father had worked as a miner and had a good name and legacy amongst the workers so Andrew was welcomed by his colleagues and  known as ‘young Herbie ’ after his father whose  name was Herbert Nembhard.  Andrew describes a plethora of feelings from intense and exciting to frustrating and explains that it doesn’t matter where you’re from when you’re down in the pit and that everyone relates to each other.  He describes Gedling where he worked as a “multinational” pit and never himself encountered any racism there. He does exclaim that the pit was no place for the weak or frail minded.

Clyde Forde came from a family of miners on his mother’s side and spent 10 years of his life working in the mines. His grandfather and uncles had worked in the mines as did his brother. He also had cousins working in the mines at Deep Duffryn Colliery. Clyde describes conditions in the mine as “a hole in the ground” he says “in some places it was like working underneath a table and in other places you needed a ladder.” He describes that the hardest part for him was in the early days when he started working because his colleagues would not allow him to do anything but watch, for safety reasons.

There are so many more stories and there is an exhibition which includes many narratives, a film, archived and contemporary images and much more  curated by Norma Gregory and funded by The National Heritage Lottery Fund.

Norma Gregory: Historian, Author and Curator of the Exhibition
The Digging Deep Miners of African Caribbean Heritage Exhibition is on at the National Coal Mining Museum for England in Wakefield Yorkshire until 5th January 2020.