You may have seen the above photo floating around social media lately, one particular post of this picture has even garnered 104,558 shares and probably more than a million views.
Unfortunately, what most people know (or think they know) about this photo is simply not true… Believe it or not, but you simply can’t believe everything you read or see on those crazy o’le Internets these days.
According to the Facebook post, “These are coal miners coming up from the mines in Mingo County, WV in the early 1900s” and since I enjoy a century’s worth of Mingo County mining heritage, I was thrilled to find such an incredibly historic photo — one that offered a glimpse into the hellish world of my ancestors.
And from the looks of the comments to this photo on Facebook, I wasn’t alone. Hundreds of people had written, “I wonder if any of these men are my grandfather,” or something akin.
Being the son, grandson and great-grandson of West Virginia coal miners I certainly was raised to appreciate the deplorable conditions the Mountain State’s early miners were forced to endure, both below the ground in working conditions not fit for beasts, as well as above the ground in thieving company stores and rundown miner houses.
With this being said, I was also raised with a firm enough grip on our history to recognize that our grandmothers didn’t dress like this at the turn of the last century… and despite my desire for it to be true, something just didn’t feel right about this photo being from “down home”.
Of the thousands of comments, it seems that at least a handful of other people were of the same mindset.
“Don’t think this is Mingo Co. I’d doubt any shaft mines in Mingo that early. Looks European to me,” wrote Charles Howard.
Turns out, Mr. Howard’s hunch seems to have been spot on.
According to numerous sources, the photo is actually of Italian miners who were working in Belgium around the year 1900.
Apparently, coal mining at the turn of the century was a hellish profession on both sides of the pond and Italian-immigrant miners were viewed as expendable labor sources in Belgium, just as they were in Appalachia.
An Italian history blog (written in Italian) offers a glimpse into the desperate lives of these Italian immigrants crammed into a cage somewhere deep in the heart of a Belgium coal mines.
Apparently, they were viewed as second-class citizens and were treated accordingly, being crowded into tiny cages; viewed almost as sub-human.
In addition to the Italian history blog, all other posts and articles (post 1, post 2, post 3) all seem to be in agreement that the image is of Italian miners working in Belgium — even still, there seems to be disagreement even among Italian historians as to exactly when this photo was taken or of the events surrounding it.
At the end of the day, however, the photo serves as a perfect witness regarding the plight of the planet’s underground coal miners… regardless of their origins, these are men worthy of double honor for the job they did and do.
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