BECKLEY, W.V. (LOOTPRESS) – On Sunday, May 9, 2021, Mother’s Day, the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine will dedicate and unveil the museum’s first exhibit to honor a female coal miner.
Zora “Big Mama” Stroud- a daughter, wife, mother and coal miner- was the first African American woman to retire, at the age of 62, from the Maple Meadows coal mines in Glen Daniels, West Virginia. She worked in the mine from 1977 until it closed in 1998.
Raised in a family of coal miners, Stroud, who worked in nursing homes making minimum wage, watched as the men of her community would go to work in the mines to support their families.
In 1977, Stroud and ten other women decided to make a better living themselves and headed underground. Stroud was the only woman to stay underground for more than 20 years, working her way up the ranks and becoming responsible for some of the cleanest belts in the Maple Meadows mine.
When Stroud’s daughter, Diane Williams, came from out of state and brought two of her granddaughters to the Exhibition Coal Mine, she was shocked to see that no women miners were represented. Williams saw her grandfather on the museum wall and thought of her two brothers- one who was a coal miner before passing away and the other who is still a West Virginia Coal miner- before deciding that her mother should be on the wall too.
To recognize her years of service, Stroud was given a citation from the West Virginia House of Delegates in 2000 but had received no other recognition throughout the years.
In 2019, Williams contacted Director of Operations for the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine and Youth Museum Leslie Baker, asking if she could come back to West Virginia with a presentation that detailed why her mother should be recognized.
“Diane pointed out that there was very little, well nothing actually, about women coal miners interpreted into the mine museum,” Baker said. “I thought that it was great, and I thank Diane for nudging me and telling me about this.”
Baker said that, while she had no control over what was included in the museum at its creation, she was embarrassed for someone having to come in and say that the museum needed female representation.
“In the coal houses, we talk about the importance of women and of how they held down the fort above ground while the men worked underground. They had to do everything above ground,” Baker said. “They played a large hand in raising the children, caning, cleaning, but it was an “aha” moment for me when Diane told me.”
The museum decided to memorialize Stroud’s legacy in a narrative exhibit, which, through words, details her life in the mines. Williams supplied the history and pictures, both of which were sent to a local graphic artist who made the exhibit.
According to Baker, the exhibit was ready to be unveiled last year but the dedication had to be postponed due to COVID-19.
Williams stated that they considered many different dates on which to schedule the dedication but ultimately decided on the perfect one, Mother’s Day.
“I am just so thrilled that this came to fruition,” Williams shared. “It has been a dream and something that now feels so close to touching that I could just go on and on about it. To have her legacy represented in the museum will mean the world to her, to women, to our family and hopefully to West Virginia coal miners.
“To see all that work that she did and the challenges that she overcame as a woman and as a Black woman underground with those men that grew to love her. Quite frankly, she loved them. They were her family. I am just so thankful that we have the opportunity to put her history on a wall for future generations of women and young men to see.”
Aside from leaving a lasting legacy in the mines, William says her mother’s legacy established a work ethic in all of her children.
“When we think of her, we are stronger for it. She made such a difference in my life. She is the epitome of life and strength.”
Williams will be joined by various members of her family on May 9 to see her mother’s exhibit take its place in the museum.