News | February 18, 2024

National Archives Showcases Historical Coal Mining Communities with Russell Lee Photography Exhibit

US National Archives

Miners bring in their checks and see the sign that there is no Saturday work. P V & K Coal Company, Clover Gap Mine, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky.

Through photographs from a 1946 survey, the National Archives is highlighting the diverse lives of coal miners and their families in Power & Light: Russell Lee's Coal Survey, a new exhibit opening on March 16 which shares more than 200 photographs of renowned documentary photographer Russell Lee, 

Power & Light serves as an example of how records can impact the lives of Americans,” said Archivist of the United States Dr. Colleen Shogan. “These valuable photographs held by the National Archives helped change the narrative around the coal strikes at the time. Today, they provide us a glimpse into the rich history of coal communities across the country.”

Following the 1946 labor strikes that had been held across the United States, photographer Russell Lee gained unprecedented access to remote coal communities. As part of a survey conducted by the federal government, he documented miners in 13 states. Lee recorded detailed captions with his wife Jean, which are presented without edits in this exhibit alongside the images they describe. 

Hightlights include:

  • a handwritten note from President Truman regarding the coal strike
  • an interactive map displaying survey photographs from various states
  • the final survey report from 1947
  • protest notes on coal bags sent by citizens to President Truman
  • details of the company-dependent home lives and conditions of workers

Lee’s photographs served as visual evidence of the miners’ plight and helped build support for the workers whose strikes had alienated many Americans. 

The exhibit is free and open to the public at the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, through July 6. The survey's digitized images can be found in the National Archives’ online Catalog and photographs from the exhibit on Flickr.