West Virginia – StoryCorps
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Trista James, Tanya James and Michelle Paugh

Tanya James was 17 years old when her father died in 1978. His death left her and her mother, Beryle Hanlin, struggling financially. So they did what so many generations of West Virginians before them had done—they went to work in the coal mines.

At the time, almost 99 percent of miners were men, and some still believed in the old superstition that a woman setting foot in a coal mine brought bad luck. Many also assumed that the few women who took the job only did so to find a husband. Harassment, both verbal and physical, was not uncommon, and a 1979 survey found that more than three-quarters of female coal miners had been sexually propositioned at work, and that 17 percent had been physically attacked.

Both Tanya and Beryle regularly faced hostility from their male colleagues. Early in her career, Tanya was sent to a remote part of the mine with a male colleague who kept trying to touch her. Unable to convince him to stop by simply telling him “No,” Tanya put an end to his behavior by kneeing him in the groin.

But none of this discouraged Tanya and she never considered quitting. Her career underground lasted more than 20 years and she recently became the first woman in her union’s 124-year history elected to international office. She came to StoryCorps with her daughters, Trista James (above left) and Michelle Paugh (above right), to tell them what it was like for her early in her mining career.

Originally aired March 18, 2016, on NPR’s Morning Edition.

Gene Kendzior and Jennifer Kendzior

Gene Kendzior tells his daughter, Jennifer, about his father, who died working in a coal mine in 1967.

Originally broadcast on NPR’s Morning Edition on April 9, 2010.

Paul Corbit Brown and John Brown

Paul Corbit Brown (left) was driving to work in 1993 when he came across a local radio station on which he heard the host saying terrible things about homosexuals. Bothered, he pulled off the road, found a payphone, and called the station. He ended up spending hours with the host on the air. Paul tells his brother John (right) about how this was the moment he found his voice.

Originally aired November 14, 2008, on NPR’s Morning Edition.

Lori FitzGerald and Lendall Hill

Lendall Hill tells his daughter Lori FitzGerald the story of how his father ended up with an artificial leg, and about an incident that occurred when his father’s co-worker, who did not know about the artificial leg, once saw him twist it back into alignment.

Originally aired January 5, 2007, on NPR’s Morning Edition.

They Shall Take Up Serpents

“They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt them.”
Mark 16:17-18

For the past eighty years, believers living in the Appalachian hills of the southeastern US have incorporated handling serpents and drinking strychnine (a “salvation cocktail”) into their religious beliefs and practice. While serpent handling has been outlawed in all but two southern states, there remain several thousand practicing snake handlers today, most of whom live in poor coal mining communities. In accordance with their faith, handlers refuse medical treatment when bitten. Nevertheless, there have been fewer than 100 confirmed deaths in the history of snake handling.

In They Shall Take Up Serpents, we hear the voices of believers and nonbelievers alike, widows who have lost their husbands to snakebites and wives who fear the same fate. The documentary is an intimate portrait of unwavering faith and religious ecstasy virtually unknown in mainstream American traditions.

Recorded in West Virginia, Alabama, and Georgia. Premiered November 30, 1992, on All Things Considered.

This documentary comes from Sound Portraits Productions, a mission-driven independent production company that was created by Dave Isay in 1994. Sound Portraits was the predecessor to StoryCorps and was dedicated to telling stories that brought neglected American voices to a national audience.