NPR

Why My Coal Mining Grandfather's Deathbed Advice Applies To Minority Americans

As my grandfather lay dying from Black Lung disease, his eldest children did not question or doubt his advice to them: go out and get educations, and master newer ways of working.
Left to right: George Fermon (standing), Benjamin F. Fermon (seated, author's grandfather; father of children pictured), Jessie Fermon (standing, back row), Benjamin "Bizzy" Fermon (front row, white romper), Harold Fermon, (grey knee-britches suit), Jessie Amy Anderson Fermon (seated, author's grandmother; mother of children), Frances Fermon, (on Jessie Amy's lap) Gladys Fermon (standing) Source: Courtesy of Amy Alexander

My grandfather worked in coal and copper mines for 26 years doing back-breaking, dirty work that allowed him to support a family of nine children, purchase several acres of land, and become a community leader. (For several years leading up to World War II, he was the head of the Republican Committee in Rock Springs, Wyoming.)

Eventually, all those years in the Union Pacific mines affected his health. On his deathbed, my grandfather encouraged his eldest children to forge out into the world beyond the high desert, and make their way in new industries that were springing up across the West.

Coming of age in San Francisco, I heard many stories from my Mom, my aunts, and uncles about what it was like for their father in the mines: stingy slivers of fresh air, clanking trolleys that workers had to fill at a brisk pace with rocky clumps or dusty shovels-full of ore; the camaraderie of miners who'd arrived there from

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