By C.V. Moore
When Karen Vuranch’s Coal Culture class met for the first time on Monday, she asked her Concord University students whether they had any historic connection with coal mines. Twenty-three of 25 hands shot up.
But when she asked how many currently have a mining connection, only two raised their hands.
“Whether or not we are still involved with coal, it is still the history of this community and it defines us as a people. And so exploring it helps us to understand who we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going,” said Vuranch, a storyteller, actress and writer who has taught Theater and Appalachian Studies at Concord for 18 years. She has spent her life researching coal history.
Next Monday evening, she kicks off a series of lectures and performances about southern West Virginia’s coal culture at the Erma Byrd Center, 300 University Drive, BeaverErma Byrd Higher Education Center in Beaver.
The Coal Heritage Public Lecture Series, now in its fourth year, presents four angles on coal heritage on the first Monday of every month through May. Labor history, natural gas, mountain music and balancing industry and environment will be explored through academic talks and performances.
The series began as a private class for Concord students, but the interest was so great Vuranch believed the public might be interested, too. The lectures will be attended by students and are open to community members.
“You have this university right in your backyards, and there are wonderful, exciting things going on. So let’s bring the community in so they can be a part of it, too,” she said.
Vuranch says the community, including the Raleigh County Historical Society, has been very supportive in years past. The lectures, which average 50 people, have spawned some dynamic discussions.
“These lectures and performances (...) give us a chance to work together as a community as well as give people a new opportunity to learn and talk and share,” said Vuranch.
An especially “magical” night unfolded last year when key players from the late-1960’s black lung movement attended the lectures. These included Dr. Donald Rasmussen, a Beckley pulmonary specialist who helps miners with breathing trouble, and Craig Robinson, a community organizer who helped galvanize the miners’ health movement in southern West Virginia.
“They just so happened to show up with Ken Hechler. It was such a dynamic conversation,” said Vuranch. Hechler helped write federal black lung legislation, an effort that began at the grassroots level in West Virginia.
To kick off the series, Vuranch will do a first-person performance as Mother Jones, a labor organizer who Vuranch has been portraying for years.
This year, discussions of the environment and natural gas will be incorporated into the lectures. Vuranch admits that these are hot button issues for many West Virginians, but she’s no stranger to moderating such conversations.
“I have all those complications and controversies in the classroom. I have to be really careful and I try not to be too political myself and keep it as neutral as I can. But it’s hard because people do get fairly passionate,” she said.
“How do we balance industry and the environment? That’s very controversial stuff in West Virginia. These are issues we face all the time.”
The lecture details are as follows:
— Feb. 4, “Mother Jones: Miner’s Angel” - Vuranch performs as renowned labor organizer Mother Jones
— March 4, “Balancing Industry and the Environment” — with Mike King from the Morris Creek Watershed
— April 1, “Coal and Natural Gas: The geology and extraction of a vital resource” — with Dr. Dave Matchen of Concord University
— May 6, “Mountain Music, Mountain Struggle” — with singer Elaine Purkey
Lectures begin at 7 p.m. in the small auditorium right off the central atrium. For more information, contact kvuranch@ concord.edu or Concord University at 304-256-0270.
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