Race and the American Dream in Appalachia: The Patriotism and Pain of Gene Saunders, the Only Black Mayor in the History of a Small West Virginia Town

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Viewers’ favorite character in Moundsville is almost always Eugene “Gene” Saunders, a retired coal miner and the first and only African-American mayor in the history of the Ohio river town of 8,000.

Gene is an earnest, engaging and energetic presence on the screen, and his life illuminates contradictions about America, and challenges mass-media narratives about Appalachia, a broad region encompassing 13 states and 25 million people, which tend to focus solely on white hillbillies and often obscure the role of racial minorities, including African-Americans, who have made up around 10% of the region’s population since the 1860s.

Moundsville (which you can rent for $3.99 here) has a lot of threads, and we decided to tackle race and racism through the story of Gene, an interview with Alexis Martinez, a Latino immigrant, and the story of the mound, a monument to Native American peoples overrun by time and other enemies, and, later, white settlers, which speaks to all kinds of tensions in American life.

Gene refuses to let any of the truths about his identity and beliefs drown each other out, asserting the right we all have to contain multitudes. He’s an African-American who still suffers from the painful discrimination he grew up with in the 1950s, and a proud coal miner and American fierce in his old-school patriotism and love for his small West Virginia town and its traditional values. He’s an unabashed booster who declares that Quality Baker on 2nd Street has the “best doughnuts in the country.”

“I love America,” he says. “I think it’s the best country to live in. I love our rights, and our freedoms.”

Gene, a Democrat, says he holds old-school small-town conservative values, nostalgically recalling a time “when the neighborhood raised you.” Young people today “want an easy life. They want everything right now. We made it easy for them. Nothing like when we were kids. These days the parents want to be their friends more than their parents. They’re also telling them they’re always number one. I don’t agree with that. My parents didn’t even know what a vacation was. ”

He’s also skeptical about the benefits of immigration. “I wouldn’t have a problem with immigration if we took care of our own,” he says. “We got blacks and whites here who can’t find jobs. And it’s tough when you have foreigners who’ll work for less pay.”

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Gene was born on Nov. 11, 1948, making him 70 years old. He has three living sons, 10 grandkids and six great-grandkids. He attended segregated schools. “I didn’t understand why I could play with white kids but not go to their schools,” he says. Gene and his family couldn’t go to parts of town off-limits to black people. (In the same 1950s neighborhood he grew up in, he says, lived the last surviving Native Americans, born in the 19th century.)

After the schools desegregated, Gene had to be the first to integrate baseball and basketball teams. Kids wouldn’t let him sit with them on the bus. Later, as a young adult, he struggled to find housing in Moundsville “because of the color of my skin,” he says. “It was really rough.” (Some older residents in Moundsville don’t like hearing these stories, and objected to us including Gene’s telling of them in our movie.)

Gene’s dad went to work in the coal mines when he was eight and labored underground for 51 years, developing black lung disease. He tried to dissuade Gene from following his path, but it was one of the only good jobs available to African-Americans at the time.

Gene had tried living in Pittsburgh and hated it, so he moved back to Moundsville and in 1967 got a job shoveling coal for 15 dollars a day. He lasted 40 years, treasuring the good salary and prestige. He never had lung problems, which he credits to not smoking. (His dad smoked cigars.)

I loved working in the coal mines. In 1972, I became a boss. What was tough was people taking orders from a black guy. My first six-eight years I had some hard times. People would write things about me. When I got transferred to another mine the superintendent said we almost didn’t want you down here this is a red neck coal mine. and I said well as long as these people do what I tell them to do there will be no problem.

Eventually, Gene says, he won people over by his hard work and by saving a white man’s life. What about the awful double standard? “It is what it is,” says Gene. “I chose to focus on my opportunities.”

In 2005, Gene lost part of his right leg when it was crushed by a machine.

I was in a very serious accident where I should have by rights been gone. I should have died that day. My leg was crushed. Luckily, an EMT happened to be there and saved me. I was in the hospital for over a month. They tried to save my leg. The doctor came in and said I would have a gimp leg if they could save it. I had already had nine operations. I ended up telling him to take my leg because I wanted out of the hospital.

After retiring from mining following his injury, Gene got active in city politics, running for council in 2008. “Everybody thought I was nuts,” he says. “Everybody said you’ll never elected. I thought the worst thing that can happen is I don’t get elected.” He won.

Why do voters like him? “All my adult life, I’ve always given,” he says. “I joined the Lions Club, which my dad could never have dreamed of.  I’ve been a baseball umpire in the Ohio Valley for 40 years. I’ve coached football for 40 years. All that must have helped me get elected. There are still people in town who will never vote for me, though.”

In 2012, Gene was elevated to mayor, a position he held for almost five years. The wall of mayor’s portraits in the Moundsville city building is a sea of white faces — and Gene.

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Moundsville, WV city council meeting room. (Gene is second from left in last row.)

Like many people in Appalachia, Gene has children who live elsewhere. “They can’t find the opportunities in Moundsville they can in other places,” he says. Two sons live in Virginia, one a grade school teacher and the second a retired military computer engineer; and the third works in sports management at the University of Maryland.

There are only 30 to 35 African-Americans living in Moundsville, says Gene. “My wife and I might want to live elsewhere, but this is where I grew up, it’s what I’m used to. And I’m thrilled to be alive, and to have had the life I’ve had.”

John W. Miller

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