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MN&WR: Breath is Free

MN&WR: Breath is Free

  • Benny Becker of WMMT and the Ohio Valley ReSource highlights the struggle and immense strength of the Branham family of Pike County, Kentucky whose father at the age of 38 was diagnosed with the most severe form of black lung disease and rendered unable to work.
  • Howard Berkes of NPR in collaboration with Benny Becker and the Ohio Valley ReSource reports on the data revealing an alarming increase of the form of black lung Mackie Branham Jr. is experiencing across all of Central Appalachia.
  • WMMT’s Kelli Haywood shares the progress of The City Built on Coal Project funded in Jenkins, Kentucky by the National Endowment for the Arts – Our Town Program, and the unveiling of a new mural at one entrance to Jenkins.


The Branham Family - Mackie Jr., Amber, and 4 children Photo by Benny Becker
The Branham Family – Mackie Jr., Amber, and 4 children
Photo by Benny Becker

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby,  “A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about…like that ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees.”

Sometimes as we are considering what to do to bring new life to our old coal towns that are fighting to eek out an existence, it can feel like we are “breathing dreams like air”.  In this episode of Mountain News & World Report, we’re exploring the fact that nothing – not even breath – is free. Our dreams will be achieved only through the hardest of work, and as many coal miners across the century have found, even the right to breath freely isn’t always a guarantee.

It seems like a new world, that in all its material and tangible things, seems only a ghost of the one some of us once knew here. Our first piece was produced by Benny Becker, the WMMT and Ohio Valley ReSource reporter in Whitesburg, Kentucky.  Benny and the ReSource have been working with NPR to investigate Black Lung in the central Appalachian coalfields.  New data shows there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of coal miners diagnosed with the worst form of black lung. The story begins in Pike County, Kentucky, where Dr. James Brandon Crum will introduce us to Mackie Branham Jr. and his family pictured above.

Over the past several months, clinics across Appalachia have been telling reporter Howard Berkes and NPR the same thing, again and again: something is terribly wrong.  There are more and more cases of the worst stage of the deadly coal miners’ disease, Black Lung.  A hundred cases were reported across the country in the last five years, and federal researchers confirmed today a recent sharp spike in one clinic in Kentucky.  But, the clinics contacted by NPR report a thousand cases across four states. 

Finally, WMMT’s Kelli Haywood brings us the story of The City Built on Coal Project.  Community members in the city of Jenkins partnered with local artists,  Appalshop, and city government in an effort to creatively keep the dignity of the place they call home despite hard economic times.  They applied and secured the funding of a National Endowment for the Arts – Our Town Program Grant to complete a three part public art project to be enjoyed by locals and tourists alike.  Jess Solomon, a Cultural Agent, describes creative place-keeping like this, “…the active care and maintenance of a place and its social fabric by the people who live and work there. It is not just preserving buildings but keeping the cultural memories associated with a locale alive, while supporting the ability of local people to maintain their way of life as they choose.”  

See the Jenkins Mural Project unveiling at our partner project’s website – Making Connections News.

Mountain News & World Report is a bi-weekly production of WMMT, and new episodes air every other Thursday at 6pm on WMMT, with a repeat broadcast the following Sunday morning at 10:30.  To listen to previous episodes, check out our streaming archives.

appalachian history,
arts & culture,
coal industry,
economic transition,
energy & environment,
mountain healthcare,

3 Responses to “MN&WR: Breath is Free”

  1. Julie Bastien

    I heard this story on NPR this week and my heart broke for Mackie and others like him. My Grandparents were from Whitesville, WV and my Grandpa was a coal miner, but they moved away for better work when my Mom was a teen ager and ended up in FL where I grew up. My Grandma was a Blizzard, related to Bill Blizzard of the Matewan coal miners rebellion and I’ve heard the coal mining stories my entire life. I’ve looked all over but don’t see any way to contribute financially to these coal miners and Mackie in particular to help with his kids’ Christmas. Wondering if you can let me know how to contribute or if I can send a check for him to your station.

  2. I heard the story about Mackie Branham and other familes that are strugglign due to illness from black lung disease and it had a big impact on me. How would I go about getting in touch with his family or a charity in the area to make a donation. I really wanted to help him and his family of 5 children if possilble. Thank you!


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