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Labor and the regional economy

Map of Blacksburg Railroad

Drawn map of early Blacksburg (exact date unknown).

Map of VA/TN Railroad

Drawn color map of VA/TN railroad lines (exact date unknown).

Appalachia conjures visions of hard working people earning their living from the land. Traditional mountain industries included agriculture and large-scale coal mining. Tobacco became the king crop in Southwest Virginia in the 1850s. Its diminished after the Civil War, but still continues today. Coal mining also expanded in Montgomery County in the late nineteenth century.

By 1935, there were four operating coal mines with railroad connections near Blacksburg. Most miners were poor whites who lived in company housing. Farmers fared little better—the region’s rough mountain land was better suited for subsistence farming. 

Over the 20th century, Montgomery County shifted from an extractive economy to a knowledge and service economy, and Blacksburg became more like a classic college town. African Americans in New Town faced limited job options. Men often worked in service positions or as manual laborers. Women in New Town worked as domestic servants or laundresses.

The 1920 census shows a pair of sisters in New Town, Alice and Virginia Young, earned wages as domestics at the ages of fourteen and eleven. This work helped three-quarters of New Town families own their homes, the same rate as local white