Barbara Ellen Smith

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Barbara Ellen Smith
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CitizenshipUnited States of America
  • Author
  • Activist
  • Educator

Barbara Ellen Smith (born December 3, 1951) is an American author, activist, and educator. Smith is known for her involvement and writing about social justice in Appalachia, particularly the Black lung movement and advocacy for coal miners.[1] Her most recent book, an updated edition to her 1987 published dissertation, focuses on the decline of the coal industry in Appalachia, the economic and health crises coal miners face, and what the future looks like in terms of environmental justice.[2] After relocating to West Virginia, she worked closely with the Black Lung Association (BLA), and she was volunteering at the time of the Buffalo Creek Disaster in 1972.[3] Prior to her teaching career, Smith served as Director of Research and Education at the Southeast Women's Employment Coalition (SWEC) in Lexington, Kentucky, and as a Board member for the Highlander Research and Education Center.[3] It was at this period that she became interested in women's and gender issues, of which she has a long list of written contributions.

A scholar of Women's and Gender Studies and Appalachian Studies for more than 40 years,[4] Smith was Director of the Women's Studies Program and the Director of the Center for Research on Women at the University of Memphis.[3] She started teaching at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 2005 and eventually became Director of the Women's and Gender Studies Program, which has since transitioned into the Department of Sociology.[5]

Smith's honors include the ASPECT Outstanding Faculty Award, the Department of Sociology Outstanding Graduate Faculty Award, and the Department of Sociology Undergraduate Teaching Excellence Award.[5] She was also given the prestigious title of Professor Emerita of Women's and Gender Studies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute.[5] She currently lives in Charleston, West Virginia.

Early life and work

Smith was born on December 3rd, 1951 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She was raised in Indianapolis, Indiana where her parents worked.[3] Her youth was during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, and she attended schools where most of her classmates were African American, making her conscious of the issues of race at a young age.[3] In fact, she attributes her later interest in racial justice to the ripple effects of the Civil Rights Movement in her local community.[3] After graduating from high school in 1969, Smith attended Antioch College where she received a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science.[3] While still at Antioch, her dissertation titled "Digging Our Own Graves: Coal Miners and the Struggle over Black Lung Disease"[6] inspired her to travel to West Virginia to further research the Black Lung Movement.[3] Once her degree was complete, Smith put her formal education on hiatus and took up teaching at an elementary school in Anawalt, West Virginia in conjunction with her volunteer work with the BLA.[3] Here time in West Virginia also gave her the opportunity to connect to her roots because her parents were from Appalachia.[7] Then, she made the decision to go back to school, and she acquired both her Master's Degree and Ph.D from Brandeis University. [5] During this period, Smith became a single mother to two children, and she cites her experience with balancing motherhood and her career as "a wake-up call in terms of feminism."[3]

In 1981, Smith was granted a National Science Foundation Public Service Fellowship that she used to create a project surrounding women's occupation health, based in Charleston, West Virginia. [3]Through this project, she was able to explore topics such as equal pay, representation in the work force, and other issues working-class women routinely faced. In addition, it also re-introduced her to racial justice; "SWEC put issues of race back on the table in a very clear way, and it required me to think about Appalachia as it is situated within the larger US South."[3] Feminist thinkers such as Patricia Hill Collins, Bonnie Thornton Dill, Maxine Baca Zinn, as well as scholars like Chandra Mohanty, who expanded upon the theory of intersectionality, were all heavily influential in Smith's ideas.[3] When she moved to Memphis, Tennessee in 1995, her worked shifted gears to focusing on immigration and working-class wages.[3] Smith spearheaded another project with the organizations she worked closely with at the time in Memphis to address immigration in the US South and the means of organizing grassroots social justice efforts.[3]

After her extensive work in Memphis, Smith taught Women's and Gender's Studies as both a professor and director of the program at the University of Memphis before she was offered a teaching position at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 2005.[5] She was honored with Professor Emerita Status in 2017, and now resides in Charleston, West Virginia.[5]


  1. "Appalachia and the Health of the Nation". Haymarket Books. Haymarket Books. Retrieved March 4, 2021.
  2. Smith, Barbara Ellen (November 10, 2020). Digging Our Own Graves: Coal Miners and the Struggle over Black Lung Disease (Updated ed.). Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books. ISBN 9781642592757. Retrieved March 4, 2021.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 3.13 3.14 Cook, Dare; Crabtree, Ashley; Gray, Katie; Troy, Michael; Beaver, Patricia (Winter 2006). ""You Dig Where You Stand": An Interview with Barbara Ellen Smith". Appalachian Journal. 33 (No. 2): 188–208. Retrieved March 4, 2021. {{cite journal}}: |issue= has extra text (help)
  4. "Appalachia and the Health of the Nation". Haymarket Books. Haymarket Books. Retrieved March 4, 2021.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 "Barbara Ellen Smith honored with emerita status". Virginia Tech Daily. Virginia Polytechnic Institute. December 1, 2017. Retrieved March 4, 2021.
  6. Smith, Barbara Ellen (October 1, 1987). Digging Our Own Graves: Coal Miners and the Struggle over Black Lung Disease (First ed.). Temple University Press. ISBN 087722451X. Retrieved March 4, 2021.
  7. "Appalachia and the Health of the Nation". Haymarket Books. Retrieved March 4, 2021.

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