Dante History Project
The idea for the Dante History Project grew from Kathy Shearer’s earlier work to help the people of Dante get a sewer system. In 1988, the Environmental Protection Agency discovered that over 300 homes in Dante were dumping raw sewage into Lick Creek. The untreated waste continued downstream to the Clinch River. The agency gave Russell County a deadline to correct the problem. In the early 1990s, Congressman Rick Boucher and Virginia Delegate Bud Phillips brought together individuals and agencies in the region to help find a solution to the problem. Kathy Shearer served as the delegate for People Inc. While working with residents to alleviate the sewage problem, Shearer visited with family after family who told her stories of life in a different time when Dante was a booming coal town. At the conclusion of the sewer project, Shearer realized the need for a community project to collect and preserve the history of Dante from the remaining residents.
On June 27, 1997, Shearer presented her idea to ten women at Dante Senior Center at the invitation of the Center site supervisor, Ethel Cooley. Following this initial meeting, Shearer began meeting with the seniors and set up a copy stand to photograph old photographs that residents would bring to the Center. The participants helped to identify individuals and tell stories of the town’s past. People Inc. and Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy provided financial support for the effort to record interviews of residents and copy historic photographs shared by current and former residents. The Dante Senior Center hosted several “history lesson” meetings where individuals would gather to hear lectures and to discuss particular aspects of the history of Dante. By the conclusion of the project, Shearer had interviewed 43 individuals and the community had gathered and copied over 900 photographs of the town.
The information and photographs gathered in the project were featured in a traveling exhibit that opened on April 15, 1998 at the Russell County Public Library in Lebanon, Virginia. Shearer selected quotes from recorded stories and photographs to create 120 printed pages for the exhibit. The women of the Dante Senior Center quilted black panels to hold the story boards. Colorful pieced designs topped each panel. After the opening of the exhibit, residents suggested that a book telling the story of Dante and its residents was needed to complete the work of the project. The book, Memories from Dante: The Life of a Coal Town, was published in 2001 with grant support from Beirne Cartier Foundation, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, the United Mine Workers of America International, the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia, and the Catholic Diocese of Richmond.