Blair, West Virginia — A sign stands in the weeds on the shoulder of a lonely highway that runs miles towards the hills. The “Battle of Mount Blair” and the fallen burnt block building across the road tell us that 100 years ago, this was the largest armed labor dispute in US history.
In late August 1921, thousands of rifle-carrying coal miners marched towards this wooded ridge in southern West Virginia. An army of miners met on Mount Blair with thousands of men who volunteered to fight Logan County Sheriff, who had been paid by a coal company. For 12 miles and five days, sheriffs’ men fought miners, strafing the hillside with machine gun fire, and dropping homemade bombs from planes. At least 16 people were killed in the fighting, but it is not known exactly how many were killed before the US military marched to stop the fighting.
Roadside markers and used shell casings on the hillside are the only reminders of this happening at Blair Mountain.
The country has recently begun to wrestle with its buried trauma, commemorating its sneaky and oppressed history, such as the Tulsa race massacre. The Battle of Mount Blair, the culmination of a series of fierce conflicts known as the Mining War, also appears to be a candidate for such excavation.
The army of miners who arrived in the Blair Mountains consisted of blacks and whites, new immigrants, and people deeply rooted in the Appalachian Mountains. They did dangerous work under conditions close to indentured servitude: they were lined up by armed guards, paid only by company scrips, and their salaries were tools used in housing, medical care, and mines. Docked for the cost of. These situations eventually erupted in the largest rebellion since the Civil War.
But while West Virginia has commemorative ceremonies this weekend, including talks, rallies, and reenactments, the battle is largely forgotten elsewhere due to the silence of the first century forced by power and fear.
“This is one of the most amazing conflicts between workers and bosses in the country so far, and no one knows about it,” said Bill Blizzard’s nephew, president of US miners. Said Cecil Roberts. An army of miners in 1921. “Without coordinated efforts for people not to know about it, it seems almost impossible.”
The era of Mine Wars was bloody, killing at least 100 people in gunfights and violent crackdowns. For most of the 20th century, silence about it served mutual benefit. Participants kept quiet from self-defense and solidarity. Although Blizzard was acquitted, he was charged with treason and murder, and some of the most prominent worker leaders faced permanent ostracism. Frank Keeney, who inspired thousands of people to fight as the local chief of UMWA, spent the second half of his life as a parking clerk.
Charles B. Keeney, a history professor at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College, Keeney’s great-grandson, had a hard time getting his family to talk about the uprising. Instead, he learned about it from an elderly stranger who told him the story of hitting a star after approaching him when he learned of a lost statement in a family cooking class or a family connection.
But it was primarily a supporter of the coal industry and state government, said Keeney and other historians, w suffocated the public debate in history. State officials have demanded that the reference to Blair Mountain be removed from the federal oral history. State law of 1931 regulated “research on social issues,” and for decades the mine war was completely excluded from school history textbooks. Today, most of the battlefield is owned by coal operators, who until recently planned to mine Mount Blair itself.
This was slightly avoided in 2018 after Keeney and a group called Friends of Blair Mountain succeeded in a nine-year campaign, resisting almost every turn and registering the site on the National Register of Historic Places. rice field. But that doesn’t interfere with logging or natural gas exploration, he said.
“In an ideal world, it has to be a state park,” Keeney said. Instead, he climbs the metal gates blocking the road to the mountains and sees what industrial activities are taking place outside the public.
Over the last few decades, Mine Wars has been steadily gaining attention and has acclaimed movies. A serious history book; exhibited at the State Museum. And a clear hint to it during the 2018 state teacher strike.
Earlier this year, the great-grandchildren of a coal company detective appeared in the small town of Matewan, once a fortress of union resistance, and began offering tours.
“All There are two sides to the story. ” From a company-owned house.
History is more talked about, but it’s still only “fragmented,” said Stan Vangardner, editor of the state history magazine Golden Seal. “It’s lacking in the public sphere.” The events of the mine war are far more than the events of the Hatfield-McCoy feud that delight tourists, broadcast on billboards throughout southern West Virginia. Not active.
The main mission of remembering the history of the mining war on the ground remains with Mr. Keeney and his activists, residents, and small executives of retired union miners. In 2015, they opened the West Virginia Mining War Museum. This is privately funded and is located in a Matewan combined building. They also hosted major events for the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Mount Blair, including a reenactment of the march this weekend. To the surprise of the organizers, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, the owner of a coal company billionaire, recently fights the “importance” of the fight for “fair treatment of workers.” “
Keeney said strong interests were not the only opposition to his cause. Reproductions of past marches faced hostility and even assaults by people along the route and even coal families who were angry at the involvement of environmentalists.
Roberts, who spent much of the summer rallying hundreds of union miners on a strike in Alabama, sees this as a natural consequence of difficult times. Decades of automation and energy market changes have depleted West Virginia’s coal jobs, and years of anti-union campaigns have undermined old loyalty. People desperate for work tend to see critics of the coal industry, including those who defend the oppressed miners 100 years ago, as a threat to their lives.
Roberts quoted a quote from Jay Gould, the Gilded Age Railroad Baron. “I can hire half of the working class and kill the other half.”
Not long ago, a local historian found a document in the attic of Logan County Courthouse listing hundreds of miners charged with participating in the Battle of Blair Mountain. Keeney, who plans to dig into it after the centennial, said it might be the only list of its kind. And it may provide surprises to those scattered throughout the coal fields and throughout the country who did not know their great-grandfather went to war in West Virginia 100 years ago.