BLAIR, W.Va – On the shoulder of a lonely stretch of highway miles into the hills, there’s a sign in the weeds. “Battle of Blair Mt.”, it reads, informing the dilapidated cinder block opposite that 100 years ago here was the largest armed workers’ uprising in US history.
In late August 1921, thousands of rifle miners marched toward this densely forested ridge in southern West Virginia, a campaign sparked by the daylight killings of union sympathizers, but had been building for years in the oppressive despair of the coalfields. The miners army was met at Blair Mountain by thousands of men who volunteered to fight with the Logan County Sheriff, who was employed by the coal companies. For more than 20 miles and five days, the sheriff’s men fought the miners, shelling the hills with machine-gun fire and dropping homemade bombs from airplanes. There were at least 16 confirmed deaths in the battle, although no one knows exactly how many were killed before the US military marched to end the fighting.
The road markings and spent casings found in the mounds are the only Blair Mountain reminders that this occurred.
The country has begun to grapple with its buried trauma in recent years, commemorating despicable and oppressed histories such as the Tulsa Race massacre. The Battle of Blair Mountain, the culmination of a series of violent conflicts known as the Mine Wars, also seems a candidate for such an excavation.
The army of miners that came to Blair Mountain was made up of black and white people, new immigrants, and people with deep Appalachian roots. They did dangerous work under conditions close to contractual servitude: they were kept in line by armed guards and paid only in company money, with their wages retained for the cost of housing, medical care and the tools they used in the mines. These circumstances eventually erupted in the largest uprising since the Civil War.
But while there are commemorations in West Virginia this weekend, including talks, gatherings and reenactments, a century of silence, enforced by power and fear, has all but forgotten the battle elsewhere.
“It’s one of the most astonishing clashes between workers and bosses ever seen in this country and nobody knows about it,” said Cecil Roberts, the president of the United Mine Workers of America and a grandnephew of Bill Blizzard, who led the miners’ army. in 1921. “It seems almost impossible unless there is a concerted effort for people to know nothing about it.”
The Mine Wars era was bloody, with at least 100 dead in shootings and violent repression. For most of the 20th century, silence served mutual interests. The participants kept quiet out of self-protection and solidarity. Mr Blizzard was charged with treason and murder, although he was acquitted, and some of the most prominent union leaders faced permanent exclusion. Frank Keeney, who raised thousands to fight as head of the UMWA local, spent the latter part of his life as a parking attendant.
Mr. Keeney’s great-grandson, Charles B. Keeney, a history professor at the Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College, struggled to get his own family to talk about the uprising. Instead, he learned about it from stray comments at family cookouts and from elderly strangers, who told him star-struck stories after approaching him when they learned of his family connection.
But it was mainly the coal industry and its supporters in the state government, said Mr. Keeney and other historians, that tried to stifle any public discussion of history. State officials demanded that any mention of Blair Mountain be removed from federal oral histories. A 1931 state law regulated the “study of social problems” and for decades the Mining Wars were completely left out of history textbooks. Today, much of the battlefield is in the hands of coal operators, who until recently planned to dismantle the mine at Blair Mountain themselves.
This was narrowly avoided in 2018 after Mr. Keeney and a group called Friends of Blair Mountain succeeded in a nine-year campaign, almost every time resisting, to put the site on the National Register of Historic Places. But even that doesn’t get in the way of logging or natural gas exploration, he said.
“In an ideal world it should be a state park,” said Mr. Keeney. Instead, he climbs through metal gates blocking the roads to the mountain to see what industrial activities are taking place out of public view.
In recent decades, the Mining Wars have steadily attracted more attention, with a critically acclaimed film; serious history books; an exhibit at the state museum; and explicit allusions to it during the 2018 state teachers’ strike.
Earlier this year, a great-grandson of one of the coal company’s detectives even showed up in the small town of Matewan, once a citadel of union resistance, and began offering tours.
“There are two sides to every story,” said James Baldwin, who sits on a bench outside the Mexican restaurant to tell tourists about the “brave” detectives who died in a gunfight after evicting the families of striking miners. from business premises.
History is being talked about more, but still only in “bits and pieces,” said Stan Bumgardner, the editor of state history magazine Goldenseal. “It’s lacking in the public sphere.” The events of the Mining Wars are noted much less forcefully than those of the tourist Hatfield-McCoy feud, broadcast on billboards throughout southern West Virginia.
The main mission of remembering the history of Mine Wars on the ground has remained with Mr. Keeney and his small cadre of activists, residents and retired union miners. In 2015, they opened the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, privately funded and located in a union building in Matewan. They have also hosted key events for the centenary of the Battle of Blair Mountain, including a reenactment of the march this weekend. None of these are state sponsored, although to the surprise of organizers, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, a billionaire who owns coal companies, has issued a proclamation in recent days explaining the “meaning” of the battle as a “fight for fair treatment of working peoples.”
Mr Keeney said powerful interests were not the only opposition to his case. Previous reconstructions of the march were met with hostility and even attacked by people along the route, many of them coal families, who were angry about the involvement of environmentalists.
Roberts, who spent much of this summer rallying hundreds of union miners on strike in Alabama, sees this as a natural consequence of hard times. Decades of automation and changes in the energy market have dried up coal jobs in West Virginia, and years of anti-union campaigns have eroded long-standing loyalties. People desperate for work view every critic of the coal industry, including those who stood up for oppressed miners 100 years ago, as a threat to their livelihoods.
Mr. Roberts quoted Jay Gould, the Gilded Age railroad baron, “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.”
Not long ago, a local historian found a document in the attic of the Logan County courthouse, showing hundreds of miners accused of participating in the Battle of Blair Mountain. It may be the only list of its kind, said Mr. Keeney, who plans to dive in after its centenary has passed. And it may surprise people in the coalfields and across the country who never learned that their great-grandfathers had gone to war in West Virginia a hundred years ago.