Miners experienced awful conditions in the coal regions of West Virginia in the early 20th century. Coal companies ruled the region like a fiefdom. Impoverished workers had few connections with the outside world and could be thrown out of their homes or off their land at the whim of the company. Miners died from from a lack of oxygen, from explosions, and from mine collapses. They died prematurely outside the mines from black lung disease and other untreated health problems. Organizers like Mary “Mother” Jones and the United Mine Workers of America tried to organize workers. Many miners joined the UMWA but found themselves fired and blacklisted from the industry. Coal companies used Pinkerton and Baldwin-Felts security services to intimidate, beat, and sometimes kill the miners. Miners fought back any way they could, sometimes using violence against the companies and their hired goons.
This story is perhaps best known for modern people through John Sayles’ excellent 1987 film Matewan, which explores the 1920 shootout between miners and Baldwin-Felts thugs in the small town of Matewan, West Virginia, just over the Kentucky border.
Building upon the resistance at Matewan, the next year, in 1921, West Virginia miners revolted in a far more organized way. For five days in the late summer, miners in Logan County went to war with owners, their thugs, and police in an attempt to organize with the UMWA. By this time, the union had made significant progress in organizing West Virginia miners, but this area of southern West Virginia remained almost entirely union-free. Baldwin-Felts agents then killed Sid Hatfield, the Matewan sheriff who had sided with the miners in 1920. Responding to Hatfield’s murder, the miners poured off the jobs, carrying weapons to stand up for their rights. Gun battles took place that led to the deaths of 30 strikebreaking thugs and around 100 miners. President Warren Harding called in the Army to crush the strike. The UMWA saw its membership in West Virginia plummet and it remained weak until the New Deal.
The Battle of Blair Mountain is considered the largest insurrection in the United States since the Civil War.
The story does not end in 1921. While the open violence subsided after Franklin Roosevelt became president, the coal companies continued to control the politics and society of West Virginia. Miners continued to die of black lung and live in poverty, proud of their union but worried about their futures. Matewan and Blair Mountain became long-past events but remained in local historical memory.
Fast forward ninety years. In 2011, the coal industry has changed dramatically. Coal companies control the politics and business of West Virginia nearly as much as they did in 1921. But coal is under attack nationally for its effect on climate change, its lack of safety precautions, and the destruction of the West Virginia mountains for mountaintop removal. This process flattens the tops of mountains, dumping the dirt and rock into streambeds below, choking waterways, reshaping the geology, and destroying livelihoods. The UMWA has far smaller numbers than at its mid-20th century heyday. Those who are left find themselves torn. They still don’t trust the companies, but they also don’t trust the environmentalists looking to end mountaintop removal. Mountaintop removal has eliminated thousands of jobs, as have other forms of mechanization. The companies tell the people of West Virginia that ending this form of mining would cost the remaining jobs. And how are workers going to feed their families without work? Yet it is their friends and families who see their land destroyed and water polluted by the detritus of mountaintop removal. They love their mountains–the hunting, the fishing, the offroading, the wildness. Many remember their history too, still seeing the UMWA as the organization that best represents their quest for a decent and respectable life.
This leads us back to Blair Mountain. Historical preservationists and union activists have lobbied for years to get Blair Mountain listed under the National Register of Historic Places. In 2009, they finally succeeded. Then, in an unprecedented move, a few months later it state historic preservation office delisted it. There are 2 main reasons for this. First, memories are long in West Virginia. The coal companies did not want the resistance at Blair Mountain remembered. Conservatives have declared war on telling American history from the perspective of labor, African-Americans, Latinos, feminists, gays and lesbians. The Texas State Board of Education’s adoption of controversial history texts last year and the Tea Party’s ahistorical interpretation of the Founding Fathers as founding this nation as both Christian and holding modern conservative values are two examples of this.
In West Virginia, this battle has taken place on a local scale for years. In 1974, one of the nation’s first history textbook controversies occurred in Kanawha County, where a local revolt against so-called “revisionist history” in the classroom connected with white resentment over the civil rights movement to galvanize the attention of conservatives nationwide. Remembering the history of coal, of Mother Jones, and of Blair Mountain represents West Virginia’s culture war between different versions of both the past and the present.
Second, coal companies desire Blair Mountain for mountaintop removal mining. While the state has not approved a mining permit, companies such as Massey Energy, responsible for last year’s accident at a mine with repeated and egregious safety violations which cost the lives of 29 workers, have mined heavily in the area. Blair Mountain has become a symbol not only for labor activists, but for environmentalists who see mountaintop removal as one of the greatest tragedies in America today.
Labor and environmentalists have had fractured relationships over the past three decades. That includes in West Virginia, where the remaining miners rely on strip mining for their well-paid jobs in an impoverished area. But tenuous steps have brought the two sides toward an understanding based upon mutual interests. UMWA president Cecil Roberts, descended from one of the Blair Mountain fighters, called for labor and environmentalists to work together in a February 2011 editorial in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, noting that
all God’s children have a right to prosper in a safe and livable environment (at home and on the job) where they can thrive without fear of sickness, disease or injury caused by the irresponsible actions of corporations motivated solely by profit at any cost.
This past week saw activists engage in the March on Blair Mountain, a five day event, capping in a June 11 rally of 1000 people, including country singer Kathy Mattea, to save this historic place, remember all those who lost their lives in the mines and from black lung to feed their families, and protest over the environmental catastrophe that is shredding the West Virginia mountains. Said miner Chuck Nelson, “Here we are 90 years later and we’re still fighting the same issues―unsafe conditions in non-union mines. I worked underground for 21 years and UMWA was the best friend a miner could have. We’re going to save Blair, Coal River Mountain, Twilight, communities in eastern Kentucky, and Ison Rock Ridge. We’re going to save all these communities because we’re rising to a new level.”
Blair Mountain is not on the radar screen of most Americans. We have forgotten our labor history. But modern West Virginia is barely known by people either. Except as a subject for inbreeding jokes, it remains a backwater surrounded by more prosperous states. Mountaintop removal has received a fraction of the coverage spent on efforts to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, yet the damage done to West Virginia’s land and people far outpaces what petroleum exploration will do in the faraway Alaska wilderness.
Ultimately, as Chuck Nelson hinted at, the Second Battle of Blair Mountain is not just about an obscure historical event in a remote part of a rural state. It is a symbol of who controls our history, our workers, and our environment. Can companies do whatever they want, whether it is forcing states to take places off the National Register when the history is inconvenient, subjecting workers to unsafe mines, or destroying mountains, waterways, and human health? Or does the government have an obligation to listen to people who want to remember our history, protect our workers, and save our natural environment for our descendants? The outcome at Blair Mountain will play a role in answering these questions.