I grew up in southern West Virginia, about two counties shy of coal country. You’d think that at some point in my secondary school education I would have encountered news of the largest civilian armed insurrection in American history, which took place a scant hundred miles to the south and west of my high school. An uprising which had profound historical consequences (not all of them predictable) for the development of what are affectionately referred to as “the extractive industries” in my home state (which, face it, are the only real industries my home state can lay claim to). You’d think some history teacher along the way would have made mention of an event which featured some of the most colorful and despicable characters of the 20th century, squared off in a face-to-face confrontation that at its height involved as many as 15,000 combatants and left dozens dead, hundreds injured, and a legacy of mutual distrust and dislike which remains palpable in the coalfields to this day, ninety years later.
I’m referring, of course, to the Battle of Blair Mountain, also known as The Redneck War (a reference not to the crackerhood of the contestants, which was inescapable, but to the red bandannas worn by the Good Guys). I won’t attempt to recount the events of the uprising here, because they’ve been covered very well in a number of places: Wikipedia, to satisfy the idly curious; here, if you want an excellent and correctly biased account; and here and here if you wish to dig your heels in and do some serious reading.
But I will take a moment to consider why it should be that not Mr. Kaufman, my 8th-grade West Virginia History teacher; nor Mr. Waller, my 11th-grade American History teacher; nor Miss Raffles, my senior-year Problems of Democracy teacher (and surely there were others who tried to teach me “history” along the way…though they’ve all blessedly faded from my memory, rather like the Capital of South Dakota and the dates of the Crimean War) – why none of them saw fit to mention what was certainly the most interesting, and possibly the most important, event in West Virginia in the 20th century.
Well, those guys weren’t much to write home about in the schooling department (sorry, Miss Raffles, if you’re somehow still alive and reading this – I rather liked you: despite your grotesque and toad-like features, and even when you were bashing unions, minorities, welfare, civil liberties and, yes, hippies – hey, that was my family you were talking about, remember? – at least you had standards. But Lord you were a shitty teacher. Oh, and sorry for calling you a guy). And I doubt they ever did much reading outside the textbooks. So I suppose it’s not out of the question that all my history teachers had made it through a West Virginia childhood and four years at Potomac State or Concord College or Marshall U. or wherever without ever having heard of Blair Mountain. Entirely possible, in fact. Because in West Virginia, the Bad Guys own everything, from the Boards of Regents of the universities right on down to the local school systems, including the TV stations, the newspapers, even the textbooks. And the Battle of Blair Mountain, though it resulted in a bloody victory for the Bad Guys, didn’t end up looking so good on paper. I mean, I suppose that if the likes of Don Chafin and the Baldwin-Felts gang had succeeded in establishing the sort of Permanent Fascist State their employers had hired them to establish, then we might have ended up reading fifty years later about the glorious victory of the mine operators over the unwashed, uneducated, and impolite mining masses. But it didn’t work out that way.
It took a Great Depression, a New Deal, and an Act of Congress, but eventually miners in West Virginia gained some semblance of autonomy and control over their wages, their working conditions, and their hours, so that events like 2010’s Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster became newsworthy rather than weekly occurrences. By the end of the Depression, the UMWA had established itself in every coal-producing county in the state, and while the union didn’t make all the scumbags go away, it sure made things better for a lot of miners. And as more miners joined the union, the less it was in the Bad Guys’ interest to tell stories about how Dandy Don Chafin* and his army of company-owned thugs barricaded themselves into their emplacements on Blair Mountain on the night of August 28th, 1921, and began picking off marching miners on the road to Logan one-by-one; or how his deputies killed unarmed men in the streets of Sharples, just for trying to warn their comrades that the thugs were in town; or how his private pilots dropped homemade bombs on the miners’ encampments from their biplanes – possibly the first aerial bombardment ever to take place on American soil, and certainly the first and only “official” use of air power against U.S. citizens in our history. By which I mean ALL our history, as in never before or again in America. No need to tell stories like that. It might just get people riled up again. Better to just let it fade away.
And fade away is what it did for about eighty years. Whole generations of young people meanwhile have gone through twelve years of primary education in West Virginia without ever knowing a thing about Blair Mountain or, really, about the history of union struggle in the state. Names like Mother Jones, John Mitchell, and John L. Lewis don’t mean anything to them. Neither does the phrase “Collective Bargaining” – and that’s just the sort of amnesia the Companies are after. Labor? Struggle? Forget about it.
All of which leads me to this: in commemoration of the 90th anniversary year of the Battle of Blair Mountain, a group of devoted historians, union people, citizen-activists and local residents have banded together to re-enact the march on Blair Mountain. And you should be paying attention to them. Why should you be paying attention to them, you ask? Because they’re not just a bunch of “living history” types trying to re-enact a golden moment in American history (though some of them might be, for all I know). What they’re trying to do is to prevent the Bad Guys from finally succeeding at what they’ve been trying to do for most of the past century, an act which would constitute their ultimate victory: to make Blair Mountain go away altogether.
See, there’s this thing called Mountain Top Removal. It’s very popular in West Virginia. It involves pulling down entire mountains to get the coal out of them. Whatever’s left is dumped over the surrounding landscape, smothering streams, meadows, and anything else that gets in the way. And guess what? Blair Mountain, which in 2006 was designated as one of “America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is slated for Mountain Top Removal. If Massey Energy and Arch Coal have their way, the last vestige of Blair Mountain in West Virginians’ memory – that would be the mountain itself – will finally just go away, like they’ve been trying to make it do for all these years.
The Blair Mountain Coalition is marching now – they started two days ago. Their aims are simple: to have Blair Mountain re-placed on the National Register of Historic Places (from which it was removed in 2006, thanks to the machinations of the coal companies); to halt plans for MTR at Blair Mountain; and to bring attention to the historic struggle for workers’ rights in America that was largely fought in the coalfields of West Virginia.
These guys have been blogging their march along the way. I wish I could be there to take part, but it just wasn’t in the cards for me – I’ve got my own blog to run! But I’ve been following their progress with interest, and I think you should too. I also think you should sign their Petition to the National Park Service – easy. I don’t know you well enough to say whether you should give them money or not, but I did, and if you want to, well, they make that pretty easy too.
Sorry, Miss Raffles.
*Stay tuned for more on Don Chafin!