BLAIR, W.Va. — On the shoulder of a lonely stretch of freeway miles into the hills, an indication stands within the weeds. “Battle of Blair Mt.,” it says, informing the tumbledown cinder block constructing throughout the street that right here, 100 years in the past, was the most important armed labor rebellion in U.S. historical past.
In late August 1921, 1000’s of rifle-bearing coal miners marched to this thickly wooded ridge in southern West Virginia, a marketing campaign that was ignited by the daylight assassinations of union sympathizers however had been constructing for years within the oppressive despair of the coal fields. The miners’ military was met at Blair Mountain by 1000’s of males who volunteered to battle with the Logan County sheriff, who was within the pay of the coal corporations. Over 12 miles and 5 days, the sheriff’s males fought the miners, strafing the hillsides with machine-gun hearth and dropping home made bombs from planes. There have been at the very least 16 confirmed deaths within the battle, although nobody is aware of precisely what number of have been killed earlier than the US Military marched in to place a cease to the combating.
The roadside marker and the spent shell casings discovered within the hillsides are the one reminders at Blair Mountain that this occurred.
The nation has begun wrestling in recent times with its buried trauma, memorializing vile and suppressed histories just like the Tulsa Race Bloodbath. The Battle of Blair Mountain, the fruits of a collection of violent conflicts referred to as the Mine Wars, would additionally appear to be a candidate for such exhumation.
The military of miners that got here to Blair Mountain was made up of Black and white individuals, new immigrants and other people with deep roots in Appalachia. They did perilous work beneath situations near indentured servitude: They have been saved in line by armed guards and paid solely in firm scrip, with their pay docked for the prices of housing, medical care and the instruments they used within the mines. These situations ultimately erupted within the largest revolt because the Civil Struggle.
However whereas there are commemorations this weekend in West Virginia, together with talks, rallies and re-enactments, a century of silence enforced by energy and concern has left the battle practically forgotten elsewhere.
“It is without doubt one of the most wonderful confrontations between staff and executives ever on this nation and nobody is aware of about it,” mentioned Cecil Roberts, the president of the United Mine Employees of America and a great-nephew of Invoice Blizzard, who led the miners’ military in 1921. “It appears to be nearly not possible until there’s a concerted effort for individuals to not learn about it.”
The Mine Wars period was bloody, with at the very least 100 deaths in shootouts and violent crackdowns. For a lot of the twentieth century, silence about it served mutual pursuits. The contributors saved quiet out of self-protection and solidarity. Mr. Blizzard was charged with treason and homicide, although he was acquitted, and a few of the most distinguished labor leaders confronted everlasting ostracism. Frank Keeney, who roused 1000’s to battle as head of the U.M.W.A. native, spent the latter a part of his life as a car parking zone attendant.
Mr. Keeney’s great-grandson, Charles B. Keeney, a historical past professor at Southern West Virginia Neighborhood and Technical School, had hassle getting his family to speak in regards to the rebellion. As a substitute, he realized about it from stray remarks at household cookouts and from older strangers, who informed him star-struck tales after approaching him once they realized of his household connection.
Nevertheless it was primarily the coal trade and its supporters in state authorities, Mr. Keeney and different historians mentioned, w tried to smother any public dialogue of the historical past. State officers demanded that any point out of Blair Mountain be stripped from federal oral histories. A 1931 state legislation regulated the “examine of social issues” and for many years, the Mine Wars have been left entirely out of school history textbooks. Right now, the battlefield is owned largely by coal operators, who till just lately deliberate to strip mine Blair Mountain itself.
This was narrowly averted in 2018 after Mr. Keeney and a gaggle referred to as Pals of Blair Mountain succeeded in a nine-year campaign, resisted at just about each flip, to have the location positioned on the Nationwide Register of Historic Locations. However even that doesn’t forestall logging or pure gasoline exploration, he mentioned.
“In a perfect world, it ought to be a state park,” mentioned Mr. Keeney. As a substitute, he climbs by metallic gates blocking the roads into the mountain to see what industrial actions could also be occurring outdoors of public view.
In current a long time, the Mine Wars have steadily drawn extra consideration, with a critically acclaimed movie; critical history books; an exhibit within the state museum; and explicit allusions to it throughout the 2018 state academics’ strike.
Earlier this 12 months, a great-grandson of one of many coal firm detectives even confirmed up within the little city of Matewan, as soon as a citadel of union resistance, and started providing excursions.
“There are two sides to each story,” mentioned James Baldwin, who sits on a bench in entrance of the Mexican restaurant, ready to inform vacationers of the “courageous” detectives who have been killed in a shootout after they evicted the households of putting miners from company-owned homes.
The historical past is being talked about extra, however nonetheless solely in “bits and items,” mentioned Stan Bumgardner, the editor of Goldenseal, the state historical past journal. “It’s lacking within the public sphere.” The occasions of the Mine Wars are famous far much less vigorously than these of the tourist-pleasing Hatfield-McCoy feud, broadcast on indicators throughout southern West Virginia.
The chief mission of remembering Mine Wars historical past on the bottom 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 positioned in a union-owned constructing in Matewan. They’ve additionally organized the principle occasions for the centennial of the Battle of Blair Mountain, together with a re-enactment of the march this weekend. None of those are state-sponsored, though to the shock of the organizers, the West Virginia governor, Jim Justice, a billionaire proprietor of coal corporations, issued a proclamation in current days during which he acknowledged the “significance” of the battle as a “battle for truthful remedy of working peoples.”
Mr. Keeney mentioned highly effective pursuits weren’t the one opposition to his trigger. Previous re-enactments of the march have been met with hostility and even assault by individuals alongside the route, a lot of them coal households, who have been angered by the involvement of environmentalists.
Mr. Roberts, who has spent a lot of this summer time rallying hundreds of union coal miners on strike in Alabama, sees this as a pure consequence of laborious instances. A long time of automation and modifications within the vitality market have dried up the coal jobs in West Virginia, and years of anti-union campaigns have frayed previous loyalties. Individuals determined for work are likely to view any critic of the coal trade, together with these championing oppressed miners of 100 years in the past, as a risk to their livelihoods.
Mr. Roberts cited a quote from Jay Gould, the Gilded Age railroad baron: “I can rent one half of the working class to kill the opposite half.”
Not way back, a neighborhood historian discovered a doc within the attic of the Logan County courthouse, itemizing lots of of miners who have been charged for collaborating within the Battle of Blair Mountain. It could be the one checklist of its form, mentioned Mr. Keeney, who plans to dig into it after the centennial has handed. And it might supply surprises for individuals all through the coal fields and scattered across the nation who had by no means realized that their great-grandfathers had gone to conflict in West Virginia 100 years in the past.