A century ago, the miners fought in a bloody uprising. Few people know it today.

BLAIR, W.Va. – On the shoulder of a lonely stretch of miles of highway in the hills, a sign stands in the weeds. “Battle of Blair Mt.,”...


BLAIR, W.Va. – On the shoulder of a lonely stretch of miles of highway in the hills, a sign stands in the weeds. “Battle of Blair Mt.,” he said, informing the crumbling cinder block building across the road that here, 100 years ago, was the largest uprising of armed workers in the history of the United States.

In late August 1921, thousands of coal miners armed with rifles marched to this densely forested ridge in southern West Virginia, a campaign sparked by the daytime killings of union supporters but had built for years in oppressive desperation of coal fields. The Miners’ Army was greeted at Blair Mountain by thousands of men who volunteered to fight with the Logan County Sheriff, who was in the pay of the coal companies. Over 12 miles and five days, the sheriff’s men fought the miners, strafing the hills with machine gun fire and dropping homemade bombs from planes. There were at least 16 confirmed deaths in the battle, although it is not known exactly how many were killed before the US military stepped in to end the fighting.

The roadside marker and used shell casings found in the hills are the only reminders to Blair Mountain that this took place.

The country has begun to struggle in recent years with its buried trauma, commemorating vile and deleted stories like the Tulsa Race Massacre. The Battle of Blair Mountain, the culmination of a series of violent conflicts known as mine warfare, would also appear to be a candidate for such an exhumation.

The army of miners that came to Blair Mountain was made up of blacks and whites, new immigrants and people with deep roots in the Appalachians. They carried out perilous work in conditions close to the servitude under contract: they were kept in line by armed guards and paid only in company certificates, their wages being pegged to the costs of housing, medical care and tools that they used in mines. These conditions finally erupted in the biggest insurgency since the Civil War.

But while there are commemorations this weekend in West Virginia, including talks, rallies and reenactments, a century of silence imposed by power and fear has left the battle all but forgotten elsewhere.

“This is one of the most amazing confrontations between workers and bosses in this country and no one knows it,” said Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America and grandnephew of Bill Blizzard, who has led the Miners’ Army in 1921. “It seems almost impossible unless there is a concerted effort to keep people unaware of it.”

The era of mine warfare has been bloody, with at least 100 dead in shootings and violent crackdowns. For most of the 20th century, silence on this subject served mutual interests. The participants were silent out of self-protection and solidarity. Mr Blizzard has been charged with treason and murder, although he has been acquitted, and some of the most prominent union leaders have faced continued ostracism. Frank Keeney, who inspired thousands of people to fight as the leader of the local UMWA chapter, spent the last part of his life as a parking lot attendant.

Mr. Keeney’s great-grandson Charles B. Keeney, professor of history at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College, struggled to get his own family to talk about the uprising. Instead, he learned it through parasitic remarks at family barbecues and from older strangers, who told him mind-boggling stories after approaching him when they learned of his family connection.

But it was primarily the coal industry and its supporters in state government, said Keeney and other historians, who have tried to stifle any public discussion of the story. State officials have demanded that any mention of Blair Mountain be removed from federal oral histories. A state law of 1931 regulated “the study of social problems” and for decades the mine wars were left entirely outside school history textbooks. Today, much of the battlefield belongs to the coal miners, who until recently planned to strip the Blair Mountain mine itself.

This was narrowly avoided in 2018 after Mr. Keeney and a group called Friends of Blair Mountain pulled it off. in a nine year campaign, has withstood virtually every turn, for the site to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places. But even that doesn’t preclude logging or natural gas exploration, he said.

“In an ideal world, it should be a state park,” Keeney said. Instead, he climbs through metal gates blocking roads into the mountain to see what industrial activity may be going on outside of public view.

Over the past decades, mine warfare has attracted more and more attention, with a critically acclaimed film; serious history books; an exhibition at the State Museum; and explicit allusions to this during the 2018 state teachers’ strike.

Earlier this year, the great-grandson of one of the coal company detectives even showed up in the small town of Matewan, once a citadel of union resistance, and started offering tours.

“There are two sides to every story,” said James Baldwin, sitting on a bench outside the Mexican restaurant, waiting to tell tourists about the “brave” detectives who were killed in a shootout after evicting the families of the miners in strike. houses owned by the company.

History is being talked about more and more, but always only in “bits and pieces,” said Stan Bumgardner, editor-in-chief of Goldenseal, the state’s history magazine. “It’s lacking in the public sphere. The events of mine warfare are noted much less vigorously than those of the feud between Hatfield and McCoy, jokes for tourists, aired on billboards throughout southern West Virginia.

The main mission of remembering the history of Mine Wars on the ground remained with Mr. Keeney and his small group of activists, residents and retired union miners. In 2015, they opened the privately funded West Virginia Mine Wars Museum located in a union-owned building in Matewan. They also hosted major Battle of Blair Mountain centennial events, including a re-enactment of the march this weekend. None of them are state-sponsored, although to the surprise of the organizers, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, a billionaire coal company owner, has issued a proclamation in recent days in which he recognized the “importance” of the battle as “fighting for fair treatment of workers.” “

Mr. Keeney said powerful interests were not the only opposition to his cause. Past re-enactments of the march were greeted with hostility and even aggression by people along the road, many of whom were families of charcoal burners, who were angered by the involvement of environmentalists.

Mr. Roberts, who has spent much of this summer bringing together hundreds of unionized coal miners on strike in Alabama, sees it as a natural consequence of difficult times. Decades of automation and change in the energy market have dried up coal jobs in West Virginia, and years of anti-union campaigns have unraveled old loyalties. People who are desperate for work tend to view any critic of the coal industry, including those who defend miners oppressed 100 years ago, as a threat to their livelihoods.

Mr. Roberts quoted a quote from Jay Gould, the railroad baron of the Golden Age: “I can hire half the working class to kill the other half.”

Not too long ago, a local historian found a document in the attic of the Logan County Courthouse, listing hundreds of minors accused of participating in the Battle of Blair Mountain. It may be the only list of its kind, said Mr Keeney, who plans to dig it up after the centennial. And it may come as a surprise to people across the coalfields and scattered across the country who never heard that their great-grandfathers went to war in West Virginia a hundred years ago.

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Newsrust - US Top News: A century ago, the miners fought in a bloody uprising. Few people know it today.
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