The Battle of Blair Mountain 100 Years Later
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. This is The Takeaway. Let's turn out to West Virginia.
Find a vein and drain the black gold.
Hoping to god, that the timbers hold.
Like my father before me, it's all I know,
We live only to harvest the coal.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The song you're hearing, that's Louise Mosrie's Battle of Blair Mountain, and it's telling an American story you may not have heard. Well, 100 years ago, this month, an interracial coalition of coal miners initiated the largest labor uprising in American history. Working conditions in the early 20th-Century mines were deadly. For young men in West Virginia, it was safer to be drafted to fight in World War I than to go to work in the mines.
For decades, these miners, some white men, some European immigrants, some black Southerners demanded the right to organize, to earn higher pay, and to improve safety conditions. Tensions erupted when up to 10,000 miners marched to confront the mining companies and touched off The Battle of Blair Mountain.
Red bandanas tell us what side you're on.
We're the Rednecks of the union - 1921
We leave tonight 13000 strong.
We'll take the fight to Blair Mountain before the dawn.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Local law enforcement and higher deputy forces battled the miners for more than a week, and the Battle of Blair Mountain did not end until federal troops arrived, and the miners surrendered. In the short term, the companies were victorious. Hundreds of miners were tried and imprisoned, but the coal miners of West Virginia were not defeated. Resistance and organizing continued for more than a decade, and by 1935, they won the right to unionize.
With me now, to explore the continuing importance of the Battle of Blair Mountain is Charles Keeney, author of The Road To Blair Mountain. He also serves as Vice-President of the Friends of Blair Mountain and is a history professor at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College. Professor Keeney, welcome.
Charles Keeney: Thank you for having me, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: For those who are unfamiliar with the Battle of Blair Mountain, can you tell us a bit more about what initiated it?
Charles Keeney: The straw that broke the camel's back, as they say, came from the murder of Sid Hatfield and Ed Chambers to local law-enforcement officers in Mingo County, who had stood up for the miners and opposed evictions of the miners from company houses. After Hatfield and Chambers were murdered, you had some very significant things that were happening in Mingo County which was this beachhead for the unionization efforts in Southern West Virginia after World War I. Miners were living in tent colonies. Their families were starving.
The state troopers came in and attacked the tent colony, stole all the food, and would not allow the UMWA to send in more food and supplies. Then, they rounded up all the coal miners and put them in pins. Then, when the one law-enforcement officer who'd stood up for the miners was murdered on August the 1st, 1921, 5,000 miners congregated on Charleston where my great grandfather, Frank Keeney, told the miners that, "The only way you can get your rights is with a high-powered rifle." He then told them to go home and await the call to march.
In between Mingo County and Charleston where they left, there was Logan County, which was another notoriously anti-union county, and they had to try to break the defenses that were placed along Blair Mountain and ridgelines that stretch for about 12 miles. The battle went for five days and was fought on a 12-mile front, but the miners were never able to break through Don Chafin's defenses.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Tell me a little bit more about your great grandfather, Frank Keeney.
Charles Keeney: My great grandfather grew up on Cabin Creek, West Virginia. That's the home of famous NBA basketball player Jerry West. Before then, it was just coal country, and my family lost their land to the coal industry, which many families did during that time. The biggest inhibitor to economic development in Appalachia is absentee land ownership. They lost their land. He started working as a trap boy in the mines just after the age of 10. He made his way only to the sixth grade in school, but he self-educated. During the Paint Creek–Cabin Creek strike of 1912 and 1913, he became a leader in that strike.
A strike the turn very, very violent, and somewhere between 50 and 100 people were killed during that strike, but he led the miners to victory. After that, he was elected president of the union in West Virginia, and president of the West Virginia State Federation of Labor. He was an [unintelligible 00:04:57] socialist and rather militant, and not afraid to use direct action.
Melissa Harris-Perry: As we're speeding towards Labor Day, which, for so many, feels like, "Well, it's the last moment of holiday," schools are marking they're beginning there, but I'm not sure that we retell enough, in the broadest sense, this history of what labor movements really were. It's still jaw-dropping for so many of us that it was this level of violence. These were not peaceful demonstrations in that sense.
Charles Keeney: No, not at all. The fact that it was an interracial and ethnic mix of miners, you had around 20% of the miners that were marching were African-Americans, about another 30% were recent immigrants that had come over. This was something that really scared the powers that be. One cooperator said, testifying after the battle, he said, "You cannot imagine the terrorism that prevailed. Anywhere one could look, one could see a colored man with a rifle." Those were his words. They controlled 500-square miles of territory. The US Army was brought in. The US Air Service was brought in.
This idea of poor whites, Blacks, and immigrants working together when we know that those groups are often pitted against one another in today's political arena, that scared the powers that be. The Battle of Blair Mountain took place only around 90 days after Tulsa, so all of that is fresh on the minds of the people that are taking up arms.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Isn't this also part of the beginning of the language redneck?
Charles Keeney: When you think of the word redneck, of course, most people think of this stereotype. There are a number of different origins of the word redneck, but coal miners and labor pro-union people began wearing red bandanas in West Virginia, so coal miners were called rednecks and that meant you were a union man. If you said the word redneck in 1921, it did not mean anything close to what it means today. It meant you were a union man. There were black rednecks. There were immigrant rednecks. It was a symbol of their union pride.
Miners would continue to wear red bandanas through the Black Lung Association in the 60s, and when teachers went on strike in West Virginia, they wore red bandanas just a few years ago. It has become a symbol of labor solidarity and unionism, but because the miners didn't win the Battle of Blair Mountain, they didn't control the story, so the coal companies and the media were able to say that the violence was not a product of this industrial autocracy, but rather the violence was this backward, ignorant, moonshine-drinking culture. It allowed people to be dismissive of individuals and the culture here in the region, and why there was so much violence to begin with.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to go to this point that you made about absentee landowners. Can you say a few more words about that? Because that sounds like it's an analysis about economic conditions right now, not just 100-years ago.
Charles Keeney: The economic conditions really haven't changed that much in 100 years. What they did is, coal companies started to come in, and railroad companies, steel companies came into the region after they found out the wealth of coal that was here in the 1880s. Of course, many people are already living on the land, and in order to get to the land, companies came up with something called the broad form deed, which enabled them to buy mineral rights, so they could buy the land underneath. The land was stolen by these out-of-state corporations. That means several things. Number one, locals don't control the land and they don't control their own economic destiny.
It also means that the wealth that is generated in West Virginia doesn't stay here. There's billions and billions of dollars that have been made every year from coal, but none of it stays in West Virginia or a very, very small percentage, which is one of the reasons that the place is mired in poverty. The problem with that is the industry is able to control school curriculum and media around here, and tell people that the only reason that you even have an economy is because of coal, as opposed to being the only reason you don't have any wealth is because of coal. They were able to flip the script because they've been able to control the narrative since the Battle of Blair Mountain.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Say more about that control of the narrative as a historian, as a writer who is uncovering this, and telling this story which is both a family story, a community story, but also our national story. What were you taught in school?
Charles Keeney: Nothing, I was not taught at all about the mine wars in school. I learned from my family. The coal industry created something called the American Constitutional Association right after World War I, and they used that to control school curriculum in the state of West Virginia to deliberately take the mine wars and all labor struggles out of textbooks. For example, the largest industrial disaster in US history took place in West Virginia, the Hawks Nest disaster, in which nearly 800 people were killed. Most of them African-Americans and they were dumped in unmarked graves.
This was in the 30s. Nobody knows about that that outside of West Virginia, because it's just been deliberately taken out of the textbooks. If you understand that this is a history that's been erased, you begin to understand the worldview in the mentality of the people have here. I call it the mind guard system. You have the mind guard system, this police state that the coal companies used in the early part of the 20th century. Now I said they have the mind guard system in which they're able to control news school, curriculum, and information that people get and really shape their worldviews.
Melissa Harris-Perry: As you're talking about this, I'm thinking about the current debate, raging around critical race theory, and I'm thinking, huh, I wonder if it's actually more dangerous to a system of inequity to teach critical race theory, or at least as it's presented in these partisan battles or to actually teach it, there was an interracial coalition of working-class people who rose up and saw their combined interest.
Charles Keeney: America's labor history, and more specifically the battle of Blair mountain challenge, the very tenants and the very ideals tied with the American dream or the concept of the United States. Is it anti-American to challenge the capitalist system? Is it unpatriotic to take up arms against your company? In many ways, this conflict that's started out being waged in the coalfields and is now waged in classrooms is, in many ways, a conflict over the very ideals of what America is and should be. We need to insert race and labor and gender and those things into the classroom so that students are more equipped to better understand what's going on and understand why things are the way they are.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Is that part of why you are a founding member of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum?
Charles Keeney: Yes. For several reasons, we created the Mine Wars Museum in 2015, and this was a number of activists and scholars and some union coal miners and locals and mate, West Virginia, who joined together. We wanted to create a grassroots people's history museum to rectify the fact that this is a story that's left out of the classroom. If the institutions aren't going to tell the story, then we're going to tell the story itself.
The industry wanted to destroy this history so much. They tried to actually destroy the Blair mountain battlefield with mountain, top removal, coal mining, and the Mine Wars Museum came from a number of activists and scholars, including myself, that led an effort to stop the industry from destroying the battlefield. We were successful in that effort. That's a lot of what my book is about and about that mentality that is in the Coalfield because this history is simply not a part of the conscious.
Melissa Harris-Perry: If someone were to visit the museum, what would they see?
Charles Keeney: You would see a number of different things. I have, for example, a poetry book that my great-grandfather had while he lived in a tent and the tent colony in 1912 and 1913, you see bullets that were fired on the Blair mountain battlefield things like scrip that the companies to pay the miners, they weren't paid in American money. There's one particular piece of script that I just love, that it just really symbolizes everything. It's a piece of script that says good for one loaf of bread.
If you're an individual and you got paid with that, they're not only dictating that you can't spend American money, but they are dictating to you what you can buy. When you see that and you begin to be able to put your hands on and touch the actual items of oppression, then you can begin to see why these miners were so militant and why they became so violent. It's not this backward feuding, moonshine, drinking culture, but rather people that had just been pushed too far.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You all are planning a big celebration for labor day.
Charles Keeney: Yes, the mine wars museum has formed a coalition with other groups called Blair 100. You can check out the website at Blair100.com and there's four days worth of events the United Mine Workers is going to be reenacting the entire armed March all 50 miles that we can there's somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 events. Much of that was going to be available online for people who can't travel or may not want to do to the Delta variant.
It's going to be a lot of events. We've already had a couple of online events, but you can go to Blair100.com and check that out. You can also go to the mind wars, museums, YouTube page, and see some videos we have about it as well as a video that tells people what's going on with the Blair mountain battlefield today.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Just one last question for you. It's been 100 years. I did hear you say I'm a bit early in our conversation that very little has changed about the economic circumstances of folks who are living in these communities. What might be possible in the next 100 years, what are some of the steps that need to be happening now, so that a hundred years from now, there's not a historian saying, well, and it's still about the same?
Charles Keeney: [chuckles] Is there a reason for hope? Yes, there is. I call it in my book, identity reclamation. Whenever the coal companies blast the mountain there they do what's called reclamation afterward. They're supposed to put the mountain back together, which is a big joke. You can't really fully redo your identity if it's been scarred and manipulated for generations. What you can do is try to pick up the pieces and begin to take control of your narrative. That's one of the things that the mine wars museum is doing and in doing so, we believe that we are empowering younger generations to take control of their own destiny.
When we started our little museum six years ago, in the little town of Maynard, there was nothing in the town. All the stores were boarded up. All the buildings were abandoned. Now five new businesses have opened up in the town and this little tiny place is beginning to thrive again because of heritage tourism. There are ways in which we can begin to seek alternative economies here, but it begins, I think, with education, it begins with the new generations up that does not have their ideology forced upon them or dictated to them by the coal industry or what they see in local corporate-controlled media,
Melissa Harris-Perry: Chuck Keeney, author of the Road to Blair Mountain. Thank you so much for joining The Takeaway.
Charles Keeney: Melissa, thank you so much for your interest in the story.
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