By Joan Hill, UALE Board Member, and Steffi Domike, member of USW Local 3657.
Across West Virginia, this Labor Day was celebrated by remembering the 10,000 miners who in 1921 marched nearly 50 miles across the southern coalfields from Marmet to Blair. The miners, their signature red bandanas tied around their necks, intended to reach Mingo County as a show of solidarity for their brothers who had been arrested for joining the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), and seeking to put an end to the use of mine guards and “yellow dog contracts” in Logan and Mingo Counties.
At the border between Boone and Logan Counties, the marchers were confronted by Sheriff Don Chafin of Logan County and 2,000 heavily armed deputies. A pitched battle ensued, becoming the largest uprising in the United States since the Civil War. It was only put down after the U.S. Army joined the fight on the side of Sheriff Chafin.
A century later, on Sunday, September 5, 2021, a group of solidarity marchers who again walked the trail from Marmet to Blair, met up with over two hundred mineworkers, tourists, retirees and historians gathered at the steep bank of the Tug River to listen to Dr. Charles Keeney, Associate Professor of History at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College and founding member of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum. Keeney is also the great-grandson of Frank Keeney, a UMWA local union president from 1917 to 1924.
Keeney began the “Battle of Blair Mountain Centennial Guided Walking Tour of Historic Matewan” with a story from 1754 of a group of Shawnees who had camped on that same flood plain while on the run from a battle with European settlers and a rival indigenous group. In his tribute to the Shawnees, Keeney told of how these exhausted warriors boiled and ate their bootlaces, called “tugs” at the time, to stave off sure starvation. This tale gave the river its name and captured the harshness of life for all who have settled this land of deep valleys and winding, unpredictable waterways.
Keeney’s walking tour was one of over two dozen events, both virtual and in person, commemorating the centennial of the Battle of Blair Mountain and marked on the map in The Battle of Blair Mountain Centennial Program Book.
One location that was not on the map of events is Blair Mountain itself, a ridgeline stretching between Boone and Logan Counties. The battlefield encompasses over 1,700 acres and was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places (NRHP) in 2009. This designation was quickly challenged by two coal companies, holders of mountain-top mining permits covering the battlefield area.
Resisting and refusing to bend to the modern-day coal barons, the Friends of Blair Mountain joined with allies and challenged the removal of Blair Mountain from the NRHP. In 2016, a federal judge ruled the removal was unlawful. The Battlefield was restored to the NRHP in 2018 and is now under the purview of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. Any future mining or timbering of the site is up to the WVDEP.
Blair Mountain is still in coal company hands. But the story of the battle will not be silenced and is being told from one end of West Virginia to the other, from the panhandle to the borders with Ohio, Kentucky and Maryland. Through the efforts of Blair100.org, the Battle of Blair Mountain will take its rightful place in American history books.
UALE member and labor educator, Ericka Wills participated in the reenactment, and was interviewed by a local television station about the significance of the centennial celebration today. Her interview can be seen here: https://www.wowktv.com/video/umwa-retraces-miners-march-for-blair-mountains-100th-anniversary/6952064/?fbclid=IwAR0Iac0ixjGHNtWPAuj0iGK3y90-axxHPNeEuTXtgVFg5l7TaYq2zU4IOOU
“A trip to the Mine Wars Museum is essential to anyone wanting to know about the miners,” according to Ericka. “What you learn, in addition to the miners’ history, is the status of teaching about the mine wars in West Virginia schools – which is non-existent, as the stories of their struggles have been erased from the classroom. You also learn about the fight to restore the protected status of the battlefield, and the direct influence and aid of the UMWA to the West Virginia teachers during their strike in 2018.”
Additional Resources and Readings:
Interview with Charles Keeney: https://tclf.org/battle-blair-mountain-still-being-waged
Friends of Blair Mountain (friendsofblairmountain.org)
Lessons plans for elementary, middle and high school are available from the W.Va. Mine Wars Museum: https://wvpress.org/breaking-news/west-virginia-mine-wars-museum-launches-free-lessons-plans/
West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, www.minewarsmuseum.org
National Park Service, Series: West Virginia Mine Wars, https://www.nps.gov/articles/000/resources-on-the-west-virginia-mine-wars.htm
A listing of all centennial events, www.blair100.com
The Road to Blair Mountain, by Charles Keeney
On Dark and Bloody Ground: An Oral History of the West Virginia Mine Wars, by Anne T. Lawrence, with foreword by Catherine Venable Moore and afterword by Cecil Roberts, UMWA President. Proceeds from this book go to the W.Va. Mine Wars Museum and can be purchased here, http://www.beautymountainstudio.com/.
The Devil is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom, by James Green.