A Century Ago, Miners Fought in a Bloody Uprising. Few Know About It Today.

BLAIR, W.Va. — On the shoulder of a lonely stretch of freeway miles into the hills, a signal stands in 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, hundreds 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 in the oppressive despair of the coal fields. The miners’ military was met at Blair Mountain by hundreds of males who volunteered to combat with the Logan County sheriff, who was in 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 fireplace and dropping home made bombs from planes. There have been at the least 16 confirmed deaths in the battle, although nobody is aware of precisely what number of have been killed earlier than the US Army marched in to place a cease to the combating.

The roadside marker and the spent shell casings discovered in the hillsides are the one reminders at Blair Mountain that this came about.

The nation has begun wrestling in latest years with its buried trauma, memorializing vile and suppressed histories just like the Tulsa Race Massacre. The Battle of Blair Mountain, the fruits of a sequence of violent conflicts often called the Mine Wars, would additionally appear to be a candidate for such exhumation.


A coal processing website in Logan County, W.Va.Credit…Mike Belleme for The New York Times

The military of miners that got here to Blair Mountain was made up of Black and white folks, new immigrants and other people with deep roots in Appalachia. They did perilous work underneath circumstances 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 in the mines. These circumstances ultimately erupted in the most important rebellion for the reason that Civil War.

But whereas there are commemorations this weekend in West Virginia, together with talks, rallies and re-enactments, a century of silence enforced by energy and worry has left the battle practically forgotten elsewhere.

“It is one of the most amazing confrontations between workers and bosses ever in this country and no one knows about it,” stated Cecil Roberts, the president of the United Mine Workers of America and a great-nephew of Bill Blizzard, who led the miners’ military in 1921. “It seems to be almost impossible unless there’s a concerted effort for people not to know about it.”

ImageCecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, middle, and different U.M.W.A. members, recreating the march to Blair Mountain for the 100th anniversary of the battle, in Marmet, W.Va., on Friday.Credit…Mike Belleme for The New York Times

The Mine Wars period was bloody, with at the least 100 deaths in shootouts and violent crackdowns. For many of the 20th century, silence about it served mutual pursuits. The members saved quiet out of self-protection and solidarity. Mr. Blizzard was charged with treason and homicide, although he was acquitted, and among the most outstanding labor leaders confronted everlasting ostracism. Frank Keeney, who roused hundreds to combat as head of the U.M.W.A. native, spent the latter a part of his life as a parking zone attendant.

Mr. Keeney’s great-grandson, Charles B. Keeney, a historical past professor at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College, had bother getting his family to speak concerning the rebellion. Instead, he discovered about it from stray remarks at household cookouts and from older strangers, who advised him star-struck tales after approaching him after they discovered of his household connection.

But it was primarily the coal business and its supporters in state authorities, Mr. Keeney and different historians stated, 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 “study of social problems” and for many years, the Mine Wars have been left fully out of faculty historical past textbooks. Today, the battlefield is owned in massive half by coal operators, who till not too long ago deliberate to strip mine Blair Mountain itself.

ImageA postcard of Blair, W.Va.Credit…Collection of Kenneth King, West Virginia Mine Wars MuseumImageC.F. Keeney and Fred Mooney of the United Mine Workers, have been charged with treason. As president and secretary-treasurer of the union, they organized the Logan County March of Aug. 24, 1921. The March escalated into the Battle of Blair Mountain.Credit…Everett Collection, through AlamyImageA nonetheless picture from a information reel filmed and produced after the battle of Blair Mountain in 1921, exhibiting miners with a machine gun.Credit…Collection of Kenneth King, West Virginia Mine Wars MuseumImageA crowd gathered to hearken to a speaker in Blair, W, Va., in 1921.Credit…Collection of Kenneth King, West Virginia Mine Wars Museum

This was narrowly averted in 2018 after Mr. Keeney and a group referred to as Friends of Blair Mountain succeeded in a nine-year marketing campaign, resisted at nearly each flip, to have the location positioned on the National Register of Historic Places. But even that doesn’t stop logging or pure gasoline exploration, he stated.

“In an ideal world, it should be a state park,” stated Mr. Keeney. Instead, he climbs by way of steel gates blocking the roads into the mountain to see what industrial actions could also be occurring outdoors of public view.

In latest many years, the Mine Wars have steadily drawn extra consideration, with a critically acclaimed film; critical historical past books; an exhibit in the state museum; and express allusions to it through the 2018 state academics’ strike.

Earlier this 12 months, a great-grandson of one of many coal firm detectives even confirmed up in the little city of Matewan, as soon as a citadel of union resistance, and started providing excursions.

“There are two sides to every story,” stated James Baldwin, who sits on a bench in entrance of the Mexican restaurant, ready to inform vacationers of the “brave” detectives who have been killed in a shootout after they evicted the households of putting miners from company-owned homes.

Image“In an ideal world, it should be a state park,” stated Charles B. Keeney, in reference to Blair Mountain and the location of the battle.Credit…Mike Belleme for The New York TimesImageJames Baldwin, whose great-grandfather was a part of the Baldwin Detective Agency that participated in the Battle of Blair Mountain, has turn into a native tour information in Matewan.Credit…Mike Belleme for The New York Times

The historical past is being talked about extra, however nonetheless solely in “bits and pieces,” stated Stan Bumgardner, the editor of Goldenseal, the state historical past journal. “It’s missing in 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 situated in a union-owned constructing in Matewan. They have additionally organized the primary 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 latest days in which he acknowledged the “significance” of the battle as a “fight for fair treatment of working peoples.”

Mr. Keeney stated highly effective pursuits weren’t the one opposition to his trigger. Past re-enactments of the march have been met with hostility and even assault by folks alongside the route, lots of them coal households, who have been angered by the involvement of environmentalists.

ImageAn exhibition on the battle of Blair Mountain on the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum in Matewan, W.Va.Credit…Mike Belleme for The New York Times

Mr. Roberts, who has spent a lot of this summer time rallying a whole lot of union coal miners on strike in Alabama, sees this as a pure consequence of laborious instances. Decades of automation and adjustments in the vitality market have dried up the coal jobs in West Virginia, and years of anti-union campaigns have frayed previous loyalties. People determined for work are inclined to view any critic of the coal business, together with these championing oppressed miners of 100 years in the past, as a menace to their livelihoods.

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

Not way back, a native historian discovered a doc in the attic of the Logan County courthouse, itemizing a whole lot of miners who have been charged for participating in the Battle of Blair Mountain. It could be the solely checklist of its sort, stated Mr. Keeney, who plans to dig into it after the centennial has handed. And it could provide surprises for folks all through the coal fields and scattered across the nation who had by no means discovered that their great-grandfathers had gone to battle in West Virginia a hundred years in the past.