Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Second Battle of Blair Mountain: Lawyers, not Miners

Have you heard of the Battle of Blair Mountain? Until I began researching the 1892 Homestead Strike, I hadn't. In talking about Darkness Visible, I've found that most Americans haven't heard of the Homestead Strike, either. But the Battle of Homestead, terrible as it was, is not the most bloody clash between workers and company forces in the long and violent history of union organizing. That dubious honor goes to the Battle of Blair Mountain.
Sheriff's deputies firing at coal miners on Blair Mountain.
This battle took place in the mountainous southern coalfields of West Virginia exactly 93 years ago this Labor Day weekend. From August 30th to September 2nd in 1921, a battle between 15,000 striking coal workers and company-hired militia, backed by government forces, raged on Blair Mountain, West Virginia. Gas canisters and bombs left over from the World War were dropped by Army bombers on the workers. During the five-day fight, over 130 combatants were killed, with worker deaths outnumbering militia deaths at least three to one. 
An old miner at the Battle of Blair Mountain (Photo courtesy Emmett Ray Adkins)
The battle ended after nearly one million rounds of ammunition were fired, and the US Army was sent in to back up company forces, the state police, and the sheriff's department. Needless to say, the workers lost, and after the battle, 1,217 miners were indicted by the State of West Virginia for treason, murder, and other serious offenses. The West Virginia coalfields were not completely unionized until 1935, about the time the steelworkers' unions finally gained the status they had lost during the 1892 strike.
A train loaded with miners heading to the battlefield (Photo courtesy West Virginia and Regional History Collection)
But today the mountain battlefield is being threatened by two present-day versions of the 1920's coal companies, Arch Coal and Massey Energy. These coal corporations want to blast off the entire top of Blair Mountain, obliterating all traces of the battle and turning the site into a huge flattened-off stump. 

In 2008, Blair Mountain was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, over the objection of the State of West Virginia, which had granted the companies permits to strip-mine the mountain. Nine months later, under political pressure, the National Park Service removed the site from the Register. For the past five years, a court battle has taken place pitting six environmental and historic preservation organizations (including the National Trust) against the strip-mining companies and government agencies. In 2012 a federal judge ruled against the preservation coalition. But last week the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overruled this decision, holding that historic preservation and environmental groups have legal standing in their campaign to protect the historic battlefield from mountaintop removal mining. 
Blair Mountain today (Photo courtesy of National Trust for Historic Preservation)
The future of the Blair Mountain battlefield site remains uncertain. Unlike Homestead, an urban area where River of Steel National Heritage Area Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area has been established to document and educate people about  the history of the 1892 strike and the communities of the Steel Valley, Blair Mountain is located in a remote, impoverished part of the Appalachian Mountains. The coalition of environmentalists and historic preservationists trying to protect it is up against the impressive power of the State of West Virginia and two of the largest strip-mining companies in the United States. 

It's a bitter irony that King Coal, which for years crushed and harassed the mining communities of the West Virginia coalfields is now trying to obliterate the site where the coal companies, aided by local, state, and federal forces, obliterated union organizing nearly a century ago.
What Blair Mountain would look like after mountaintop-removal mining.
On Labor Day, or any other day, it's important to remember these battles which shaped what America became--and the current battles that will shape what it will be in the future.
Like the story of the Homestead Strike, the story of Blair Mountain is a long and complex tale. If you would like to read more about it, here are a few resources:

"Coal Firms to Strip-Mine Historic Battlefield?" National Geographic, May 2012
"Coal Firms to Strip-Mine Historic Battlefield?" National Geographic, May 2012
"Blair Mountain: The History of a Confrontation" Preservation Alliance of West Virginia
"Blair Mountain: The History Of A Confrontation" Preservation Alliance of West Virginia

"The New Battle of Blair Mountain" Los Angeles Times Op-Ed, August 28, 2014
"The New Battle of Blair Mountain" Los Angeles Times Op-Ed, August 28, 2014 

Storming Heaven: A Novel Denise Giardina (1988)
Battle of Blair Mountain: The Story of American's Largest Labor Uprising Robert Shogan (2006)

"Matewan" John Sayles (1987)
Clip with James Earl Jones and Chris Cooper
Clip with James Earl Jones and Chris Cooper
"You think this man is the enemy? Huh? This is a worker! Any union keeps this man out ain't a union, it's a goddam club! They got you fightin' white against colored, native against foreign, hollow against hollow, when you know there ain't but two sides in this world - them that work and them that don't. You work, they don't. That's all you get to know about the enemy."--Joe Kenehan in "Matewan"

Joe Kenehan arrives in Matewan, West Virginia