round table highlights importance of 1921 miners’ uprising | VM
CHARLESTON, Va. (AP) – Barbara Ellen Smith first heard of the Battle of Blair Mountain when she came to work for the Black Lung Association on Washington Street East in Charleston in the winter of 1971-72.
Almost every miner Smith met who was 65 or older spoke of fighting in battle with a machine gun.
Smith, now a board member of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, later learned that the labor miners who took part in the largest labor uprising in US history did not have machine guns. But it didn’t matter.
“For me, the question is not so much whether people were telling the truth, but the incredible sense of power and passion that people had about this story 50 years later,” Smith said 50 years ago later.
The importance of preserving and learning from this sense of power despite attempts to suppress it at a time of heart-wrenching union struggles across America was the top priority put forward by Smith and other panelists who gathered virtually for an online program discussing the legacy of the battle on Thursday night. as it approaches its centenary.
“It was so vivid that to have been in a battle that actually ended in defeat was a badge of honor,” said Smith.
The Battle of Blair Mountain erupted in August 1921, pitting 7,000 to 10,000 coal miners with guns and red bandanas around their necks trying to organize against 3,000 state police, private security forces and other crime-busters. strike in Logan County.
The miners fought against the corporate power wielded by the coal miners who perpetuated a police state that controlled their lives. The coal miners hired private detectives who harassed and evicted them. They had housing and shops in which miners and their families were forced to buy food, clothing and tools with certificates, currency which miners enduring dangerous working conditions were paid for and which could not be used. than in the company’s store.
The federal government intervened against the striking miners, sending troops and a squadron of bombers. The miners, who had marched from Marmet to help organize in Logan and Mingo counties, were unwilling to fight the American soldiers and laid down their arms.
Frank Keeney, then local district chairman of the United Mine Workers, helped lead the miners and was among the union men charged with treason and later acquitted.
But Chuck Keeney, vice president of Friends of Blair Mountain and professor of history at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College, has learned that his great-grandfather had grown up exclusively because of his family.
“(T) there was no monument to that war, there was no commemoration to my knowledge of these struggles that took place,” said Keeney, one of the event’s panelists.
When Keeney was in eighth grade taking his compulsory West Virginia history course, there was nothing on a series of bloody conflicts from 1912 known as the mining wars between the coal companies and the miners. that led to the Battle of Blair Mountain, or the battle itself. . Keeney said his teacher had never heard of mine warfare.
Keeney eventually became aware of a historical pattern whereby state government and industry leaders deliberately omitted mining wars from history newspapers and textbooks, resulting in a current misunderstanding of the example that the Battle of Blair Mountain offers workers today.
“The students don’t know that,” Keeney said. “Why do they need to know this? Well, they have to know that because they have to understand the importance of unions and the importance of organizing and bargaining collectively.
The battle ultimately raised awareness of the poor living and working conditions of miners and inspired a stronger organized labor movement which, according to United Mine Workers spokesperson Phil Smith, moderator of Thursday night’s event , helped develop the middle class in the decades following the World War. II.
Unfortunately for America, this is history too.
“Real income growth has stagnated for decades,” Smith noted. “The gap between the very rich and the rest of us is widening day by day. Workers’ rights in the workplace are being ignored, and the exploitation our grandfathers fought against in Blair Mountain is back in workplaces across the country.
A 2018 Pew Research Center study found that after adjusting for inflation, the average hourly wage had roughly the same purchasing power as in 1978, with the highest earners receiving most wage gains since then.
“The Blair Mountain story for me is also a story about who the enemy is, to be frank,” said Barbara Ellen Smith, former director of the Women and Gender Studies program at Virginia Tech. “I mean, you know, we’re talking about very wealthy people who have managed to get rich through political control, as well as their control in the workplace.”
She warned that such entrenched political and corporate power can divide workers based on race, gender and sexual orientation if they don’t understand what she called the “solidarity of collective resistance” to fight for. better personal protective equipment and other occupational health measures like the COVID -19 pandemic persist.
“Right now we’ve seen more and more recognize that, my God, there are all these workers at risk for COVID,” Smith said. “There is at least this attention to the fact that the employees of the Amazon warehouses to the people in the animal slaughterhouses don’t have enough personal protective equipment, they are forced to work overtime, they work at inhuman speeds, etc. Why is that? It is not inevitable. It is not inevitable. They are not organized.
Blair Mountain, Keeney observed, was not only a place of conflict but a middle ground, both when miners of different ethnicities and races banded together against the forces of coal miners and when Friends of Blair Mountain, the Sierra Club and UMW worked together to make their comeback successful. the battle site on the National Register of Historic Places in 2018 to protect it from surface mining by coal companies.
“While it shows us this example of exploiting what people will do to other human beings themselves out of greed, for money,” Keeney said, “it also gives us the opportunity to find a common cause where we cannot. “
Speaker Shawn Slifer, art director and exhibit designer at the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum in Matewan, urged allowing more people access to publishing and academia through lower tuition fees to expand teaching the history of Blair Mountain so that workers of color can see themselves in this history.
Thursday night’s webinar was sponsored by the Battle of Homestead Foundation, an educational nonprofit promoting industrial and labor history in western Pennsylvania that focuses on the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892 while connecting with current labor issues.
The webinar is one of many Battle of Blair Mountain Centennial events scheduled over the next three weeks. A complete calendar of events is at blair100.com.
For more information on copyright, see the distributor of this article, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.