The following article was originally written for the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia:
Still Fighting the Battle of Blair Mountain
C. Belmont Keeney
On August 7, 1921, just one week after Sid Hatfield had been murdered on the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse, Frank Keeney, the president of the UMWA District 17, gave a stirring speech to thousands of miners on the capitol grounds in Charleston. He told the crowd that there was no justice in West Virginia and declared, “The only way you can get your rights is with a high powered rifle!” He then told the miners to go home and await the call to march.
And march they did. Over 10,000 miners carved a path of rebellion from Charleston to the doorstep of Logan County. We all know what happened next. Mine guards and miners fought it out until federal troops intervened. Over 500 “rednecks” were charged with treason, murder, and conspiracy to commit murder. The state used coal company lawyers in the prosecution, and our own governor testified against the miners. Among those charged, of course, were the leaders of the movement: Frank Keeney, Fred Mooney, and Bill Blizzard.
Frank Keeney was my great-grandfather. I learned about the Mine Wars and the Battle of Blair Mountain at family cookouts and around my grandparents’ fireplace. My family has a long history in these mountains—I was proudly told. The Keeneys settled in the Greenbrier Valley in 1751 and even have a few rapids on the New River bearing the family name. However, in the decades after Blair Mountain, you did not want to walk into Charleston with the last name Keeney. The name meant treason. For many years, restaurants refused to serve Frank Keeney, but in the working class pubs he never had to buy a drink. Unfortunately, I never learned about any of this in school. In fact, my eighth grade West Virginia history teacher had never even heard of Frank Keeney. But, naturally, she had no trouble naming all of the counties in alphabetical order. As a teenager, I was left to wonder if anybody remembered or even cared what had happened in the coal fields of southern West Virginia.
Thankfully, with the inclusion of Blair Mountain on the National Register of Historic Places, we have another means of remembering and we know that some people care. Remembrance without action is pointless. We are indebted to those who have worked to preserve this historic landmark and save Blair Mountain from becoming another casualty of a coal operator’s greed. To strip mine Blair Mountain is to strip us of our own history, and this cannot be allowed. Blair Mountain reminds us of who we are as West Virginians. I believe Frank Keeney summed it up well when he said, “I am a native West Virginian and there are others like me in the mines here. We don’t propose to get out of the way when a lot of capitalists from New York and London come down and tell us to get off the earth. They played that game on the American Indian. They gave him the end of a log to sit on and then pushed him off that. We don't propose to be pushed off." Blair Mountain reminds us of a time when West Virginians refused to be pushed off the log.
Blair Mountain also reminds us that the fight is not over. In a speech to a crowd of striking miners, Keeney reassured them that the cause for which they suffered was not in vain. “One day there will be no more tent colonies, no more gunmen, because right now you people are going through what you are.” He was right. Today, there are no more tent colonies, and the mine guards are now found only in books or pieces of fiction. But the absence of these things does not signify that the conflict over coal, people, and history in West Virginia has ended. As recent events clearly demonstrate, there are some who would have us forget Blair Mountain. There are those who are fighting to have it taken off the National Register so that the mountain can be open for strip mining. They must be reminded that we will still not be pushed off the log.
A friend of mine once asked me in a joking manner, “You think if Frank Keeney were alive today that he’d have a Friends of Coal bumper sticker?” I responded that Frank Keeney was no Friend of Coal, but he was a friend of coal miners. There is a big difference. If we are to be friends of the miners who stormed Blair Mountain so many years ago, we must keep it on the National Register of Historic Places. If we give up on this fight, then we give up on the ideals of the Redneck Army of 1921. If Frank Keeney were alive today, I believe he would still be fighting.
C. Belmont Keeney, “Rank and File Rednecks: Radicalism and Union Leadership in the West Virginia Mine Wars,” Defending the Homeland: Historical Perspectives on Radicalism, Terrorism, and State Responses, Melinda M. Hicks and C. Belmont Keeney, eds. (Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2007): 20-43.
C. Belmont Keeney, “A Republican for Labor: T. C. Townsend and the West Virginia Labor Movement, 1921-1932,” West Virginia History, Volume 60, 2004-2006: 1-23.