Mother Jones, the famous labor organizer, once said, “There can be no peace in West Virginia because there is no justice in West Virginia.” When Mother Jones made this statement, the Mountain State was engulfed in what is now known as the West Virginia Mine Wars. Hundreds died and thousands more suffered through evictions, near starvation, the removal of their constitutional rights of free speech and assembly, and the brutality of private armies in the pay of the coal barons. On top of these injustices, the national media branded the coal miners as “rednecks” because of the red bandanas that the miners wore to show worker solidarity. The national media, ignoring the true causes of the violence, blamed the conflict on the supposed backwardness, ignorance, and savage nature of the Appalachian people. The Mine Wars climaxed in the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, where the army of the coal barons and the Redneck Army of miners riddled the hills with bullets and explosives for several days. Aside from the Civil War, it was the largest uprising in United States history.
Today, few people across this country even know that it happened.
In an effort to preserve this history, activists and scholars succeeded in having Blair Mountain placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The placement of Blair Mountain on the National Register was meant to not only preserve our history and the story of our people, but also to protect the mountain itself.
Enemies of our history, unfortunately, found a loophole.
According to the rules of the National Register, if more than half of the property owners in the battlefield area petition against the preservation of Blair Mountain, then it must be removed from the Register. In January of this year, coal companies submitted a petition of “landowners” in the area and Blair Mountain was removed from the National Register. The motive for this is clear – the coal companies wish to destroy the battlefield via mountaintop removal, and with it an important part of American history. However, after some prudent research by local attorney John Bailey and Dr. Harvard Ayers from Appalachian State University, it has been discovered that parts of the petition have been forged. Two of the supposed landowners of the battlefield are dead – one of them since 1983. Three others are not even landowners in the area. Official documentation has been found proving this forgery and the evidence was submitted to Randall Reid-Smith, Commissioner of the State Department of Culture and History. Reid-Smith, appointed by Governor Joe Manchin, has the power to overturn this forgery and put Blair Mountain back on the National Register where it belongs.
Unbelievably, both Reid-Smith and Governor Manchin have refused to even review the evidence.
Blair Mountain remains off the National Register, and if the Massey Coal Corporation has its way, it will be destroyed entirely.
There is, however, still a glimmer of hope. Carol Shull, the Keeper of the National Register in Washington DC, can overrule Reid-Smith and our Governor. I am calling on everyone who cares about preserving the history of miners and of our state to write her a letter and tell her about this continued injustice. You can write her at the following address:
Ms. Carol Shull, Keeper
National Park Service
National Register of Historic Places
1201 Eye Street, NW
Washington, DC 20005
Mother Jones’ statement about the lack of justice in West Virginia still rings true today. But this is no longer about the Battle of Blair Mountain. It has become the Battle for Blair Mountain. Of course, I have both personal and professional reasons for this new call to arms. I am a native West Virginian. Frank Keeney, the leader of the miners’ revolt was my great-grandfather. Today, I am a professor of history and have published numerous articles on the struggles of working men and women in this state. But for me this is more than a personal crusade or a professional obligation. It is not a liberal cause. Nor is it a conservative cause. It is a just cause. If you care about justice in West Virginia, then do something about it. Write Carol Shull. Tell her who you are and why West Virginia’s culture and history is important to you. Tell her how the coal companies have lied in order to destroy this history, and tell her that the power is in her hands to stop it. We must send her enough letters so that she cannot ignore us. West Virginia is nearly always ignored by the rest of the nation except when it comes to bad press. Let us now give the nation a reason to see West Virginians as people who stand for their history and proudly proclaim their culture.
Do the right thing and write!
Montani Semper Liberi!
The Leaders of the Miners
Bill Blizzard, Fred Mooney, Bill Petry, and Frank Keeney