The putting miners had been 10,000 sturdy on the primary day of September 1921 as they charged up the slope of Blair Mountain, propelled by a radical religion within the American dream. Based on an Related Press reporter who crouched behind a log and watched by subject glasses, every time they pressed ahead, a “veritable wall” of machine gun fireplace drove them again. Because the barrage echoed by the hollows, reminding a number of the motion that they had simply seen within the forests of France, the advancing miners quickly heard a distinct sound: deeper, earthshaking explosions. From biplanes above, tear fuel, explosive powder and metallic bolts rained down. “My God,” screamed one miner combating his manner up Crooked Creek Hole. “They’re bombing us!”
“They” had been Sheriff Don Chafin and his deputies, who terrorized the residents of Logan County, W.Va., by the authority of the coal firms. The miners vastly outnumbered their opponents, however Chafin had the superior place and weapons. “ACTUAL WAR IS RAGING IN LOGAN,” one native paper declared the day earlier than.
The miners had been combating for the proper to unionize, and to finish the reviled “mine guard system,” a non-public drive of armed guards who brutally enforced the corporate’s management within the coal fields. Until the mine guard system was eliminated, John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Employees of America, had warned, “the dove of peace” would “by no means make everlasting abode on this stricken territory.”
On Sept. 4, federal troops arrived at Blair Mountain. The miners cheered, considering Uncle Sam had come to liberate them from King Coal. Uncle Sam had no such plans. In 1921, about three million Individuals had been unemployed, and Washington was involved that the economic battle raging in southern West Virginia may unfold to different states. The troops instructed miners to face down, and so they did. “We wouldn’t revolt towards the nationwide authorities,” considered one of them mentioned.
The miners had been roundly defeated, however their battle was not in useless: Years later, as a part of the New Deal, the rights they had been combating for — together with the proper to collectively cut price — had been written into legislation. Black, white and immigrant, the “Crimson Neck Military” (so named for the pink bandannas they wore) had mounted the biggest working-class rebellion in U.S. historical past and the biggest armed rebel for the reason that Civil Battle.
In the present day, Blair Mountain is simply that: a mountain. Whereas many battlefields are the thing of exhaustive research and veneration — locations and instances when energy wobbled and blood was shed — Blair Mountain remains to be largely unexplored. No statue or roadside attraction commemorates it; no tour buses roll up and disgorge guests. Regardless of a burst of recent interest, for many West Virginians, the story of Blair Mountain barely even exists.
My household has lived roughly repeatedly in West Virginia since our patriarch, John Hinkle, settled his brood close to Seneca Rocks round 1760. However I spent a lot of my adolescence dreaming of a world past the blue ridges — a dream my grandmother vigorously inspired, having bolted over them herself when Representative Ken Hechler provided her a job in Washington. Her implied message to me, delivered by way of journal clippings of women in gaucho pants and journeys to cities like Chicago, gave the impression to be: A a lot larger world awaits. So having heard Joe Manchin name West Virginia the “extraction state,” I extracted myself. In faculty a number of states away, I majored in worldwide relations, casting my consideration as distant as I assumed I ought to.
Within the time I used to be gone, the mid-2000s, issues again residence appeared to additional deteriorate. Opioid firms started flooding West Virginia with capsules, and by 2010 it turned the leading state for overdose deaths, kicking off a cascading disaster within the foster care system. That very same 12 months, an explosion on the Higher Huge Department coal mine killed 29 folks. Since 2012, many mine operators have filed for chapter. As they did, they paid astonishing sums to administration whereas foisting a lot of their pension, black lung and environmental obligations onto taxpayers. By the 2020 census, West Virginia had shrunk sufficient to lose considered one of its three congressional seats, partially as a result of folks hold fleeing. It’s simple to grasp why: Based on one source, West Virginia is the least happy state, the worst for locating a job and the least educated. I blocked all of it out, figuring out I used to be a part of the mind drain.
Then the pandemic hit, and my private life imploded, too. Recent off a breakup, I reluctantly retreated to my household and the hills that raised me, hoping their historical slopes would educate me some secret concerning the inevitability, and gradualness, of change.
Many rural locations declare the title “God’s Nation,” however West Virginia takes nice satisfaction in being “Nearly Heaven.” Current for the monarchs on the milkweed and cascades of scarlet maple leaves that first autumn of Covid, I felt it — not for the primary time, however in a manner that appeared like mine. I met childhood pals on the river, clear and holy, and we blinked at one another as if discovering we had been some unusual species of fish, all returned to the supply. As months turned to years, the concept of our earlier urbane lives turned laughable in comparison with the symphony of stars.
The longer I stayed, the extra I turned inquisitive about my residence. I lastly needed to know what everybody at all times needs to find out about West Virginia: How can we be each so stunning and so damned?
As I started to study our historical past for what felt like the primary time, the story of Blair Mountain arrived like a surprising clue. My great-grandmother, Idelene Hinkle, had been a columnist for The West Virginia Hillbilly, a satirical homage to West Virginia’s “absurd, fatalistic” humor. She had at all times spoken proudly of profitable a Golden Horseshoe Award, a prize given to high college students in West Virginia historical past. It appeared inconceivable that I had by no means heard her, or anybody else I grew up with, speak concerning the time West Virginia bombed its personal folks.
It turned out I wasn’t alone: “I’m a product of the West Virginian public college system,” wrote Sam Heywood in a outstanding 2020 honors thesis at Brigham Younger College, describing the satisfaction he felt profitable the identical Golden Horseshoe Award my great-grandmother had. “I felt deceived when in faculty, midway throughout the nation from my residence, I discovered concerning the violent historical past of the Mine Wars.”
So there have been two of us, then. Really, there have been way more: When Charles B. Keeney III started educating historical past at Southern West Virginia Group and Technical School, most of his college students hadn’t heard concerning the Mine Wars or Blair Mountain both, even supposing the battlefield lay just some miles from campus. Professor Keeney, after all, had: He’s the great-grandson of Frank Keeney, one of many towering figures of the United Mine Employees who urged his males to not let themselves be “crushed like a beetle beneath the golden chariot of the cash kings.”
Based on Mr. Keeney and different students, there’s a completely good cause for our ignorance: Following the Battle of Blair Mountain, West Virginia stored any point out of labor battle out of its textbooks for greater than 50 years, and in many faculties it’s nonetheless absent.
It’s not simply the story of Blair Mountain that the state appears to need to erase but in addition the soil itself. In 2009, the Nationwide Register of Historic Locations, below strain from the coal business, delisted the Blair Mountain battlefield. This left the land open for mountaintop elimination, a very harmful type of floor mining.
A century after the Battle of Blair Mountain, the same battle for id and belonging is being waged. The distinction, Mr. Keeney says, is that the Mine Guard System has develop into the Thoughts Guard System.
The primary time I went to the State Capitol, I used to be on a fifth-grade subject journey. “You had been so excited to study how a invoice turns into a legislation,” my mom recalled. “However the tour information spent practically the whole time speaking concerning the gold-plated dome and chandeliers.”
Even to a baby, the distinction between the lavishness of the federal government and the trailers that a few of my classmates lived in was apparent and uncomfortable. In 2018, this incongruity turned a political disaster when the Legislature took the extraordinary step of impeaching the whole State Supreme Courtroom over their workplace renovations. By all measures, the renovations had been grotesque: A blue suede couch priced at $32,000 doesn’t belong in any public workplace, particularly not in a state the place, based on the Census Bureau, the per capita earnings was about $29,000.
However the excessive measure of impeaching a complete department of presidency nonetheless struck some as a coup — the Republican supermajority flexing its muscle towards what was the state’s final holdout of Democratic energy. In the present day, West Virginia Republicans management all three branches of presidency and, in a sample mirroring different pink state homes (together with Ohio, Tennessee and Indiana) within the nation, are utilizing their energy to cross tax cuts and approve college vouchers. They’re additionally reviving the old-time custom of stifling dissent. On the quilt of its annual magazine, the West Virginia A.C.L.U. put a finer level on it: “Is West Virginia abandoning democracy?”
Whether it is, it’s hardly alone, and it’s taking lots of its cues from the nationwide stage. However in Appalachia unadorned, it’s typically simpler to see the indicators.
Final December, the reporter Amelia Knisely was dismissed from a partly state-run radio station after reporting on alleged abuses at authorities services. That very same 12 months, the State Senate banned photography through the debate over abortion. A 12 months earlier than that, in 2021, the Legislature outlawed a major source of union funding — retaliation, the West Virginia College legislation professor Bob Bastress believes, for a 2018 academics’ strike. When Mr. Bastress filed a professional bono go well with on behalf of the unions, W.V.U. knowledgeable him that going ahead, professors would wish permission to characterize pursuits which may be “hostile to the state.” However whose state? Hostile to whom?
In earlier a long time, unions had been a significant engine of Democratic energy in West Virginia, and a part of why West Virginia, now so pink, was once so blue.
“Now,” mentioned the state senator Mike Caputo once I visited him in his workplace in January, a throng of miners ready for him within the echoing halls, “West Virginia does nothing however weaken labor unions.”
Mr. Caputo ought to know: He’s a union man himself, and one of many final three Democrats within the Senate. “They took away prevailing wage from our brothers and sisters within the development business to make their lifestyle decrease,” he mentioned. “They weakened coal mine well being and security — most likely rolled it again 40 years.”
“Folks died for these legal guidelines,” he added, “and so they stripped them away as a result of coal operators needed it executed.”
At the same time as West Virginia makes an attempt to venture a vibrant, fashionable future, opening a new national park in 2021 and even permitting a renewable battery plant to arrange store in Weirton (regardless of grumbles from some lawmakers that “that is coal cash that we’re giving to a woke firm”), the state remains to be beholden to the pursuits of the fossil gasoline business — even on the literal expense of the general public.
If utility firms need to change from coal — which as of 2021 provided 91 percent of the state’s electrical energy — to cheaper vitality sources, they have to now search permission from the Public Vitality Authority, a protracted inactive company that Gov. Jim Justice resuscitated on the West Virginia Coal Affiliation’s annual convention. As that rule was signed into legislation, final March, the governor, who owns mines all through the southeastern a part of the nation, held a lump of coal aloft. “I owe my life to this proper right here,” he mentioned.
The subsequent month, Mr. Justice announced his run for the U.S. Senate onstage on the 710-room resort he owns in Greenbrier. Accompanied by his English bulldog, Babydog, Mr. Justice known as himself a patriot and “your Covid dad.” The benevolent paternalism of his mannequin — a coal operator as surrogate father or mother, the residents as youngsters — isn’t new right here, however age has hardly tarnished it: Mr. Justice, till final month the state’s richest man, is among the most popular governors within the nation.
By the point he completed speaking, you possibly can virtually neglect that his firms owe millions in mine safety and environmental fines, and that extra West Virginians work in Walmart than do beneath floor.
In 1921, a couple of weeks earlier than the battle of Blair Mountain, The Instances published an editorial concerning the violence already brewing in southern West Virginia, titled “The Primitive Mountaineer.” The folks of West Virginia weren’t of “peculiar heredity,” it mentioned, however “of an inheritance and behavior aside” from the remainder of the nation. “Solely sluggish time can treatment them,” concluded the article, however the combating did have one profit: It was “killing off their most lively specimens.”
A century later, West Virginians are nonetheless largely seen that manner — as hicks, as deplorables, most of all, as rednecks. It nonetheless curdles. You may glimpse that impact in how eagerly the state went for Donald Trump and his politics of resentment.
I noticed it in the unusual way my native paper coated an incident when some miners rescued a traveler whose electrical automobile had damaged down. The article concluded with a plea for understanding: “This simply reveals you coal miners are good folks and can exit of their manner to assist anybody buddy or foe.”
Regardless of supplying a lot of the coal that industrialized the USA, usually at enormous personal cost, many West Virginians really feel they’ve by no means been correctly understood or thanked by our fellow Individuals. We seek for proof near residence that we’re good, as a result of we’re surrounded by messages from outsiders on the contrary.
The recent satisfaction that has connected itself to the time period “redneck” is reactionary satisfaction, a refusal to be wounded by different folks’s disdain. However the time period additionally belongs to the lads who fought and died on the Battle of Blair Mountain, carrying pink bandannas as their uniform. It’s not an insult, to be weathered with disgrace or inverted with bravado — it’s a legacy of honor, of resistance, of energy.
Through the academics’ strike of 2018, some academics donned pink bandannas in honor of the miners’ military. Mitch Carmichael, who was then the State Senate president, denounced them as having a “radical socialist agenda,” simply as Governor Morgan denounced the putting miners a century earlier than.
What if everybody knew rednecks had been patriots who dared to demand truthful therapy? Or that the marching miners, after they reached a segregated mess corridor, held the cafeteria staff at gunpoint in order that miners, Black and white, may eat collectively?
In small however significant methods, the story of multiethnic working-class solidarity is coming again. In 2011, Professor Keeney and a gaggle of activists launched into a protest march to avoid wasting Blair Mountain, strolling the identical 50-mile route the miners’ military as soon as took. Alongside the way in which, counterprotesters screamed and even spit at them; later, at public hearings, some activists had been threatened. The combat was ugly. However two federal lawsuits later, the battlefield is again on the historic register and the mountain and its story are actually protected.
Within the city of Matewan, an hour to the southwest, guests can cease by the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, a non-public assortment hosted within the previous city financial institution, and see recovered artifacts equivalent to firm scrip, which the miners had been paid as an alternative of cash, and rifle shells from the rounds sprayed into the woods. Sometime, the curators and Mr. Keeney hope to construct a commemorative park on the battle web site itself.
Little question their progress might be fitful and might be challenged at each flip. That’s a part of why tales of resistance like Blair Mountain are inspiring: They remind us that rights are not often given, however are extra usually bitterly and bloodily gained, and that earlier than they’re gained, they’re usually misplaced.
However remembering has one other profit, too: It will probably really feel like a homecoming. Residing in West Virginia was not at all times snug for me. Anybody who deviates from the norm is labeled an outsider, and I usually felt that manner rising up, regardless of digging ramps with my father every chilly spring on the mountain behind our cabin, as John Hinkle probably did centuries earlier than us. Regardless of loving this land greater than all of the redwoods and the Rockies mixed, I left West Virginia partly as a result of I couldn’t see myself mirrored within the Appalachian identities that appeared obtainable again then.
Studying the historical past of Blair Mountain modified that. It’s not that I see myself as an precise resistance fighter, however I, too, can put on the pink bandanna. That is what West Virginia fears: that extra of us will bear in mind who we’re. If we do, we would understand that it’s doable to be proud mountaineers and likewise query our loyalty to King Coal. Actually, it’s part of our homegrown heritage.
Cassady Rosenblum, a contract journalist and West Virginia native, was the 2022-23 New York Instances Opinion enhancing fellow. Aaron Blum is an eighth-generation Scots-Irish Appalachian from the mountains of West Virginia. He’s a professor of images at Carnegie Mellon College and West Virginia College.
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