chapter  4
17 Pages

The social and environmental upheaval of Blair Mountain: a working class struggle for unionisation and historic preservation: Brandon Nida and Michael Jessee Adkins


Armed miners gathered by the thousands in the late autumn of 1921, streaming out of the hills and hollows of West Virginia. Many wore blue overalls and tied red bandanas around their necks as a uniform, while others were dressed in their military gear from the recently ended First World War. They were a mixture of Appalachian hill folk from Scots-Irish ancestry, African-Americans who had migrated out of the Deep South, and emigrants from Italy, Wales, Poland and other European countries. This coal-miner army was assembling to confront a severely oppressive social and economic system maintained by coal operators in the region. After a generation of labour conflict in the West Virginia coalfields, mining communities erupted in the largest open class war in US history (Savage 1990: 3-6). Their struggle culminated on the ridges surrounding Blair Mountain in a fierce five-day battle against a private army backed by coal-mine owners. This conflict occurred in a larger international context where labour

movements were gaining momentum worldwide. Workers’ councils in Germany seemed on the cusp of obtaining political control during 1917-18. The 1919 General Strikes in Barcelona, Winnipeg, Seattle and Belfast symbolised a growing solidarity and militancy among the industrial world’s workers. In Britain, a general strike originating with coal miners brought the United Kingdom to a halt for ten days in May 1926. Most significantly, the Bolshevik Revolution installed a socialist government in Russia through violent revolution. Labour struggles in the US were no less significant, although this heritage is often marginalised in American historical discourse (Durrenburger 2006; McGuire 2008: 107). The history of violent labour struggles such as the Ludlow Massacre and the Haymarket Affair contradict Americanist narratives of enterprise, individuality and a classless society that help maintain, reinforce and mask power structures and inequalities (Foote 2003: 7, 134; Hamilakis and Duke 2007; McGuire and Reckner 2003: 84; McGuire and Walker 1999: 159; Shackel 2001: 657; Smith 2006). Blair Mountain is one such episode of violent labour conflict that raises

discomforting issues about the industrialisation of America. The coal industry was central to the growth of American prosperity in that it supplied the

‘cheap energy’ essential for the foundries and factories that propelled the industrial revolution. But the workers often toiled in poverty and brutal conditions, and they paid the true cost of this prosperity while receiving the least of its benefits. The insurrection was an attempt to gain basic human rights, and it was open class warfare at the heart of American state capitalism. It is where the collective might of unionised power struck hardest, and only the federal government could halt it. The miners seized territory and property, at one point controlling and managing over 500 square miles (Savage 1990: 130). Although this conflict was the second largest rebellion in America, next to the Civil War, this battle has been largely forgotten. Today, a different conflict is being waged at Blair Mountain, and this time

it is for the life of the mountain itself. Coal companies are attempting to conduct an extremely destructive form of coal extraction called mountaintop removal (MTR) at the site. This process would literally ‘obliterate’ the mountain and all traces of the miners’ rebellion from the surrounding landscape (Foote 2004: 7). Archaeology has been an important tool in the efforts to preserve the battlefield, through both research and political action. Surveys undertaken by Dr Harvard Ayers of Appalachian State University highlighted the archaeological significance and integrity of the site, which was crucial in the site’s nomination to the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). Although being listed on the register does not entirely protect the battlefield, it was a significant step in securing the mountain’s future. Unfortunately, the site was recently delisted due to a coal-operatorbacked opposition, a decision that a group of concerned citizens and academics are currently challenging. Since the story of Blair Mountain is largely unknown, our purposes in

writing this chapter are to introduce the topic and raise awareness of the site’s threatened status. To accomplish these goals, we focus on four elements of our research at the site. First, we describe the historical context of the labour insurrection in order to deconstruct narratives that have served to marginalise the battle in national discourse. Second, we discuss the actual battle while incorporating initial archaeological analysis of the battlefield. The third section examines the way in which the heritage of Blair Mountain is currently being reinterpreted and asserted in the contemporary struggle against mountaintop removal. Finally we explore the ways in which an engaged archaeology can be utilised in contemporary political struggles such as labour and environmental justice movements.