Tag Archives: labor history

Judge refuses to have Blair Mountain put back on the National Register

Let’s imagine for a minute that I blew up Cemetery Ridge.  Just hypothetically, I mean.  Imagine that Gettysburg National Military Park up and decided to sell off some land, and I bought Cemetery Ridge and then bulldozed away all the soil, and then I drilled down into the rock and placed some explosives and then just blasted it all to smithereens.

If that scenario disturbs you, consider this: Last week a federal judge, siding with coal companies, refused to have the site of the Battle of Blair Mountain put back on the National Register of Historic Places.

You’d think a place where one of the biggest armed uprisings in American history happened, and one of the most significant historic sites in Appalachia, would get a little more respect.

Why did Blair Mountain get removed from the register to begin with?  Believe it or not, Randall Reid-Smith, West Virginia’s State Historic Preservation Officer, asked for it to be taken off, claiming that most of the property owners objected to the designation. When a real estate lawyer took a closer look at these dissenting property owners, a funny thing happened.

The list of objectors, Bailey discovered, included two dead men—one of whom had perished nearly three decades earlier—as well as a property owner who had sold her land years before the nomination process. In addition, Bailey identified 13 property owners who did not appear on the SHPO list at all. “The final count we reached was 63 landowners and only 25 objectors,” Ayers said.

Hey, if two guys came back from the hereafter and asked you to get a site taken off the National Register of Historic Places, you’d probably get right on it too, wouldn’t you?

There’s a sickening irony here; the Battle of Blair Mountain happened because the miners got fed up with the coal companies’ rapacity, and now the site itself is threatened by coal companies’ rapacity.  Picture an original safe house on the Underground Railroad being torn down to build a whites-only restaurant, and you’d have an analogous situation.

If you care about historic ground, now would be a good time to let some elected officials know it.

After the battle, the miners of Blair Mountain hand over their guns. West Virginia Division of Culture and History (wvculture.org)

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What’s Blair Mountain worth?

One of America’s largest labor uprisings, and the biggest armed civil insurrection since the Civil War, started ninety years ago—and there’s an excellent chance you’ve never heard of it.

Thousands of West Virginia miners, thoroughly sick of horrid working conditions and the coal companies’ efforts to prevent them from organizing, squared off against forces led by Sheriff Don Chafin at a ridge called Blair Mountain.  The ensuing “Battle of Blair Mountain” deserved its moniker, for it was a battle in every sense of the word—a five-day armed struggle along a fifteen-mile front, in which dozens died and hundreds were injured, complete with the deployment of air power.  (Pilots hired by the sheriff dropped bombs on the miners’ positions, and the Army Air Force flew surveillance.)

The miners nearly broke through the coal companies’ enforcers, but finally disbanded and headed to their homes when the presence of the U.S. Army tipped the balance against them.  Some of them faced indictments for murder, conspiracy, and treason afterward. Appalachian History has a more detailed post on the affair, which is well worth reading; the Battle of Blair Mountain is also the subject of a recent book by Robert Shogan.

What I find most striking about the story is the fact that it’s largely unknown.  I’m ashamed to admit that until a few years ago I’d never heard of it myself, despite the fact that I’m a history aficionado who’s lived most of his life in Appalachia.  How in the world has one of the largest and most important civil uprisings in the nation’s history—planes took to the air against American citizens on our own soil, for crying out loud—been such a neglected historical subject?  Is it because it happened in a region that most Americans either ignore entirely or (if they think about it all) treat with contempt and disdain?  I hope the answer is not so simple as that, but I’m not optimistic.

These days Blair Mountain is a battlefield again, but the modern-day Battle of Blair Mountain is over preservation.  A few years ago Blair Mountain was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, but it was subsequently removed.  It needs to be reinstated. The site is threatened by surface mining, which would destroy this historic landscape and the archaeological resources it contains.

Let me pause here to state that I’m not opposed to the coal industry’s very existence, as some people are.  At the same time, though, I don’t think it should be immune from criticism.  Discussion about coal shouldn’t be a zero-sum game in which any critique of the industry automatically means that you’re against fossil fuels or gainful employment.  I stress this because I don’t want readers to take my endorsement of efforts to preserve Blair Mountain as a denunciation of coal or coal miners.  My attitude toward the coal industry is mixed; I’m glad that it provides jobs to people of this area, and as an energy source it’s indispensable.  (A popular bumper sticker in my neck of the woods reads, DON’T LIKE COAL? DON’T USE ELECTRICITY.)  At the same time, though, I’m also aware that it’s a problematic industry that has created and continues to create a great many problems.  Appalachia’s relationship to coal reminds me of what Jefferson said about America’s relationship to slavery: “But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.”

At the end of the day, this is about a specific place that’s very special.  Blair Mountain is an important historic site, and should be designated as such and protected.  Check out the Friends of Blair Mountain website and see what all the fuss is about.

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Labor history is the new Confederate history

Back in 2008 Maine’s Labor Department unveiled a mural depicting the history of the state’s labor movement at their headquarters, which seems kind of appropriate given the fact that it’s, you know, the Dept. of Labor.

Now Gov. Paul LePage has decided that the mural is too much of a hot potato, so it’s got to go:

LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said the governor’s office has received “several messages” from the public complaining about the mural. She also released an anonymous fax, dated Feb. 24, that apparently came from someone who recently visited the Labor Department’s lobby.

“In this mural I observed a figure which closely resembles the former commissioner of labor,” the person wrote. “In studying the mural I also observed that this mural is nothing but propaganda to further the agenda of the Union movement. I felt for a moment that I was in communist North Korea where they use these murals to brainwash the masses.”

Conference rooms in the same building are named for important figures in the history of labor, so they’re going to re-christen them, too.  One of them is currently named for Marion Martin, a pioneering female politician who worked to motivate Republican women voters during the GOP’s troubled New Deal years and organized the National Federation of Women’s Republican Clubs.  Since Gov. LePage is himself an ardent Republican, you’d think he would think twice about that one, or at least consider the irony.

A Maine newspaper got hold of a memo from the state’s acting Labor Commissioner:

“We have received feedback that the administration building is not perceived as equally receptive to both businesses and workers — primarily because of the nature of the mural in the lobby and the names of our conference rooms,” she wrote. “Whether or not the perception is valid is not really at issue and therefore, not open to debate.”

She asks workers to suggest names for the conference rooms by April 5 and indicates there will be “a small prize” for anyone who comes up with a new name.

What I want to know is whether the re-naming contest is open to the public or just restricted to DOL staff.  If it’s the former, then I suggest we name each conference room for a different Masters of the Universe character—the He-Man Room, the Skeletor Room, the Evil-Lyn Room, the Stratos Room, and so forth. It would really give the place some class.

Speaking of labor history, today’s the 100th anniversary of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.  It left 146 garment workers dead, most of them immigrant women in their late teens and early twenties.  These days it’s a lot easier for a young gal to land a good job, especially if she happens to be Gov. LePage’s daughter.

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