— On Dark and Bloody Ground, by Anne T. Lawrence (West Virginia University Press, 2021)
In 1972, Anne Lawrence, a 21-year-old junior at Swarthmore College studying history and sociology, traveled through the coalfields of central and southern West Virginia, as well as Kentucky and Virginia. Her goal was to interview retired miners and their families about their union experiences, including their participation in the Battle of Blair Mountain that took place in Logan County, WV from August 25 to September 2 of 1921.
The Battle of Blair Mountain marked the culmination of the West Virginia mine wars, a series of battles in the early 20th century pitting coal miners trying to join the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) against the mine operators who opposed them. Given the mines’ dangerous working conditions, low pay, and the abuse miners and their families were subjected to at company towns, workers decided to organize. In order to thwart what they saw as a threat to their industry, mine operators hired armed guards and often partnered with local law enforcement to keep the miners in check.
Fifty years after Lawrence captured the testimonies of many protagonists of the largest labor uprising in United States history, and one century after nearly 10,000 armed coal miners confronted some 3,000 lawmen and strikebreakers in Blair Mountain, Lawrence’s work is finally available to a general audience in a newly-published book by WVU Press. On Dark and Bloody Ground focuses on testimonies relevant to the mine wars in West Virginia, part of Lawrence’s one hundred hours of tape-recorded interviews with more than eighty retired miners and their family members that previously had only been available as a typescript volume shelved in university archives.
“They couldn’t pinpoint the men, but they knew they was (sic) from up Cabin Creek, and so they arrested a lot of the men from around here, and took them down to Charles Town, and threw them in prison,” recalls Grace Jackson of Eskdale, WV. Jackson’s is one of the many testimonies that vivify a story that has most often been relegated to textbooks or the occasional fictional account like John Sayles’ film Matewan and Denise Giardina’s novel Storming Heaven. Jackson tells the story of her uncle, a coal miner in Cabin Creek who was arrested for his alleged participation in the Battle of Blair Mountain and taken to Charles Town to be tried in court.
Fighting a Battle for History
In 1933, with the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act, which limited overproduction of coal and allowed for collective bargaining, the UMWA began to successfully organize the Appalachian coalfields. As a result of the union and its members’ fight through the first half of the 20th century, American miners became some of the best-paid and insured in the world.
“The miner, he had always been kind of like a slave in everyone’s opinion, even his own,” says one of Lawrence’s interviewees, Edward Perry, a coal miner from Holden, WV. According to Perry, the miners’ working conditions bred “a sentiment in their hearts to come up, not to accept it laying down, but to come up to a place in society where they was (sic) acceptable, by their striving.”
Five years ago, the WV state legislature passed a bill to defund and weaken unions. The law was fought in court but ultimately prevailed last year in a Supreme Court that has traditionally been inimical to labor concerns. One of the judges’ opinions, however, conceded that the law “will ultimately lead to the slow death of the unions which built this state.” Erasing with the stroke of a pen what was won by workers’ sacrifice is sadly one of the many ways in which West Virginia elected and appointed officials have typically neglected the state’s history. On Dark and Bloody Ground is one valuable tool to keep this history alive.
Born in Texas, raised in Chile, and currently living in Shepherdstown, Gonzalo is a fiction writer with books published in Spain, Italy, and Chile. His stories have appeared in Boulevard, Goliad, and The Texas Review.By Gonzalo Baeza