RADFORD — Not quite 150 miles from Radford, in the coal fields of West Virginia, the second largest armed rebellion in American history took place in 1921. The Battle of Blair Mountain pitted 10,000 coal miners against 3,000 lawmen and strike-breakers over a five-day period in August and September. The coal miners wanted to unionize and the mine operators deployed private detectives, local law enforcement, and eventually the National Guard to stop them.
William H. “Bill” Blizzard was the union leader who was later tried, but acquitted of treason and murder for his part in the Blair Mountain battle. His story was told by his son, William C. Blizzard, in the book “When Miners March,” edited by Wess Harris. On Thursday, Harris appeared at Radford University’s McConnell Library for a talk on the uprising. McConnell Library has a collection of transcripts and newspaper accounts of the uprising and the events before and after the battle in their Coal and Labor Collection, part of the larger Appalachian Collection.
The Coal and Labor section contains 19 linear shelf feet of material. Harris said RU was the best place to archive the material as he felt ‘‘the institutions in West Virginia that could house this material, I don’t have confidence in their integrity to maintain the truth about the events. The coal companies have too much influence and have systematically extinguished our history.”
Harris went on to add that RU “had good faculty and an active Appalachian Studies program.”
Gene Hyde, the Appalachian Collection Librarian, organized the event which was free and open to the public. About 30 people attended Harris’s lively presentation.
A certified underground coal miner, Harris spent many years collecting material, mostly from William C. Blizzard’s newspaper columns. William C. Blizzard was a journalist and photographer who was published in the Charleston Gazette, The Nation, and Labor’s Daily. Many of the articles are now archived and being digitized by the university.
The United Mine Workers Union (UMW) was formed in 1890, but by 1921 it still had not penetrated the coalfields of West Virginia south of Charleston. Miners and their families lived in company towns and were paid in company script, not U.S. currency. The script could only be used to make purchases at the company stores and miners and their families rented housing from the coal companies. This led to incredible hardships and unfair treatment of the workers doing one of the most dangerous jobs in America. Bill Blizzard himself began working in the mines with his father when he was only ten.
The UMW was successful in improving conditions but mine operators south of Charleston used scare tactics and violence to discourage unionization. Corruption of law enforcement, judges, and the use of the Baldwin-Felts detective agency led to evictions of miners from their homes and several murders. The most heinous and the spark that led to the Battle of Blair Mountain was the murder on the courthouse steps in Welch of Sid Hatfield. Hatfield was the Chief of Police in Matewan, where he was involved in the shooting of a Baldwin-Felts detective in the legendary Matewan Massacre that left seven detectives dead. Charges against Hatfield were dismissed but he was gunned down by a Baldwin-Felts detective on the steps of the courthouse on August 1, 1921.
Over 10,000 miners marched to Blair Mountain in Logan County and the first skirmishes began on August 25. Days later over a hundred were dead and 985 were arrested. The coal companies claimed victory, but so did the miners.
Harris was animated and held the crowd’s attention as he detailed the events and the aftermath. He published the book himself in 2004; the second printing has sold over 5,000 copies. He addressed the college students in the crowd when he concluded by saying “We still need a generation of coal miners until your generation can figure out how to replace the energy provided by coal.”
By Charlie Whitescarver