Reconnect with the state’s proud union roots at the Blair Mountain Centennial
In late August 1921, thousands of coal miners set foot southward from Marmet, outside Charleston. They’d endured decades of oppressive working conditions, and the August 1 murder of Sid Hatfield—who’d earned their respect when he’d defended miners in a shootout with coal company thugs in Matewan—was one assault too many. The miners were headed together to Mingo County to claim their right to unionize.
Halfway, 50 miles into their march, they reached Blair Mountain in the anti-union stronghold of Logan County. “They were met there by an army that Don Chafin, the local sheriff, put together,” recounts Mackenzie New Walker, executive director of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum in Matewan. “They fought for five and a half days. The fighting only came to an end when Uncle Sam showed up—the U.S. Army marched in, and the miners surrendered.” But not before at least 20 and possibly 100 or more died.
It was the largest labor uprising in the nation’s history. “Some historians call it labor’s Gettysburg,” New Walker says. Yet, the Battle of Blair Mountain doesn’t have the place in the nation’s memory that it should, she says.
In the days surrounding Labor Day weekend, the Blair Mountain Centennial aims to change that.
Our vision for the centennial is to commemorate the battle as it happened
100 years ago,” New Walker says, “to memorialize the men, women, and children who sometimes gave their lives so we can enjoy the labor rights that we have today— things won by United Mine Workers, like the 40-hour work week, the 8-hour day, and weekends.”
Three central events planned by centennial organizers kick off September 3 at the Culture Center in Charleston. “We really want to fire people up, and the best way is with music,” New Walker says. Coal miners sang together to boost their morale, she says, and, when the events of the West Virginia Mine Wars were suppressed, people passed the stories and traditions along in song. “Since one of the forces that took this history to a national audience was the 1987 film Matewan, we’re going to have folks from that film come together to celebrate labor and protest songs. We’ve partnered with Augusta Heritage Center in Beverly to get headline acts Phil Wiggins, Gerry Milnes, and Heather Hannah,” with others to be announced.
In a grand symbolic act, the UMWA is organizing a three-day march to Blair Mountain to honor those who marched. That will start on Friday and wrap up Sunday evening. And finally, on Monday, the UMWA’s annual Labor Day Rally will take place in Racine, with food, inspirational speakers, live music, and more.
But while the commemoration centers on the West Virginia counties that New Walker says were not yet unionized at the time of the battle—Logan, McDowell, and Mingo—dozens of partners in multiple counties and three states will mark the centennial as well. Events across the region include readings, a walking tour, a film festival, performance of The Terror of the Tug, and much more.
New Walker wants the centennial to etch the Battle of Blair Mountain into hearts and memories. “If you look at the state of unions today, it’s obvious that West Virginia needs to remember who and where we come from,” she says. “And I think a lot of people looking from outside in have a view of West Virginians as backwards people—I want us to celebrate the history that we have and be proud of it.”
She hopes the partnerships and pride inspired by the centennial will bring further accomplishments, too. “When you go to Blair Mountain, there’s nothing there but a historic marker issued by the state,” she says. “So after the centennial, there’s more to be done—like having outdoor exhibits and interpretive signage at Blair Mountain and along the route of the miners’ march, because there’s definitely an interest for people to come and be in the place where their ancestors fought for labor rights—for human rights.”
To see the full roster of events as it shapes up visit blair100.com.