Americana: West Virginia

The Battle of Blair Mountain
December 06, 2011 to January 06, 2012

West Virginia, the 35th state admitted to the Union and one of only two created by Presidential proclamation, is known both for its abundant natural beauty and the state’s major industry, coal mining. Initially extracted for domestic energy consumption, the export of West Virginia coal was made possible when railroads reached into the coalfields in 1843, helping fuel the American Industrial Revolution. Since the 1970s, coal mining in West Virginia has appeared with alarming frequency in the national news cycle in the wake of disaster. The most recent, an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in April 2010, claimed 29 lives and brought renewed calls for the mining industry to acknowledge and correct the dangerous conditions in which miners work.

Long before contemporary labor disputes grabbed headlines, another exchange brought miners and mine operators to blows and in turn focused attention on issues including class, race, and labor relations that had simmered nationwide since the mid-19th century. The Battle of Blair Mountain, second to the Civil War, was the largest armed conflict in American history. For five days in late August and early September 1921, an estimated 15,000 coal miners fought police and strikebreakers funded by mine owners. The dispute arose over the aggressive and popularly supported incursion of United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) agents into Mingo and Logan Counties, home to rich veins of coal in southern West Virginia that were difficult and dangerous to access.

A series of events, including a bitter 28-month strike and the murders of both mine representatives and a pro-union sheriff ultimately brought miners and a private army supported by mine owners into violent conflict. The five-day confrontation ended after President Warren G. Harding ordered federal troops to the region to quell the dispute. Reports of the battle recalled both contemporary and historic moments in labor history – the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado in 1914, and the trial and execution of alleged Molly Maguire members in 1877. These events contributed to fears that unions would forcibly open the United States to Communism.

When the dust settled, mine owners claimed the battle as a victory. In the wake of the conflict, UMWA presence in West Virginia was severely weakened and its nationwide reputation marred, largely due to news coverage that identified the union and miners as the instigators of the violence. In the long term the conflict raised awareness of the appalling work and domestic conditions faced by miners and their families, transformed the union cause into a legitimate political force that helped shape and enact New Deal legislation in 1933, and bolstered the collective bargaining powers of both the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

This installation of Americana utilizes a single visual element, the color black, to represent related ideas: the subterranean environment into which miners descend each day, coal the fruit of physically demanding and dangerous labor, and the ink committed to newspaper in the service of reporting mining and union conflicts over the last 140 years.

Roula Seikaly

Return to Americana Homepage