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A deadly struggle for workers’ rights: the Battle of Blair Mountain remembered 100 years later

By KATE MOSTACCIO

Striking miners surrender their rifles to federal troops after the Battle of Blair Mountain in August of 1921. Wikimedia Commons

September 10, 2021 — A century ago, more than 10,000 coal miners marched in protest of perilous work conditions, squalid housing, low wages and oppressive company towns in what became the largest labor uprising in U.S. history and the first armed conflict since the Civil War.

At the start of the 20th century, mining companies paid workers in private company currency called scrip, forcing them to live in company-owned encampments and buy groceries at company-owned grocers. Their companies docked workers’ pay for the costs housing, medical care and the tools they used in the mines.

The poor conditions and oppressive power of the mining companies fueled numerous uprisings, but the brewing conflict came to a head after a series of deadly gun battles and the murder of union sympathizers.

Coal miners, fed up with the violence and oppression, marched on the mining companies’ home base in late August of 1921. They never reached their destination as anti-union deputized townspeople and local law enforcement confronted the miners at Blair Mountain. Led by United Mine Workers organizers Frank Keeney and Fred Mooney the miners engaged in a deadly five days of fighting that stretched over 12 miles.

The 10,000 miners, many of whom were World War I veterans, came armed with military-issue Springfield rifles and shotguns. Their opposition, 3,000 men strong, strafed hillsides with machine-gun fire and dropped homemade bombs from planes.

It took federal troops to finally bring the fighting to an end, with a squadron of Army Air Service reconnaissance planes patrolling the skies on September 1, and the following day 2,100 army troops mobilized on the orders of President Warren G. Harding. The battle left from as few as 20 killed to as many as 100, but the actual number has never been confirmed. The battle still resonates today as an example of working class and impoverished Americans – black, white and immigrants – coming together to fight for their rights.

Striking miners operate a machine gun in a shallow trench during the Battle of Blair Mountain in August of 1921. Wikimedia Commons

Remembering the battle

For the 100th anniversary of the battle, descendants of some of those miners marched on Labor Day in remembrance of their fight and their dedication to achieving better lives for themselves and their families.

“Every step you take, you just think about what kind of courage that took,” said United Mine Workers international President Cecil Roberts, whose great-uncle, Bill Blizzard, was a leader of the 1921 march as a union subdistrict state organizer, according to an Associated Press article on the anniversary march. “Those people had a specific purpose in mind. And they were willing to die for that. And because they were willing to die for that, we’ve all had a good living, a much better life than we would have had had they not gone on that march.”

For a selection of period articles chronicling the events at Blair Mountain, visit the Library of Congress website.