‘There Was A Code of Silence’: Re-Release of Oral Histories as Book Marks Centennial of Pivotal Battle of Blair Mountain

Book cover provided by WVU Press. Illustration: Jesse Wright/100 Days in Appalachia
Book cover provided by WVU Press. Illustration: Jesse Wright/100 Days in Appalachia

Fifty years ago, Anne Lawrence found herself travelling from her college classrooms on the campus of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania south to the coalfields of Central Appalachia. 

Then a junior studying history and sociology, the Massachusetts native was hired by Miners for Democracy to collect the oral histories of Appalachian coal miners and their families who, 50 years before, had literally fought for the right to unionize in the 1920s and ‘30s.

“I am not a West Virginian,” Lawrence said, “so I had to learn a lot when I arrived in West Virginia. I had to do a lot of listening and a lot of learning.”

As an outsider, she had to build trust with people who Lawrence said had experienced a “code of silence” around the battle to unionize – many of them West Virginans involved in the Mine Wars, including the Battle of Blair Mountain just north of Logan, West Virginia. 

This month marks the centennial anniversary of that battle, where some 7,000 armed coal miners – southern whites, Blacks and European immigrants – marched south from near the state’s capital of Charleston to be met at the mountain by Sheriff’s deputies, mine guards and anti-union miners. The skirmish lasted for five days, until Pres. Warren Harding sent in the U.S. Army and Air Corps to put an end to the violence. 

It also marks 50 years since Lawrence first published those oral histories in a report titled “On Dark and Bloody Ground: An Oral History of the UMWA in Central Appalachia 1920-1935.” The report largely languished in archives and libraries, as a powerful tool for research around the pivotal time for labor organizing in the nation’s history, but, Lawrence said, it had largely fallen out of the public eye as the anniversary approached.

“A couple years ago, I had started trying to get this material out into the public domain and available to people who might be interested in it, and I had these extra copies of the TypeScript,” Lawrence said. “I didn’t want to throw them away, [so I thought], ‘let’s see if I can get them into the hands of someone who might be interested.’”

After some internet sleuthing, she came across the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum in Matewan and Catherine Venable Moore, president of the museum board. So, she sent an email. 

“I thought, ‘Well, they might be interested,’ and my email to Catherine basically said, ‘You don’t know who I am and don’t know anything about this, but I’ve got this extra copy of this oral history I did, and maybe you’d be interested?’ And she wrote back about two minutes later and said, ‘I can’t believe its to you!’”

Moore had come across the oral history collection in a West Virginia library as she was helping the museum prepare to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Blair Mountain and had also attempted to find Lawrence – to no avail.

“That was thrilling and felt serendipitous,” Moore said. “WVU Press was immediately interested, which was another blessing, and we just went from there.”

Lawrence’s oral histories specific to unionizing in West Virginia coalfields were published this summer in the form of a book from WVU Press. “On Dark and Bloody Ground: An Oral History of the West Virginia Mine Wars” includes a foreword from Moore and an afterward from United Mine Workers of America International President Cecil Roberts.

Lawrence and Moore spoke with 100 Days in Appalachia’s Ashton Marra about the release of the book, the history within it and the impact it could have today.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Ashton Marra: Catherine mentions in the foreword of the book that relationship building was required to collect these stories — a lot of relationship building and a lot of trust building in order to get people to share these memories with you. Can you talk a little bit about the techniques or the approach that you used to getting these people to share such personal stories and memories with somebody who is essentially an outsider to their community? How did you approach those conversations?

Anne Lawrence: I was aware I was an outsider and I tried to be patient, and many people did end up talking with me, some did not. I’m deeply grateful to the people who interviewed [with] me. Many of them were recalling memories of events that had happened almost 50 years earlier when we spoke so I was mainly speaking with elderly individuals, people in their 70s and 80s, and my experience is that older adults like to talk about their memories. They want to share their life experience; they’re appreciative particularly if a young person comes along and wants to know more about their lives, and in most cases, these were experiences that were extremely important to the people I spoke with. They were high salience memories to them and they were really, I think, grateful to have an opportunity to talk about them.

AM: Do you feel as if or did they maybe comment whether they’d ever been asked to talk about these stories before?

AL: Many of them did not talk about these stories for many years. And there was a code of silence around these events because they were illegal. People were put on trial for participating in the Miners March and the Battle of Blair Mountain, and the code was that you did not speak publicly about these events. So, in many cases, they had not spoken freely or did not speak freely about these events for many years. 

You know, I’d ask about a particular person and someone would say something like, “Well, he’s dead now, I guess it doesn’t matter if I talk about him.” So, the fact it was 50 years later meant in some ways these memories might have been remote, but in other ways, it meant people perhaps felt freer to speak frankly about what they had experienced.

AM: Catherine, this is a reproduction, not of the complete set, but of the stories that Anne collected 50 years ago now that are specific to West Virginia. So, as somebody who’s lived and worked in West Virginia and is involved in the collection of the history here, can you talk about how you felt when you initially came across this piece of work and when you initially started reading these oral histories?

Catherine Venable Moore: I felt like I had opened up a treasure chest. First of all, I was ecstatic that these oral histories even existed, but second, I was very impressed by the level of comfort I could feel through the page of the people who were telling these stories to Anne. I felt like they were being themselves and speaking freely. And that was really moving to witness because I knew that in the past, people have not always felt comfortable or safe talking about their participation. 

My other reaction was excitement over the potential of bringing these stories to a larger audience.

AM: That was actually my next question for both of you. When something is an oral history that’s archived in a library, there are a certain kind of people that are even willing or believe that they have access to that thing. But now, we have it in this thing called a book that is easily accessible to all different kinds of people, and I think a different group of people think, “Oh yeah, I can pick up a book. This is a thing that is accessible to me and meant for me.” And I was just curious if either of you put any thought into that level of accessibility now that this project is coming out in a different form, or, perhaps, do you hope that there is a new level of accessibility?

AL: Well, I certainly hope that the book will find a wider audience. I believe it will through the book and also through events like the interview that you’re doing and other journalists who have reached out to us. 

It’s sad to me that the individuals I interviewed are surely all deceased now and will not see this book. But I very much hope that their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren will pick up a copy of the book and learn something about their forebears that they might not have already known.

CVM: Yeah, wouldn’t that be cool? 

I feel like, really from the instant that I read Anne’s manuscript, I immediately thought of teachers and classrooms and kids, because the stories are so accessible. They’re in everyday language, they’re in the language of their neighbors and friends and family in southern West Virginia, and I thought, “What a way to bring this history to life through education specifically and educational application.” So, I am confident and very hopeful that this book is going to get taken up into the classrooms and be used by teachers specifically. 

And we even, in the editorial process, kept that in mind. We included things like some beautiful maps that Anne’s daughter actually designed that really you can just take it in in an instant and see what was happening at the Battle of Blair Mountain. I’ve had the experience of sharing a similar map with somebody in southern West Virginia and saying, “Oh, look, here’s the battleground,” and people lose their minds, they’re so excited to see that clear picture graphically represented. 

So there’s some graphic elements that I think help with accessibility. Then we also included in the back of the book a list of educational resources, and we call them educational resources to try to encourage this as a teaching tool.

AM: Anne, in your experience of collecting these stories, is there an individual who you truly remember all of these years later, who made a lasting impact on you?

AL: Perhaps the most vivid interview was given by Grace Jackson, who appears first in the book. She grew up on Cabin Creek, and she was quite elderly when I spoke with her, but she remembered the Cabin Creek Strike of 1912 to ‘13. 

And she remembered Mother Jones. She remembered walking with her family and other miners and their families down Cabin Creek to Leewood, following Mother Jones, and Mother Jones got up and put her hand on the cannon [pointed at the striking miners and their families] being operated by the mine guards, and said, “Bring it on, I’m not afraid.” And that was an incredible memory. She was a remarkable person. 

Late in life, she became active in Cabin Creek Quilts, which was a quilter’s cooperative that had been started by some VISTA volunteers, and she was a very accomplished artist and craftsperson. She had a real impact on me. 

Another person who really impacted me was a woman named Georgie McCloud, who had not herself been actively involved in the Battle of Blair Mountain, but she had two brothers who were fighting on opposite sides of the battle. And her two brothers were actually in a shooting war against each other, and it had irreparably broken up her family. That interview stuck with me because it brought home to me how painful this experience was for so many people in the community. It was like living through a civil war where people took sides and relationships were severed over this. 

I did make a real effort in these interviews to reach out to a wide range of different kinds of people. I made a real point of trying to talk to people on all sides of the conflict. So I started by talking to union supporters who had been on the union side in the Battle of Blair Mountain, but I later went down into Logan County and talked with a number of people who had been allied with the operators in that conflict for one reason or another. 

I felt that to really understand that very complex historical event, I had to get a 360 degree view of it. And to a certain degree, I had to take my sympathies out of it to really understand it. I mean, I came through the Miners for Democracy Movement, I was very pro-union, I am still very pro-union, but I felt I needed to talk to the operator side as well to really create a true history of that event. 

CVM: Anne, I’m so glad you did. I think that the volume really is improved because of that. It wouldn’t be – I don’t think – as powerful if it didn’t offer that global perspective. And the fact that you talk to women and people of various ethnicities and races is powerful, too. 

AL: That was certainly by design.

CVM: You get a full three-dimensional sense of a place by having all these slices of perspective that all together add up to a really full and rich picture, but that you need the whole chorus to really understand what was going on.

As far as an interview that really impacted me, I come back again and again to the interviews of people that Anne spoke to who had worked under non-union conditions and then worked under union conditions. They had a very clear sense of how their lives had tangibly changed because of that transformative federal legislation effort in the early ‘30s during the Great Depression to provide everyone with the right to belong to a union. 

So, in the book, there’s some really interesting testimony about that moment [in the 1930s, almost a decade after Blair Mountain] that the union finally showed up when they had the legal protection to organize McDowell, Mingo and Logan counties. And what that process looked like is fascinating and I think it’s not a story we have heard before in some of the other texts of this period. 

In the book, Kelly Buchanan has this quote at the end of his interview where he said, “The difference working in a non-union mine and a union mine was like jumping out of the fire into a cool stream of water. Everybody’s your buddy and they go in singing and they come out singing.” I love that. 

Before, it was every dog eat dog. When you go into anything collectively, everybody is striving to do the same thing, that’s the only way you can have peace in the coal fields. And I think what’s powerful to me is first of all that poetic language, “jumping out of the fire into a cool stream of water,” just really speaks to the relief that it must have felt to finally have this union, this alliance, this collective as a backstop to protect your very life underground. 

The people that Anne interviewed really knew what it was like to not have that backstop, and I think that we don’t fully understand that today or really can feel that today, but I think these oral histories helped me understand that and feel that at a sort of bone-deep level.

AL: I really appreciate that, Catherine, and there is an arc to the book. 

The book begins with the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921, which was a union defeat because the president sent in the U.S. Army to break it up. And then it ends in 1933, when the union was successful and thousands of miners joined the UMWA in southern West Virginia with the backing of the Roosevelt administration and the New Deal labor legislation. 

So that’s the arc, it ends in a victory, and I appreciate Catherine pointing out those interviews that talk about the tremendous relief and joy that those workers felt when they achieved unionization, finally, after a very, very long struggle.

CVM: You can kind of argue, too, that the Battle of Blair Mountain really didn’t end until 1933. In a way, when some of these issues were finally put to bed [with federal legislation that allowed for unionization] because that’s really what they were fighting for, is the right to belong to a union. So, I think when we end the story in 1921 and the treason trials, it looks really grim. And it was really, really grim for those participants. But 10 years later, things look very different. 

AM: Catherine, I’m wondering if you can speak to why the marking of the centennial of the Battle of Blair Mountain is so important for Appalachians and important for West Virginians, specifically. Why should we care? 

CVM: West Virginians today whose family goes back here many generations, more than likely they were involved in the coal industry in some way, and if there’s a West Virginian today who is enjoying a middle class lifestyle based on the work that their parents and grandparents put in underground, that is, in large part, because of the the unionization of the mines in West Virginia after 1933. 

There was a golden period of about 20 years in America when unions had a lot of power, and in that 20 years, they were able to accomplish things like providing access to health care, education, a living wage, worker safety protections – all these things that contributed to a middle-class lifestyle where before it was, like Kelly Buchanan said, every dog eat dog. Maybe your family was clinging to the bottom rung of a very tall ladder to get out of poverty and rise into a more comfortable, more economically stable existence, and that didn’t just come because our forebears worked so hard. They did work very hard, but it was also the kinds of protections and the kinds of benefits and values that the UMWA promoted in the coalfields and among coalfield families that that was possible. So, I think a piece of it is gratitude, for me, and recognizing the sacrifices that people did make – sometimes with their lives – to afford that golden period. 

Now, we are not in that golden period any longer and workers rights have eroded since then. And not to say that the UMWA was perfect and free of corruption [during its history]. The union is not perfect, but it was all that the workers had in a lot of ways. 

AM: I couldn’t help but be thinking about it as I was reading through the book and also reading the afterword from Cecil Roberts — I’m just curious if either of you have thoughts on the state of the union today? And I don’t mean necessarily like the union as in solely the UMWA, but the union in the broadest sense, as organized labor. As we reflect on this history, these instances that literally changed labor in our country, do you have any thoughts or reflections on the state of labor right now? 

CVM: I was really struck when I showed up at the 2018 school employees strike at the state capitol in West Virginia to see that really the face of labor in our region today is female and it’s public service workers who are working for the top employers in almost every single rural county in West Virginia – school systems. It was striking to me that so much attention has been paid to the decline in the coal industry and how that’s impacted miners and mining, of course, is a traditionally male dominated industry, but when you actually look at who’s doing some of the most effective and, frankly, inspiring labor organizing, its teachers and public service workers. 

At the strike, the United Mine Workers of America camouflage tent was sitting front and center, United Mine Workers representatives spoke, and you could tell that there was like a very strong bond happening between these two groups of the United Mine Workers and the teachers and school employees unions. In fact, many of the strikers themselves were wearing red bandanas, which are a symbol that goes back to the MineWars in West Virginia – a symbol of solidarity. And some of them had family members who participated in those events a century ago so the presence of the United Mine Workers and I think the spirit of the history that they’ve given to our state and region was remarkable as well. 

Gabriella Brown assisted with the transcription of this interview.

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