Book: Blair Mountain Told Through Eyes Of Participants
A new book looks at the Battle of Blair Mountain through the eyes of people who were actually there. “On Dark and Bloody Ground” is compiled from a series of oral histories collected in 1972.
Author Anne Lawrence collected the original recordings and worked with WVU Press and the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum to publish the book in time for the 100th anniversary of the battle. She spoke with Eric Douglas about the process.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Douglas: Describe how you got started on this project.
Lawrence: I wrote this book in 1972, when I was just 21 years old. At the time, I was a junior at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, studying history and sociology. And this oral history project was supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. I was not the original grant recipient. The original grant recipient was the Miner’s Voice, which was the newspaper of Miners for Democracy, which was at that time the reform movement in the United Mine Workers Union.
As luck would have it, one of my very close friends was working in the Miners for Democracy campaign. And she said, I think I know someone who can do it. That was me. So they gave me a call. I thought it was a fantastic opportunity. I took a leave of absence from Swarthmore College and drove to Charleston and spent the next six months driving around southern West Virginia, Eastern Kentucky, and parts of southwestern Virginia with my little portable tape recorder, and cassette tapes, trying to find people who still remembered the mine wars of the 1920s and 30s.
Douglas: Had you ever done an oral history before?
Lawrence: No, I had never done an oral history before. So I had to learn about oral history, I had to learn about West Virginia history. And I had to learn how to find the people who remembered these events.
Douglas: How did you track down the miners you spoke to?
Lawrence: Well, I worked through the Miners for Democracy network. I did work through the Black Lung Association, which was working at that time to win health care benefits for miners who suffered from black lung disease. So they had many older members. I had contacts in Vista. And it actually was a little bit like a snowball process. Once I got out in the field and started meeting people I would ask if they knew any other old-timers who might remember these events. And they would put me in touch with their friends and contacts. So once I got in the field, one contact often led to another.
Douglas: One of the first things any person who records oral histories knows is sometimes you have to earn somebody's trust before they'll really open up to you.
Lawrence: I spent a lot of time sitting on people's porches. I went to senior centers. At the time I was a smoker. I've subsequently quit smoking but at the time I would carry my cigarettes with me. And I would sit on someone's front porch with them and offer them a cigarette and just sit there. Some people’s trust I did not win. And those people I didn't interview so I just took it one person at a time.
Douglas: Ultimately how many interviews did you conduct?
Lawrence: I think I recorded about 80 interviews. They are somewhat over 40 that appear in the book that's just been published.
Douglas: For the purposes of this book, it's strictly about the Battle of Blair Mountain.
Lawrence: It's mostly about the Battle of Blair Mountain. There are a few interviews with coal miners and their wives and family members describing the ultimate unionization of southern West Virginia in 1933 during the early years of the New Deal. So the book has an arc to it. These initial struggles to organize the southern West Virginia coalfields bookended by the victory that occurred in 1933.
Douglas: What's your biggest takeaway from your recordings? And then revisiting them to publish this book?
Lawrence: This book is about a lengthy, lengthy struggle to unionize the coal fields. It's about the participation of ordinary people in shaping their own history. I did not interview public figures. I interviewed ordinary people who, in fact, had a tremendous historic impact. So one of the takeaways I would draw now is that ordinary people can shape their destiny through their own actions.
Douglas: Tell me about how you came to work with Catherine Moore and the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum.
Lawrence: It was a remarkable story. I had been working over the last few years to get this material into the public domain. It had originally been circulated as a type script manuscript and in the form of an NIH project report, but it was never formally published. I had reached out initially to see if we could get the collection of tapes donated to a library, and I was able to donate the tapes to George Washington University Labor History Collection. They assisted me in digitizing the material and putting it up online.
As part of that process of trying to get this work into the hands of people who might be interested, I did some online research and I discovered the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, which is a wonderful recent effort to build a library of people's history in Matewan. I thought they might be interested in it and I reached out by email to Catherine Moore, who was the president of the museum. A few minutes later, I get a response from Catherine, that says, “I can't believe it's you! I've been looking for you.”
She had discovered a copy of the manuscript and had an idea that it should be published in connection with the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Blair Mountain. She subsequently put me in touch with Derek Krissoff, who is the head of the West Virginia University Press. And we took it from there. So I'm extremely grateful to Catherine for helping me make those connections and for having the vision that this would make a book now, that would be of interest to West Virginians, and others.
Douglas: Were there any favorite stories from the book?
Lawrence: The book opens with an interview with a woman named Grace Jackson, who had been a girl living on Cabin Creek when Mother Jones came there during the strike of 1912 and 13. She has recollections of being with a crowd of miners and their families walking down the creek behind Mother Jones. She was very elderly when I talked to her in 1972. And she had some of the earliest recollections. I talked to people who fought on both sides of the Battle of Blair Mountain. I think one of the funniest stories I encountered was a teenage boy who had gone up to the mountain to fight on the union side. And word had somehow gotten back to his family that he had been killed on the mountain. He eventually came back home, walked into his home where they were having a wake for him. He was there quite resurrected from the dead. The family was quite astonished. But he told a lively story about that experience.
Douglas: You interviewed people that fought on the side of the mines. Did those people regret fighting?
Lawrence: I talked to a number of people who had fought on the anti-union side who were coal miners who had essentially been conscripted to go up onto the mountain. I think they did experience regret for having done that. One of the women I spoke to had two brothers who were on opposite sides of that conflict. They had been in a shooting war, essentially shooting at each other. And she talked about how that had really irreparably torn apart their family.
Douglas: Is there anything we haven't talked about?
Lawrence: Cecil Roberts, the current president of the United Mine Workers provided an afterword, which was very moving to me. And it's a beautiful piece of work. The story is that Catherine and I thought it'd be wonderful if he would write an afterword and we sent him a pre-publication copy. We didn't hear back from him for several weeks, and we thought we probably wouldn't hear from him. And then he contacted us, said that he loved the book. And in fact, I had interviewed his grandmother.
He had grown up on Cabin Creek and was a descendant of many of the participants in the events I had documented. He drew the connection with his own family history and the roots of his commitment to coal miners and coal miner unionism.
The book is available through WVU Press. Portions of the project have been digitized and are available online through the George Washington University Library. For more information on the activities around the Battle of Blair Mountain, visit the Blair 100 website.
This story is part of a series of interviews with authors from, or writing about, Appalachia.