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Historians urge creation of Blair Mountain park

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- One hundred labor professors and historians sent a petition to West Virginia's legislators Monday, urging them to create a permanent park honoring the Battle of Blair Mountain.

The battle, fought for five days in late August and early September 1921, was the largest armed confrontation in U.S. labor history.

The park would be located in the area around Sharples, on the Logan-Boone county line.

"Blair Mountain, West Virginia, stands at the center of American labor history. At the start of the twentieth century, the United Mine Workers of America was one of the most powerful unions in the nation but had not yet organized the southern West Virginia counties," the petition states.

"Coal operators there were determined to keep labor costs low by any means, including repression of the rights of their workers. The struggle by those workers for a union in 1921 was a struggle for basic civil liberties in the coalfields."

More than 10,000 coal miners marched south from Marmet through Boone County toward Logan County, planning to organize nonunion miners into the UMW.

The marchers confronted about 3,000 law enforcement officers, many of whom worked directly for coal companies.

Miners and the local police fought on Blair Mountain, sometimes in deadly confrontations, until U.S. Army units and fighter planes came in and ended the conflict.

Lou Martin, who holds a Ph.D. in history at West Virginia University and teaches at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, helped recruit people across the country to sign the petition.

Local signers include Fred Barkey, a Marshall University professor and founder of the West Virginia Labor History Association; Ron Lewis and Ken Fones-Wolf, history professors at WVU; and Ronald D. Eller and Dwight B. Billings, professors at the University of Kentucky.

Jeff Biggers, author of "The United States of Appalachia," signed the petition, as did professors from schools including the University of Maryland, University of Texas, the College of Willian & Mary, the University of Michigan, Dartmouth College, Cornell University and the University of Georgia.

"A lot of labor historians see the Battle of Blair Mountain as a turning point for union coal miners, not just in Southern West Virginia, but throughout Appalachia," Martin said. "It was a pivotal battle to unionize coal miners.

"We can look at the things that came from unionization, including: the eight-hour day, a 40-hour week, health and safety regulations, holidays, vacation pay and pensions.

"The Battle of Blair Mountain was a reminder of the lengths to which coal operators would go to deprive people of their civil rights. That burning memory was still alive in 1933, when most miners finally got to unionize," Martin said.

"There is a mysterious power when you stand in a place where history happened. That is why I think it is so important to preserve Blair Mountain. And we can begin to build a more sustainable economy in the process."

Chuck Keeney, a great-grandson of Frank Keeney, president of UMW District 17 during the 1921 March on Blair Mountain, is chairman of Friends of Blair Mountain today. He and his organization are leading ongoing efforts to preserve the existence of Blair Mountain.

Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey Energy in June 2011, have both expressed an interest in developing mountaintop removal mines that would destroy the historic site.

"We should not allow the people around Blair Mountain to lose their homes and their community. We should preserve one of America's most important historic sites and make it the cornerstone of a national battlefield park," the petition stated.

The Friends of Blair Mountain group has already developed a plan to develop a 1,600-acre Historic Blair Mountain Park, patterned after historic parks in Williamsburg, Va. and Gettysburg, Pa.

The plan includes a welcome center with multimedia presentations and exhibitions, tours of the battlefield, restaurants, hotels, research archives and seasonal events.

Today, Colonial Williamsburg generates about $500 million for the local economy each year, while the Gettysburg National Military Park brings in an estimated $380 million.

"West Virginia has the potential to build a more sustainable economy in Logan County," the petition concluded, "but mountaineers must stand up now, recognize the historic nature of Blair Mountain, and begin the work of building the future of Logan County."Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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