Written by Nell Ziehl
On June 11th, around 1,000 people gathered in Blair, West Virginia to celebrate the conclusion of the 50-mile march on Blair Mountain, commemorating the 90th anniversary of the march of thousands of coal miners who took up arms to improve their living and working conditions. The Battle of Blair Mountain was the culmination of that historic uprising, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the 1600 acre battlefield – currently threatened by strip-mining – as one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2006.
On Saturday, my husband and I – with our 18-month-old baby – joined the marchers in the final two-mile stretch to the top of the mountain. Robert Kennedy Jr. and other impassioned speakers had riled us up for the hike. The crowd was colorful and exuberant, singing labor songs and carrying signs in memory of mountains that have already been lost to strip-mining. As the heat wore on and we lagged, kind workers handed out bottles of water and offered air-conditioned cars for emergency cool-downs. Some protesters split off from the larger group to risk arrest on battlefield lands owned by the coal companies. When we reached the top, we heard from others engaged in work against mountain-top removal mining, sang more labor songs, and a small group installed a memorial to the miners. Then together we began the long march back down.
I confess, I’ve been to lots of protests in my life, and protests are not always effective. But the Friends of Blair Mountain and Appalachia Rising deserve tremendous credit for the broad participation and extensive press coverage this event received. And the layer of the historic march –the visceral understanding of what those miners must have endured, in the summer heat, for so many miles, and to end at the historic battlefield – made the act of marching up Blair more meaningful than any rally I had ever attended. (More photos and footage of the march can be found at the March on Blair Mountain and Friends of Blair Mountain web sites.
When we placed Blair Mountain on the 11 Most Endangered list in 2006, only a handful of very dedicated people in West Virginia were working to save one of our nation’s most important labor history sites. The 11 Most listing helped promote a larger, national conversation about the battlefield, and – like the historic march – we have added more and more people as we’ve moved forward. Today, in 2011, it is amazing and inspiring to see those West Virginians who’ve been working for decades to save Blair Mountain together with so many labor union members, environmental activists and preservationists who gathered in this remote corner of Appalachia. And the Friends of Blair Mountain, which only formed a few years ago, has taken advocacy for the mountain to a new and unprecedented level.
It’s been a hard road, but we may yet prevail.
Make sure to read last week's post on The Past and Future of Blair Mountain.
Nell Ziehl is the Program Officer in the National Trust’s Southern Field Office, which serves Maryland, Virginia, DC, and West Virginia.