Appalachia Rising

In 1921, West Virginian coal miners took up arms against coal companies in the largest insurrection since the American Civil War.

On Blair Mountain, miners with red bandanas tied around their necks (the origin of the term ‘redneck’) battled coal companies’ armed guards and won the right to unionize and launched America’s labor movement.

Chuck Keeney’s great-grandfather, Frank Keeney, was the president of the miners’ union and the leader of the march in 1921.

“He was charged with treason after the strike,” Chuck Keeney said. “It was a history I learned at home. It wasn't a history I learned in books. Because of industry control over school curriculum in West Virginia, in the textbooks in the 8th grade West Virginia history course everyone has to take, the only time you see ‘union’ in the book is when you see Union Carbide, the chemical company. Other than that, you see nothing about union.”

“This is a history that has been concealed from West Virginias,” Keeney said. “10,000 to 15,000 coal miners forming an army and marching up the mountain that's right behind me to fight against an army paid by coal operators.”

90 years later, Keeney and more than 700 activists, miners and environmentalists retraced their famous steps to save Blair Mountain as a historic site and demand an end to mountaintop removal, a mining technique that blasts rock to get at coal seams within; which environmentalists said sending debris raining down, causing flooding and contaminating rivers and streams. The permit to blast Blair Mountain has been halted since 1999 but coal companies are challenging the permit’s rejection.

Bob Schultz worked in the mines for 37 years.

“My great-grandfather mined coal. My grandfather, my father, I did, my son—we all mined coal. That's what we did. This house you see, I got it from coal,” Schultz said.

But working in the coal mines also gave Bob Schultz black lung that now makes breathing difficult and working impossible.

Every doctor that the coal companies sent me to agreed: I can't work. I have it in writing from each one of them: ‘Mr. Schultz is not able to work.’ But the coal companies lawyers say it's not the coal that caused black lung,” Schultz said.

His wife Debbie, a gospel music singer, said her husband has paid with his health.

“It’s sad sometimes; he can't do what he wants to do. He can't go where he wants to go. He's like a prisoner in his own home,” Debbie Schultz said.

Schultz’s family fought alongside Keeney’s in the 1921. But Schultz didn’t march on June 11, 2011.

“You got to understand—the people I worked with, I know their kids’ names, I know their birthdays, I know what grade they're in in school, I know if they're doing good or bad in school. I know if his wife's sick, I know if she's healthy, I know when her birthday is. I know all these things about these guys, they’re closer than friends,” Schultz said. “Everyone I know, all of my friends make their living doing that. If I go out there and walk with those people, I’m telling my friends that your friendship doesn't mean anything to me. I'll fight this little thing with the coal company, but it's my fight not my friends'.”

In Appalachia, coal is king—and miners and their families are fighting to survive. Coal is still virtually the only living to be made in Logan County 90 years later.

Appalachia has some of the worst poverty in America, and Coal Country has some of the worst prescription drug abuse in the US.

Jenny McGuire’s daughter died from an accidental drug overdose and her son fights to stay clean.

“It tears a hole in your heart when you have a child that dies from it and you have another child that's fighting it,” said Jenny McGuire of Logan County. “My son says, ‘mom I’m not coming home, there's nothing there and I know what will happen if I stay here, I will die from it.’”

90 years later, the coal companies still wield incredible influence and political power. Marchers found public roads blocked with boulders and campsites shut down along their 50 mile march.

“The coal companies called [one miner] up and said if you let these marcher stay at your campsite, then everyone in your family is going to lose your job. So we've met resistance,” said Keeney.

More than 140 protesters intentionally trespassed on coal company land as an act of civil disobedience. One protester was arrested.

But although the march on Blair Mountain is over, Appalachians said the resistance isn’t ending anytime soon—and that Appalachia will rise again.  

“I'm more so angry that my people, the people of Appalachia, the hillbillies have been beaten down so long and been held under the boot-heel of the coal industry for so long,”
said Junior Walker of Boone County.

Regarding the destruction of the mountain, labor journalist Mike Elk calls it “an absolute crime against history.” The mountain is a sacred symbol for the labor movement, he says, and the fact that they’re ravaging it is “unheard of.”

Despite ongoing action, Elk doesn’t think the end of Blair Mountain is in sight for the time being, however. “People are going to continue to resist,” he says. “People will rise up again.”