‘Almost Heaven ’Til We Get There’
Black Miners and Blair Mountain
‘Almost Heaven ’Til We Get There’ Black Miners and Blair Mountain
The fight for interracial solidarity in words like red neck, Appalachian, and hillbilly.
That’s my book pitch.
I’m a sixth-generation West Virginian. My children are seventh-generation. My generational claim to Appalachia is subversive. It talks back to cavalier anti-Black stories of poor white redneck hillbillies and to the white people who claim an entire region as their own.
Whenever I witness white progressives reclaiming racial solidarity in words like “redneck” and “hillbilly” in the context of the suppressed Blair Mountain story ,I am usually reminded they do not have to announce that they are white .
White writers claiming an Appalachian identity that mention Black contributions and experiences too often tokenize them to prove labor solidarity with a (*) Blair Mountain Battle interracial footnote.
I think we have the most to learn from the stories and details that offer insights into just how that moment of solidarity came to be — not the modern Instagram “after” photoshopped photo.
The Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921 — a century ago — was the largest labor uprising in United States history and the largest armed uprising since the American Civil War. The miners wore company-issued red bandanas and became known as the RedNeck Army.
Over 100 people were killed in Logan County during the Battle of Blair Mountain. Many more were arrested when 10,000 armed coal miners confronted 3,000 lawmen and scabs. Finally, after about one million rounds were fired, the battle ended, and the United States Army National Guard intervened by presidential order.
About 2,000 Black miners bravely took arms to confront the lawmen and scabs just a month after the Tulsa race riots. They marched for unionization and against the brutality inflicted upon the miners by the Baldwin-Felts detective agency, a police force the coal companies hired.
During this time, racial terror lynchings were at their highest in the southern part of West Virginia .Black miners were concentrated in a criminal legal system that disproportionately incarcerated them (still do) — and Black men were often sentenced to the death penalty.
The contribution of Black miners in the context of 1920’s life should lead any ode to the movement.
Acknowledging the incredible amount of negotiation for whites to accept Black miners into the United Mine Workers union is a start. Also, contextualizing how the push to include Blacks and immigrants was more an initiative of the rank and file within the coalfields than the union leadership.
The contribution of Black miners in the context of 1920’s life should lead any ode to the movement.
Over-emphasis on those moments of solidarity makes invisible the other story — t hat Black workers put solidarity above difference, knowing they could rarely count on white workers to do the same for them — and how that makes for labor and race relations today.
“White workers and employers coalesced…around notions of black inferiority,” writes Joe Trotter in his book “Coal, Class, and Color: Blacks in Southern West Virginia, 1915-32.”
Trotter’s book, now out of print, also quotes a Black union organizer — “The stakes were definitely higher, as the consequences were often more severe!” — while explaining that Black workers could not count on interracial class solidarity since white workers saw jobs in the mines as “theirs.”
“The stakes were definitely higher, as the consequences were often more severe!”
Trotter tells the story about Black workers having to make weighty career decisions, conscious of the fact that the same white workers they joined during strikes could just as quickly join a “race war.”
Black workers didn’t just organize because they wanted to join white workers, but because they were fighting for their own lives and freedom.
I was thrilled to read a recent Twitter thread by Dr. Jessie Wilkerson. Her thread led to the important detail given by historian Lou Martin that Eli Kemp, an African American miner, was the first to die in the Battle of Blair Mountain.
In my decade of curiosity about Blair Mountain, I never as much heard Eli Kemp’s name whispered.
Blair Mountain historian and author of “The Road to Blair Mountain,”Chuck Keeney, recently penned “Remembering the Stories of Those Who Gave Their Lives at Blair Mountain”and honored Mr. Kemp.
So, I’m challenging myself to find Eli Kemp’s name referenced in the centennial writings and to make certain his memory is always included.
Black miners like Eli Kemp were often degraded by white miners. We know they lived in the worst part of the coal camps, did the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs, and were even required to urinate in separate cans — inside the earth.
It is important to remember the truth of the region that it is not all white and that for Black families, it has never been comfortable.
Remembering that, Black people in West Virginia often die first.
In the century since the Battle Of Blair Mountain, I wonder, “Has anything changed in West Virginia?”West Virginia is living in the same company-caste system as it did 100 years ago. Citizens are still enduring America’s classism fueled by racist policies, rarely calling white supremacy racism as the cause.
I wish those interested in class solidarity would grapple with racism by deconstructing and challenging white settler capitalism and envisioning what a politics of liberation might look like if BIPOC folks lead?
It seems many progressives are more comfortable looking at the past labor solidarity in the early twentieth century as evidence that racism was somehow less prevalent.
It was not and is not.
The skewed perception of past labor solidarity is one of the more significant pains in my ass. The obsession with interracial labor solidarity often misses the more important story : they are always yoked to whiteness.
Those celebrating red neck and Appalachian often can’t or don’t connect how the idea of “Appalachia” is rooted in white supremacist ideas.
In the early twentieth century, white elites sought to condemn poor white people (trash, hillbillies, etc.) as part of their broader project to protect the purity of the white race (against Black migrants and immigrants) to explain class inequality and defend capitalism.
Poor white people threatened — and still do — white supremacy because their very existence questioned a white race’s dominance and the ideology of racial capitalism.
Author, activist, and Appalachian educator, Barbara Ellen Smith reminds us that white Appalachians often criticize the “pejorative” descriptions of white Appalachians, but fail to question the racist underpinnings of the entire concept of Appalachia.
Like the mine guards of the 1920s ,a system that deputized violence to do the coal companies’ dirty work is expressed in 2021 in the Texas abortion vigilante and America’s police force that is still maiming and killing Black men and women.
Ending police brutality should be central to any 2021 revival of the RedNeck Army nostalgia. Yet, today, West Virginia prisons are disproportionately Black and have some of the most lethal prisons in the country . We don’t need to re-enact marches when we have so much to march for.
The 100-year difference is that during the coal boom beginning in the early twentieth century, the Black population surged, and along with that surge came political power. Today, the Black population is 65,000. As a result, more Black people have left West Virginia in the last 100 years than those who have stayed.
West Virginia appointed the first Black woman to a state legislature during the coal boom and passed anti-lynching laws. These progressive measures developed from the boom in the Black population.
West Virginia’s population decline is the largest in the U.S . Black people have been leaving the state for decades, with the onset of deindustrialization and mechanization of the mines in the 1950s. As a result, Black families were the first to lose industrial jobs.
I often ask people, “Know what all famous Black West Virginians have in common — from TD Jakes to Katherine Johnson?”
The Battle of Blair Mountain then and now to me is about police brutality.
The 1921 miners marched against the mine guard system.
West Virginia coal miners were FTP before NWA. But in 2021, I don’t hear enough of this connection, nor have I seen this shirt: ‘Real RedNecks Say Defund The Police!‘
Solidarity starts with what Jennifer Wells of Community Change, one of our finest West Virginia organizers, said in a recent Washington Post interview about Black voters in West Virginia, “that it has to be multi-racial but that each part of the coalition, every part , has to feel their voice.”
She says that’s what’s been missing, a nd I agree.
“Every part”has to feel their voice as equal in 1921, 2021, or 2121.
The history of Blair Mountain sits in a fate that only future historians will tell if history remembers to tell us anything about Blair Mountain.
For years I claimed, I’m Appalachian or Affrilachian, a Black-Red Neck- Hillbilly.
But today, I pause.
I am a person from a place named Appalachia — stolen Shawnee, Mingwe, and Delaware land — navigating the next chapter of my American history that cannot center on whiteness or the illusion of solidarity as led and told by whiteness.
I am from a place named West Virginia, and I will not forget the stories of those that came before me.
And. I still live in the fight that battles “the company” and often have to fight the “white-miners” battling the company with me. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9P96FNFSil0
Learn more about Labor, Race and Solidarity with this amazing document by the West Virginia Center For Budget and Policy featuring the incredible work from the mind of Myya Helm.
Sign up for our newsletter
Get the latest headlines from Black by God right in your inbox weekly.
More in Community from Black by God
House Bill 2962 could help release many incarcerated West Virginians
West Virginia Native and Professional Ballerina, Graces the Cover of People Magazine's Health Issue"
Alicia Mae Holloway 🩰
The Community Coalition for Social Justice Event Focuses on “Telling West Virginia’s Stories and Dreams”
Get involved in your communities and begin putting pressure on local and state politicians to take action
A Concerto for Beatbox and Rhyme
Growing Up in Black “By God” West Virginia
Take a look inside at skilled nursing care in the United States by a Bluefield, WV native.
Keep It Very Berry
By Stewart Plein, Curator, Rare Books & Printed Resources West Virginia University Library
Rocking the House, an event hosted by Delegate Daniel Walker for her son, the late Demetry Mack Walker, to endow a scholarship in his name for healthcare professionals.
HBCU Campus Ambassadors join the Black Census Project to get 250,000 Black people counted
Father Reflects on What a Black-Tie Gala Means To Community
Meet Ruby Daniels
William Calvin Chase of the Washington Bee praises Publisher George Washington Welcome of West Virginia (September 1883)
What do you know about Black maternal health in WV? Where's the data and why isn't it public?
NewForce launches fully-remote, tuition free coding school for West Virginia residents.
By Torli Bush
The cookbook contains recipes for everything from southern smoked baked chicken to peach cobbler and even a recipe for a happy marriage.
Meet The First African-American Miss West Virginia in 2017
Soul Food In Randolph County
Writing for Black by God is a powerful feeling
A monthly column exploring education in the Mountain State
From abortion to prison reform pod cast is building conversation from West Virginia to North Carolina!
Back to school trends with Jayli Phillips.
“You don't have to be a millionaire or somebody rich to support (enjoy) the arts”
West Virginia Black Counselors Speak Out
Morgantown Hosts Public Art Exhibit
Ignoring it isn’t working
Huntington’s First Black Police Chief vs. The Overdose Capital
Based on a true story
Meet The Founders Nakia and Michael
That’s when their racism is revealed.
For us Black folk, this idea of rest and making space for rest, is personal and political.
Meet the iconic Army Officer, Educator and Charleston, WV entrepreneur and civic leader
Formerly Incarcerated Women Speaks To WV Legislature
Meet Creative Director Keiya Smith
Inviting the Ohio River Valley to celebrate Juneteenth in Athens, Ohio.
“Welcome to the West Virginia Black Pride Foundation.. we’re going to love you." ~Kasha Snyder, Founder and President
Saturday, June 18th, 2022 at New River Park
From the mistreatment of students of color to violent hate crimes, the WV NAACP has be a champion for the Black community of West Virginia by illuminating our shared injustices and taking action against inequality.
From Hip Hop to News Meet BIPOC Media Makers in West Virginia
Barriers that impact mental health for Black West Virginians include a scarcity of Black mental health professionals and mental health resources, stigma, lack of proper mental health education, and more. Black therapists discuss how we can change the culture surrounding mental health.
BOOK REVIEW: FEARLESS FEMALE ENTREPRENEURS
The question remains, when will we accept that Black women know the truth and the way?
“What I can’t put into words, I put it on canvas.” ~ Doris Fields
Jason Tartt one of America's rare Black farmers lives right here in West Virginia, and he’s incorporating a myriad of crops, including hemp, on his farm to help heal the community.
“Tell your stories because your story is your glory, in it is your truth.” ~ Delegate Walker
Read BBGs Special Black History & Legislative Edition
“The whole country thinks West Virginia is those people they see on the news. And I just want there to be an acknowledgment of Black people, who we are, who we were, what we did, especially in the context of music.”
Beckley, WV native Shelem is a 25-year-old hip-hop artist known for his hands-on approach to engaging his audience.
BBG Love Stories
Lessons from when John the Conqueror visited the salt plantation in West Virginia reminding - “mama medicine”
Black Birth Workers In West Virginia
5,000 copies have been distributed across West Virginia!
Thar Is Black People Gold In Them Thar Hills!
Perspective by John Doyle
"We are used and then left out"
A new employee-owned take-out restaurant, Phat Daddy’s On Da Tracks-- located at 480 Railroad Avenue, West Side, Charleston, West Virginia-- is set to officially open its doors following Thanksgiving weekend.
The House of Campbell- Rebuilding My Family's History and the Significance of Black Death, Wealth, and Discovery
A Family’s History and the Significance of Black Death, Wealth, and Discovery In West Virginia
Community Events week of Nov. 2, 2021
Black By God The West Virginian's New Website - November 2021
Survivor’s Guilt by Julia Mallory is a monumental meditation on grief and the aftermath of loss.
BBG’s Folk Reporters Program is seeking citizens and civic actors, creators, and collaborators representing a broad base of intergenerational, diverse communities to explore the 2021 West Virginia Legislative agenda that impacts Black citizens.
From Black Appalachian music to protests on Capitol Hill, the voices of resistance are ever-intensifying.
From the Peters Sisters to Aiden Satterfield
WEST VIRGINIAN OF THE YEAR from the Charleston Gazette