Repost: Making Mountains out of Coal Hills

(originally posted December 7, 2009)

This blog is the birth of an effort in a public, engaged, activist anthropology. It was conceived in the process of writing papers for graduate classes that will only be read by professors and myself; if I intend to be an anthropologist who reaches out past academia to make my work apply to real situations, then sharing the process that will hopefully develop into long-term work in Appalachia with as wide an audience as possible is the first step I can make in that direction. I hope to be part of an academic trend to dispel stereotypes of West Virginians as gun-toting rednecks and snake-charming evangelists (two common comments I hear when I introduce myself as West Virginian), and there is no reason to wait until I have a Ph.D. in order to begin. My passion for this project is longstanding, and no matter how many papers I write about this region, I will always have more to say and more to learn. I hope this space can be a forum for discussion of issues affecting Appalachia today as well as the negative image of its people that has been exacerbated by academia for so many years.

Of all the information I’ve come across in the past few years about West Virginia, what I discovered tonight actually moved me to take the action of starting a presentation of material that either inspires or enrages me. I’m writing a paper about labor history in West Virginia, because I think that the unique, radical history of labor activism in the state helps shape the efforts of activists fighting the processes of mountaintop removal and that it is absolutely necessary to have a deep knowledge of that history in order to truly comprehend mining today. History and historical process should influence anthropology and ethnography, because it is historical, economic, and political factors as much as the people who live there that make this region what it is. Appalachian anthropology often lacks this stress on history, which tends to lead to misinformed conclusions. But that’s a different discussion, and for now I want to look more deeply into history.

Anyone who grew up in West Virginia probably remembers 8th grade West Virginia history and the Golden Horseshoe exam. Part of the reason I think it is so important to highlight labor history in the state is because the state educational system downplays it so much. Personally, I can’t remember studying miners at all, and certainly not union resistance. I started doing some research about the Golden Horseshoe test and found that, in all the mini-quizzes I took, only one question was about the union: “What does UMWA stand for?” (United Mine Workers of America). While I don’t want to ignore the fact that many test questions are about Native Americans in WV and uprisings that they led, I wonder why the laborers are neglected. I imagine – though I have no proof – that it has something to do with the fact that the coal companies are so deeply entwined in the political system of the state and can use K-12 education as a forum to push their agenda. To me, radical labor history is a seriously important part of West Virginia’s identity, and it gets easily lost on a generation who will probably not end up working in the mines and whose parents are probably no longer union members.

I don’t want to pretend that union organizing is the only significant kind of resistance the state has ever seen – indeed, activism now is rarely union organized, as the UMWA has stated its support of mountaintop removal in the name of providing jobs. But I think the fact that young people in West Virginia don’t learn about labor history is hugely problematic. This means that we also never learned why some miners might want to fight against coal companies, so we could never really understand the exploitative conditions workers and their families lived under in the state’s single-industry economy. We didn’t learn about coal companies concentrating power in the hands of absentee mine owners and how the legal system established in at the end of the 19th century allowed coal barons to obtain native West Virginians’ lands for coal production. Is this because we would all then get angry and begin to question the hegemony of the concentrated power of the two coal companies left in the state? Would we all reclaim Sid Hatfield and Mother Jones as our favorite historical figures and give up Chuck Yeager, Belle Boyd, and James Rumsey?

There is no reason anthropologists and other academics cannot take up these questions. I see the role of anthropology as one that is obliged to question the structures that uphold inequalities and to do something to change them, and in West Virginia those structures are built around coal companies and their histories. Twentieth-century mining history shaped the course of coal in the state as a whole, and the better we understand that basic fact, the richer our ideas of Appalachia and Appalachians have the potential to be.

some sources from this discussion:
Batteau, Allen. 1990 The Invention of Appalachia. Tuscon: University of Arizona Press.
Burns, Shirley Stewart. 2007 Bringing Down the Mountains: The Impact of Mountaintop Removal on Southern West Virginian Communities. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.
Corbin, David Alan. 1981 Life, Work, and Rebellion in the Coal Fields: The Southern West Virginia Miners 1880-1922. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

2 Responses to “Repost: Making Mountains out of Coal Hills”

  1. Matthew K. Gold (he/him) Says:

    Glad that you’ve chosen the Commons for this project. Welcome to the site and good luck with your blog!

  2. Craig Bernardini Says:

    I’m so happy you’re working on labor history in W Va and look forward to following your blog. Thanks, too, for the coal info link. Have you read Jeff Biggers’ Reckoning at Eagle Creek? I’ve heard him speak a couple of times on Democracy Now! and found him really insightful and interesting.

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