Note: Last week, it was discovered that Arch Coal had begun preparing Blair Mountain, WV for mountain top removal mining.
I have spent the last 10 years producing documentary films about my home, Appalachia. Although I grew up an hour from it, I didn’t know the history of Blair Mountain WV until I saw John Sayles film, Matewan.
Our history has been censored and we have been marginalized by stereotypes the coal industry helped pay to create. A lot of money was spent to erase the image of the proud mountaineer and replace it with barefoot inbreds fighting blood feuds and drinking moonshine. If people are seen as somehow inferior, it’s a lot easier to control them. One of the stories I heard when filming was how a teacher in Logan shut the classroom door to tell the “true” story of Blair Mountain. The textbooks, paid for by coal, did not include that story.
I was honored to help organize The March on Blair Mountain where 1000 people from around the world came to demand an end to MTR. At this, the 90th Anniversary of the second largest civil uprising in American history, we also came to Blair Mountain to demand that it, too, not be destroyed along with that community.
MTR has taken over 500 of our ancient mountains, leveling over one million acres of land. Only 5% of that land has ever had any post-mining economic development. Over 2000 miles of streams have been buried forever, and communities like Twilight WV nearly erased from this earth. Explosives the size of a Hiroshma bomb are dropped every single week because it is the cheapest way for the coal company to get our coal. Then, they ship some of that coal to India, Russia, and China while telling us we need coal for our national security. And our friends and loved ones live in fear for their very lives after the recent WVU peer reviewed health studies. They wonder if MTR is the reason they are so sick.
Our ancestors came from Ireland, Scotland, Italy, from all over the world to these mountains to find their freedom and opportunity. Our ancestors were slaves and our ancestors were the natives who were sent on The Trail of Tears when gold was found on their land.
They came to this beautiful, haunting, amazing place. They tended it and they gave the world the industrial revolution, the 8 hour work day, worker’s compensation and other rights we all benefit from because of their sacrifices. I often wonder what they would say if they could see what has become of their dream. Once coal was discovered, this land has been colonized and we have been enslaved by that industry. We live on some of the richest land in America, yet we are some of this country’s poorest and sickest people. As Judy Bonds said of John Peter Saley’s discovery of coal, “If he had any idea of the pain it would cause, he would have kept his mouth shut and covered it up” and Bo Webb and Maria Gunnoe asking, ” If coal is so good for us, then why are we so poor?” I want to know the answer to that question. Don’t you?
We can learn a lot from history. The coal industry may have taken our money and our health. They even called us inbred just a few months ago in an NMA press release. But when they come for the last piece of us, that memory of who we are as a people and what matters to us, these hillbillies will not hand that over to them.
Even though you could overnight almost double the number of jobs for coal miners if you stopped MTR, (since underground mining requires more coal miners) and protect the environment, and our culture— the coal industry has spent a lot of money and a lot of time convincing us we cannot live with out them. Well, I cannot live with them if they don’t end MTR. They want us to give up our past, our present, and our future so they and their investors get a few more cents on their stock shares. How is that fair or right?
My brothers are coal miners. I told them that in 20 years we would both realize we lost this fight. When there is no more coal, southern West Virginia will be but a moonscape. There will be no jobs, no people, no future. We will be as dust. The world will miss us hillbillies when we are gone.
It is past time for the residents who live around MTR sites and organizations like Coal River Mountain Watch and OVEC to have a seat at the table as we work to give WV citizens both a healthy environmental and jobs. We do not have to choose, we can have both if someone would hear our voices.
They have taken about all we have. It’s time for them to give something back and treat us with some respect. If not, as it was 90 years ago, their chickens will come home to roost. Over a thousand of them are already on their way.
2010 West Virginia Filmmaker of The Year, Executive Producer of The Appalachians (PBS) and Coal Country (Discovery)