Review by Mike Matejka
Book Review: The Devil Is Here In These Hills: West Virginia Coal Miners and their Battle for Freedom, by James Green, Atlantic Monthly Press, ISBN 978-0-8021-2331-2 $28.00
Stereotypes abound about Appalachian people, “hillbillies” and “rednecks,” as rough clothed, rough fighting, straight shooting and inter-marrying tribal Americans, lost in deep eastern valleys.
Stereotypes are never fair and the determined labor battles that West Virginia coal miners fought receive their comprehensive due in James Green’s latest gift to labor history, The Devil Is Here In These Hills.
As the 20th century began, coal mining reached higher levels in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia, as deep seams of high quality fuel were exploited on an industrial scale. Not only were native Appalachians recruited to work the mines, so were Italian immigrants and African-Americans. Soon forging common bonds, these workers struggled from the 1900s until the 1930s to win union recognition and security.
Isolated in coal camps where the companies controlled the town, housing and stores, paying the workers often in company-issued currency, the miners soon found themselves in debt, their safety and dignity disregarded.
Again and again these workers rose up, only to face Baldwin-Felts detectives, court injunctions, state militias and federal troops. Blood ran freely and the miners quickly learned to arm themselves and fight back, though the odds were stacked against them.
Famous characters show up to rally the workers – the “Miners’ Angel,” Mary “Mother” Jones, with her characteristic salty language, boldly marched into company towns. Sid Hatfield, scion of the famous feuding families and sheriff of Matewan, West Virginia, became a miners’ hero after he faced off against Baldwin-Felts agents, only to be assassinated on the courthouse steps in Welch, West Virginia.
Green thoroughly details the culminating battles that Hatfield’s death helped trigger, the 1920-21 Mine Wars, including the Battle of Blair Mountain, where thousands of armed miners skirmished for three days with company guards and sheriffs. The U.S. Army Air Force had its first and only foray against American civilians during this episode and Federal troops finally disarmed the miners. To their dismay, the miners soon learned that only they were being disarmed, not the coal companies nor the Baldwin-Felts agents.
The term “redneck” is often linked to these battles, as the miners wore red kerchiefs and the company white, to distinguish their separate sides.
Beat down but never surrendering, when the 1930s Roosevelt Administration legalized union organization, West Virginia miners quickly joined the United Mine Workers and not only won better conditions, but democracy in their own communities, freed from the company store and company house.
Too often working people and their efforts for a voice and dignity get lost; particularly rural workers are stereotyped. Green breaks through this to show a multi-ethnic workers’ community, united in seeking democracy, not only in politics, but also on the job, and bravely willing to shed blood to win it.
Purchase this book at the ILHS bookstore.