Black Miners and the Battle of Blair Mountain

Five miners stand or sit on equipment at the entrance of a coal mine. The man in the middle is Black and the other four are white.
Miners in front of the Laura Mine in Red Star, West Virginia. Source: Lewis Hine, Library of Congress

Since 1863, when my home state of West Virginia was born, coal mining has been central to its history, culture and economy. Often overlooked, however, are the contributions made by Black workers who also ventured down into the mines. During and after the Civil War, Black workers migrated north to West Virginia in search of opportunity, and discovered it burrowed deep beneath the Appalachian mountaintops. Booker T. Washington was among them, following his stepfather after the war to West Virginia where he found himself laboring as a coal miner at just 10 years old, a time he described as "the unpleasant coal mine experience.”

The Washington family was at the vanguard of Black workers who migrated to the state. In 1870, 17,980 Black people lived there. By 1920, the number had grown to 86,345. Across the nation, about 8% of coal miners were Black in 1920. In West Virginia, they made up almost 20% of the industry’s workforce, the highest percentage in America.

A group of both Black and white miners wearing early headlamps.
Coal miners at New River Gorge, West Virginia. Source: National Park Service

The early 1900s were a time of drastic change for West Virginia’s coal miners. Mine companies expected workers to do dangerous, sometimes deadly work, and in return paid poor wages and housed workers and their families in dilapidated and unsafe shacks. In many coal towns, Black miners and their families faced segregation from their co-workers, living in different neighborhoods, and attending separate churches and schools as their white co-workers.

Weary of facing death each day and barely surviving, many coal miners began to organize and hoped joining the United Mine Workers of America would better their working conditions and lives. Founded in 1890, the UMWA began as an integrated union and Richard L. Davis, a Black Ohio coal miner, was welcome to attend the first UMWA convention. In fact, Davis would later serve for several years as a member of the union’s national executive committee.

As miners sought to join the UMWA, company owners who operated mines in West Virginia that were then all non-union, often relied on hired guards, including private detective agencies, to root out organizers and stop efforts to unionize – sometimes by force.

In 1920, after 3,000 miners in Mingo County voted to join the UMWA, mine owners fired them and evicted them from their company-owned homes. Tensions between mine owners and workers eventually turned violent.

The so-called “Mine Wars” between company mine guards and workers spread, sparking ugly, and sometimes deadly, confrontations in mining towns – like Matewan in my home county, often referred to as “Bloody Mingo” – and across America. Among the largest was the “Battle of Blair Mountain” in West Virginia’s Logan County.

It was there, on the morning of Aug. 31, 1921, when a group of five miners on patrol encountered three deputy sheriffs. A standoff quickly became a raging gun battle during which Black miner Eli Kemp was shot and killed, the first of many miners – Black and white – who died on Blair Mountain trying to organize and support other miners. Black miners like Kemp weren’t just rank-and-file members in the battle. They were also leaders like Charlie “Popcorn” Gordon and “Red” Thompson who inspired other Black miners to stand tall. Thompson was notable for leading a group of 75 miners up the mountain and into battle.

In late August 1921, about 10,000 miners fought during a week-long confrontation against a private army of almost 3,000 mine guards, deputies and National Guardsmen organized by company owners. By its end, an unknown number were killed but some estimate as many as 100.

Blair Mountain was different than other battles in the Mine Wars, such as 1899’s Pana Riot in Illinois where mine owners brought in Black miners to break a strike organized by white miners. After several weeks, the fight between the two sides left five Black miners dead. However, white and Black miners stood side-by-side at Blair Mountain in their fight to unionize the southern West Virginia coalfields. Some estimate that as many as 2,000 Black miners fought for the cause.

Soldiers clustered around stopped trains, many eating or drinking. Wagons with supplies can be seen on flat train cars in the background.
Federal troops arriving in West Virginia to stop the fighting in Blair Mountain. Source: Kinograms via Wikicommons

More than 100 years later, the names of Eli Kemp, Charlie Gordon and Red Thompson are rarely spoken and hardly known; their names among so many Black miners at Blair Mountain lost to history. As the nation observes Black History Month in 2024, we must remember these miners and the debt we owe them. Their sacrifices to raise their voices and inspire other workers to demand better wages, safe and healthy working conditions, and other workers’ rights and protections – that some take for granted – should be lifted up and recognized, and never forgotten.

Chris Williamson is the assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. Follow MSHA on Twitter and Facebook.