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  • The Mind Guard System:Mine Wars and the Politics of Memory in West Virginia
  • Chuck Keeney

History, as it is interpreted in its varied forms of public memory, can be presented as a carefully crafted self-portrait of a society. Some portraits are intended to broaden understanding, while others are intended to shape it. In public memory, the truth about our past is either illuminated or ignored, exaggerated or politically crafted, deemed significant or irrelevant. Historian Niall Ferguson goes as far as to state that "at its core, a civilization is the texts that are taught in its schools, learned by its students, and recollected in times of tribulation."1 Indeed, the texts that are taught in schools and the manner in which they are presented can go a long way toward shaping regional and national identities. Beyond the world of textbooks, how we memorialize the past—the places and relics we deem worthy of preservation or restoration—are also reflections of political conflict, cultural identity, and, if we are fortunate, valuable lessons learned. Concerning history in public memory, David W. Blight observes, "As events in world politics, curriculum debates, national and international commemorations, and anniversaries have shown, historical memories can be severely controlled, can undergo explosive liberation or redefinition from one generation or even one year to the next."2 One needs to look no further than the current controversy in America over Confederate monuments to see the accuracy in Blight's words.

The West Virginia Mine Wars in public memory is another case in point. For many decades, the history of the Mine Wars has been a neglected part of state and national history and controversial in public memory. Why is it that West Virginia secondary students have traditionally learned so little about the violent struggles in the coalfields? Why is there no public monument to an event as significant as the Battle of Blair Mountain? Is this absence merely an oversight or something more?

The Mine Wars were not merely about labor, wealth, and violent struggle—this was also an ideological conflict. During the Mine Wars, both [End Page 47] sides of the conflict truly believed their actions to be representative of true American values of liberty. Among other things, this paradox reminds us that there have always been competing visions of liberty in our nation's history. When George Washington and his forces emerged victorious at Yorktown, they secured American independence, but not liberty. The war of ideas over what America is and should become—and in some ways the meaning of liberty itself—really began in Philadelphia in 1787 and has continued ever since. In this context, the Mine Wars were not merely a class or regional conflict but also a manifestation of the continuing struggle between competing ideological visions of what America should be and to what lengths people will go to make their vision the dominant reality.

Coal barons such as Justus Collins and the middle-class professionals who volunteered in Don Chafin's army at Blair Mountain believed themselves to be as American as apple pie. In their minds, they stood for industrial progress and felt that the capitalist world they were building embodied the principles of the country's founders.3 Likewise, the miners who toiled underground and the families who suffered in the tent colonies likened their resistance to the Sons of Liberty and the patriots at Valley Forge. It is, of course, no accident that the miners on Paint Creek and Cabin Creek referred to their fighting units as "Minute Men"4—these battles were their Lexington and Concord. Independence may have been won by George Washington and his soldiers, but the Mine Wars demonstrate that the conflict over liberty in America never really ended.

Over the last century, industrial and political forces worked together to ensure that their ideological interpretation of history has dominated public discourse within the state of West Virginia. This article will first look at the coal industry's influence over the educational system from the era of the company towns to the present and how this has impacted the teaching of Mine Wars history and perpetuated the industrial power structure. The absence of Mine...


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