The Original Redneck: An Explanation

Posted by | August 11, 2009

The following article was originally written for the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia under the title “Still Fighting the Battle of Blair Mountain,” by C. Belmont Keeney. Keeney reprinted the article on his blog, The Appalachian Scholar, on 7/31/09. “I’m an author, historian, musician, professor, and mountaineer,” he says. “I have published two books, To Live Again, a classical myth set in contemporary Appalachia, and Defending the Homeland, a collection of essays on radicalism and national security.”

On August 7, 1921, just one week after Sid Hatfield had been murdered on the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse, Frank Keeney, the president of the UMWA District 17, gave a stirring speech to thousands of miners on the capitol grounds in Charleston. He told the crowd that there was no justice in West Virginia and declared, “The only way you can get your rights is with a high powered rifle!” He then told the miners to go home and await the call to march.

And march they did. Over 10,000 miners carved a path of rebellion from Charleston to the doorstep of Logan County. We all know what happened next. Mine guards and miners fought it out until federal troops intervened. Over 500 “rednecks” were charged with treason, murder, and conspiracy to commit murder. The state used coal company lawyers in the prosecution, and our own governor testified against the miners. Among those charged, of course, were the leaders of the movement: Frank Keeney, Fred Mooney, and Bill Blizzard.

Author C. Belmont Keeney

Frank Keeney was my great-grandfather. I learned about the Mine Wars and the Battle of Blair Mountain at family cookouts and around my grandparents’ fireplace. My family has a long history in these mountains—I was proudly told. The Keeneys settled in the Greenbrier Valley in 1751 and even have a few rapids on the New River bearing the family name. However, in the decades after Blair Mountain, you did not want to walk into Charleston with the last name Keeney. The name meant treason.

For many years, restaurants refused to serve Frank Keeney, but in the working class pubs he never had to buy a drink. Unfortunately, I never learned about any of this in school. In fact, my eighth grade West Virginia history teacher had never even heard of Frank Keeney. But, naturally, she had no trouble naming all of the counties in alphabetical order. As a teenager, I was left to wonder if anybody remembered or even cared what had happened in the coal fields of southern West Virginia.

Thankfully, with the inclusion of Blair Mountain on the National Register of Historic Places, we have another means of remembering and we know that some people care. Remembrance without action is pointless. We are indebted to those who have worked to preserve this historic landmark and save Blair Mountain from becoming another casualty of a coal operator’s greed. To strip mine Blair Mountain is to strip us of our own history, and this cannot be allowed.

Blair Mountain reminds us of who we are as West Virginians. I believe Frank Keeney summed it up well when he said, “I am a native West Virginian and there are others like me in the mines here. We don’t propose to get out of the way when a lot of capitalists from New York and London come down and tell us to get off the earth. They played that game on the American Indian. They gave him the end of a log to sit on and then pushed him off that. We don’t propose to be pushed off.” Blair Mountain reminds us of a time when West Virginians refused to be pushed off the log.

State Police and Mine Guards in the Trenches on Blair MountainBlair Mountain also reminds us that the fight is not over. In a speech to a crowd of striking miners, Keeney reassured them that the cause for which they suffered was not in vain. “One day there will be no more tent colonies, no more gunmen, because right now you people are going through what you are.” He was right. Today, there are no more tent colonies, and the mine guards are now found only in books or pieces of fiction.

But the absence of these things does not signify that the conflict over coal, people, and history in West Virginia has ended. As recent events clearly demonstrate, there are some who would have us forget Blair Mountain. There are those who are fighting to have it taken off the National Register so that the mountain can be open for strip mining. They must be reminded that we will still not be pushed off the log.

A friend of mine once asked me in a joking manner, “You think if Frank Keeney were alive today that he’d have a Friends of Coal bumper sticker?” I responded that Frank Keeney was no Friend of Coal, but he was a friend of coal miners. There is a big difference. If we are to be friends of the miners who stormed Blair Mountain so many years ago, we must keep it on the National Register of Historic Places. If we give up on this fight, then we give up on the ideals of the Redneck Army of 1921. If Frank Keeney were alive today, I believe he would still be fighting.

References

C. Belmont Keeney, “Rank and File Rednecks: Radicalism and Union Leadership in the West Virginia Mine Wars,” Defending the Homeland: Historical Perspectives on Radicalism, Terrorism, and State Responses, Melinda M. Hicks and C. Belmont Keeney, eds. (Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2007): 20-43.

C. Belmont Keeney, “A Republican for Labor: T. C. Townsend and the West Virginia Labor Movement, 1921-1932,” West Virginia History, Volume 60, 2004-2006: 1-23.

Battle+of+Blair+Mountain appalachia appalachian+history history+of+appalachia

7 Responses

  • […] – The Original Redneck – Written in 2009 when Blair Mountain was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. […]

  • Sidney Crum says:

    I don’t think there isn’t a person in the Coal Fields that doesn’t have an ancestor that was involved in the mine wars.

  • Jennifer Keeney Gantner says:

    Thank you for posting this.

  • Mary Williams says:

    You still did not explain where the term redneck came from. They all wore red bandanas so they could identify each other.

  • John says:

    Thank you for telling us about your part of coal region history in the soft coal .I am from the Pa.hard coal and the fight of the coal Barron’s and the Mollie Mcguire’s to get fair pay and working conditions

  • Rhonda says:

    I have always enjoyed history and as I have gotten older find that the younger generation is being taught less and less of what history is all about! They are missing out of so much of what our country has been through, the who, what and why things happened the way they did to get us to where we are. I enjoyed this story and would love to share your stories/history on my page “Our Southern Roots and Traditions” if you don’t mind that I do. I created this page so that many who are members can see some of the history they have missed and to maybe see some of their own family or friends families were a part of something in history which we all are, some never get recognized. Thank you again!!
    Rhonda

  • Dave Tabler says:

    Share, yes! But please credit me as the source. Thanks.

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