Hallowed ground. It is a term most do not think about these days. In these so-called modern times we tend to forget words like hallowed, honored, or consecrated. One might ask, what makes something like land hallowed?
This is a question that can be difficult to answer directly. Sometimes it is an object of a great historical event. It can be something or somewhere memories are made and held. Sometimes it is simply where individuals have passed on or are laid to rest. And sometimes it is part of a great struggle or conflict where blood has been spilled. It is always something that should be honored. In any incarnation, it is something that should not be destroyed.
These words in their own right should make anything above profit, something to be cherished without a monetary value. To those who have a great connection to the land, what makes ground hallowed can mean so much more. This is why we of Appalachia struggle to protect the land from the ravages of things like mountaintop removal. However, to those such as the coal industry, nothing is sacred but the dollar sign.
To many of those who have been raised, like myself, in the Appalachian Mountains, they are hallowed ground. The Appalachian Mountains were a haven during the last Ice Age and helped reseed the planet after. Early Native Americans honored the land, for they felt it gave them life, seeing the Appalachian Mountains as fertile and using it as hunting grounds.
They never raped the land and gave back to it when they could. To the early Europeans settling the new land they called America, it was a new beginning filled with the mystery of the mountains in the horizon. And as a new nation was born, the United States of America, the Appalachian Mountains became its first frontier filled with adventure and struggle. The mountains developed a history as vivid as that of the “Old West.” A history of life and death, of struggle and prosperity.
These mountains became home to its earliest pioneers, and like the Native Americans before them, many were laid to rest in them. I am proud to be descendant of some of Appalachia’s earliest settlers. Like the Native Americans before me, I feel the land of these beautiful mountains gave me life. They hold my heritage and sense of home, and their essence is my very core of existence.
My quest to protect the land and the mountains started with Cook Mountain in Boone County, West Virginia. The mountain had been settled in the 1840s by my 8th great grandfather, Floyd Cook. The early Cooks built a life on the mountain. They were farmers with little need for flat land. The fertile soil of the ancient Appalachians brought them prosperity, and with it the family grew.
Even a raid on Cook Mountain by Confederate troops during the Civil War did not hinder my family. At the time of his death, Floyd Cook had over a hundred grandchildren. Those of my ancestors who passed away on the mountain were buried there. That land held the history of the Cook side of my family along with the 200 year old graves of those who laid to rest there, including a Civil War soldier.
The mountain was rich in history locked in its soil, richer than the coal beneath. However, when Patriot Coal Company decided they wanted the coal inside, they began blowing it up bit by bit. As they inched closer to the graves of my ancestors, members of my family had to act quickly to protect this part of our history. When they confronted the mine site foreman about their plans, his response was simply “What cemetery?” The company was close to destroying it. I had always been taught a cemetery was hallowed ground, meant to be respected, but to the coal industry it was just something in the way of their pursuit of profit.
With some major effort by myself and my family, we were able to protect the graves of my ancestors, but they are now perched atop a high rock wall surrounded by a barren, lifeless plain. I have lost much of my family history; the hallowed ground where my ancestors were buried is now tainted by greed.
Other cemeteries have succumbed to such fate.
Cemeteries on Kayford Mountain and Moncoal Mountain are now surrounded by moonscapes, and many others have already been destroyed or slated for similar treatments. Myself and others now have to do what we can to protect other cemeteries, and places we feel are sacred, from a dishonorable fate.
Another such place endangered by mountaintop removal that must be protected is Blair Mountain, site of one of the largest civil uprisings in U.S. history and the largest armed insurrection since the Civil War. In 1921, in an attempt to unionize the West Virginia coalfields, tens of thousands of coal miners began a march to Mingo County.
While en route, they met with resistance in Logan County at Blair Mountain by local police and anti-union forces. A five day battle ensued with gunfire and even bombs being dropped from the air. Hundreds were left dead by the time the U.S. military intervened.
Of those to survive this epic battle was my great grandfather, Milton White. After having served in World War I, he marched alongside his fellow unionized miners to combat coal industry tyranny and fight for the right of other miners to organize. He said it was a shame that he had to come home straight from war only to have to pick up another gun and fight on his own soil for his rights and the rights of others.
Having survived and returned home to Boone County safely, Milton would later go on to adopt my father and raise him as a son. However, Blair Mountain became a symbol of a peoples’ struggle to organize— and one of the major events leading to the birth of the UMWA.
The soil of Blair Mountain is consecrated by the blood of those who died there. It is hallowed ground to many who still honor those brave enough to put their lives on the line; to fight for what is right. Now, in 2011, we find ourselves planning yet another march to Blair Mountain, this time to protect the mountain itself, and its history, from the same tyrannical industry that now uses explosives and heavy machinery to rob miners of their job.
Blair Mountain’s history alone should make it hallowed ground, yet it is taking the organizing of citizens who know its importance to try to protect it. It should be honored for its history, and for those who lost their lives there, not ravaged by mountaintop removal.
I directly owe my existence to these two mountains. If Cook Mountain had not allowed the Cook side of my family to flourish, would my mother have been born? If my great grandfather had perished at Blair Mountain, who would have raised my father?
I am a child of the mountains. They should be honored. I pray I do not lose Blair Mountain as I have lost Cook Mountain. These mountains not only contain a part of my personal history, but the history of the world. To those who have lived and died and are buried in these beautiful mountains, though we may not know all their names, they deserve to be honored and respected. If these mountains have taught me one thing, it is that I must always fight for what is right. I look to all of Appalachia as hallowed ground and will continue to join my friends and family from far and wide to protect her.
It is my hope that Blair Mountain may now again make history by ushering in a new future for Appalachia—without mountaintop removal.