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Book Review: ‘The Devil is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom’

Posted by | March 17, 2015

John-Brown-150x150Please welcome guest author John Brown. Brown is professor of political science and history at Roane State Community College in Harriman, TN. A graduate of Roane State, the University of Tennessee, and Appalachian State University, John is the author of Harriman: Images of America. He currently resides in Oak Ridge, TN with his wife, Maggy, son, Ian, and two dogs, Barney and Bear.


No industry is more associated with Appalachia than mining. The mining industry is a powerful force in the region, employing thousands and supplying the coal that generates electricity for millions. It is also one of the most controversial, with questions about mine safety surfacing periodically, especially after all too common mining disasters. The United Mine Workers, representing around 80,000 miners, is also a potent and controversial force, though its influence has declined in recent years.

Devil cover

Controversy about mining and strife between miners and their employers is not a new phenomena, as historian James Green points out in his new book, The Devil is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom.

Devil recounts the four decade long struggle to unionize miners in the Mountain State, spanning the years from the 1890s until the 1930s.

Although an interesting and important part of American history, this is an area that has often been neglected. Green’s work is a good introduction and will be of interest to historians and general readers alike.

By the 1890s industrialization had brought new demand for coal, and extracting the mineral quickly became a staple of West Virginia’s economy. Mining brought jobs, industry, and money to the region. Unfortunately, the benefits were not evenly spread; speculators reaped handsome profits as miners themselves struggled with dangerous working conditions, low pay, long hours, limited job security, and no benefits. The tension was increased by the fact that outside speculators from New York, Connecticut, and elsewhere held most of the state’s collieries (in southern counties, this was true of 81% of collieries), and were reaping huge benefits but passing along little to West Virginians.

In addition to these privations, coal companies exerted almost complete control over miners’ lives. Companies constructed entire towns and owned every inch of land, including the homes, stores, schools, and churches. Teachers, ministers, store employees, and everyone employed in the town were a company employee. Miners who complained about the arrangement or otherwise caused trouble ran the risk of being blacklisted. At a time when northern factory workers were fighting to organize, it’s no surprise that similar efforts received a sympathetic ear from West Virginia’s miners, although many miners were cautious about publicly associating with a cause that could jeopardize their livelihoods.

The movement toward unionization in West Virginia was a long, hard slog, and it was by no means a foregone conclusion that it would be successful. Mining companies certainly worked hard to ensure that it would fail. Miners themselves, skeptical of the outsiders who led the United Mine Workers of America, divided along racial lines, and fearful for their jobs, were themselves reluctant during the early years, and would never be completely united. Accomplishing their goals would call for drastic measures, and both sides committed violent atrocities. Ultimately, however, the efforts succeeded due to the hard work of the miners themselves.

Entrance to a WV coal mine. (from Library of Congress -

Entrance to a WV coal mine. (from Library of Congress –

Those unfamiliar with the labor movement in West Virginia might initially think referring to these confrontations as “mine wars” to be hyperbolic, but as Green makes clear, it is no exaggeration.

The Battle of Blair Mountain, the most famous armed confrontation between union and nonunion forces, was the largest insurrection since the Civil War.

By 1920, unions had made inroads into most of the state, but the southern counties continued to hold out. Thousands of miners marched into nonunion Logan County to force unionization and began a protracted battle with nonunion miners, which ended only when federal troops arrived.

In the short-term, the union’s efforts were unsuccessful: the southern counties remained nonunion, and union membership plummeted. Nonetheless, many opinion makers of the time, including the Nation and the Washington Star, sided with the miners, giving them a needed public relations boost. Nonetheless, full unionization was still more than a decade away.

Green’s writing style is engaging and easy to follow. He is a gifted storyteller who manages to weave a fascinating narrative that is both scholarly and fun to read. Though I have read about this period of history, I am by no means an expert. Nonetheless, I had no trouble following Green’s account, and was never bored by his writing.

Another strength of Green’s book is his ability to put the labor strife in broader contexts, specifically that of Appalachian culture, and the labor strife prominent in much of the U.S. This was a time when the Appalachian people were seen by many outsiders as savages, mired in ignorance and violence (the infamous Hatfield-McCoy feud had ended only in 1891), or as impoverished unfortunates, needing the help of more “civilized” outsiders.

Mother Jones (from Library of Congress -

Mother Jones (from Library of Congress –

These views affected how the conflict was perceived, with even some union leaders viewing West Virginia miners’ reluctance to unionize as evidence of their inferiority, and newspapers such as the New York Times seeing the dispute not as a labor conflict, but rather as the result of “primitive ferocities” and evidence that West Virginians were “of an inheritance and habit apart” from the rest of the country. Perhaps these attitudes also help explain why this period seems to receive relatively little attention from historians, and why getting Blair Mountain recognized as a national landmark was such a struggle, and why it has since been delisted.

This, of course, is not to say that violence was not an issue in the region, or that it didn’t play a role in unionization. Regardless of how unfairly they were covered outside the region, feuds did occur, and brutality was a way of life for those working in the mines. The descendants of pioneers, slaves, or recent immigrants, their lives had been a struggle for generations, and mining, where death by accident was a daily threat, must have hardened many men. Living in a society where they had virtually no legal means to air their grievances, and even complaining about one’s lot could cost one’s livelihood and home, left them with few options.

Although giving Appalachian culture its due in the book, Green also discusses how the mine wars fit into the larger history of labor strife. One of the more fascinating figures Green brings to life is Mary “Mother” Jones, an Irish immigrant who became one of the most radical voices for workers’ rights during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

After losing her husband and four children to disease in Memphis, she moved to Chicago in 1870 to start over, and quickly became a leader in various labor movements there. Her interest in the plight of workers led her to take part in various strikes in California, Pennsylvania, and eventually led her to Charleston, WV, where she spoke before a “monster rally” and later attempted to organize the UMWA in the state. Though unsuccessful, Jones became a powerful voice for the miners of West Virginia, defending them against the common charges of ignorance and cowardice.

Don Chafin (from West Virginia History Collection -

Don Chafin (from West Virginia History Collection –

Green recreates a colorful cast of characters and organizations Green. Along with aforementioned “Mother” Jones, Green brings to life the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, whose agents served as hired thugs for the mining companies, beating and even murdering their enemies; Logan County sheriff Don Chafin, the commander of anti-union forces at Blair Mountain who would stop at nothing to keep the union out of his county; his archenemy Devil Anse Hatfield, whose support for unionization may have had more to do with animosity toward Chafin than fealty for labor; and the Rev. John Wilburn, the minister-turned-guerilla-fighter at Blair Mountain, who, after hearing about a police raid that killed miners, proclaimed, “The time has come for me to lay down my Bible and pick up my rifle and fight for my rights.”

While reading this book, I couldn’t help but wonder how future historians will view the politics of mining in our own era. Many of the controversies Green discusses remain alive today. As mining disasters at Sago and Upper Branch, as well as the indictment of former Massey Energy Company CEO Don Blankenship demonstrate, the question of mine safety has not been settled. Nor have concerns about the environmental impact of mining, particularly that over mountain top removal. While it’s clear we’ve come a long way from the era Green discusses, it would appear we still have a long way to go.

I would recommend The Devil is Here in These Hills to anyone with an interest in American history, mining, or Appalachian studies. James Green has written an enlightening, accessible tome that should become the standard history of mining unionization in America.


Berea College Archives preserve the stories, black and white, man and woman

Posted by | March 16, 2015

Rachel VagtsPlease welcome guest author Rachel Vagts. Ms. Vagts joined Berea College’s Hutchins Library as the Head of Special Collections and Archives in February 2014. A native of Minnesota, she spent the previous 15 years as the College Archivist at Luther College in Decorah, IA and has served as the Director of the Archives Leadership Institute since 2013.


It was spring break last week at Berea and a storm closed the college on Thursday. Friday was a fairly quiet day with a few researchers and more than half of the staff out for the day. The last event on my schedule was a reception at the Carter G. Woodson Center for Interracial Education. It was a send-off for a group of college community members who were traveling to Selma, Alabama over the weekend to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March from Selma to Montgomery. I wanted to attend because my colleague Chris Miller had put together an exhibit of photos from the Berea College group who traveled to the march in 1965, and because there would be alumni returning to campus who had been part of the march.

In no way was I prepared for the next two and a half plus hours. As I sat listening to our alumni tell their stories of traveling to Selma, some for the second march on Turnaround Tuesday and many others for the third and final march on the 21st, I was so moved by their connection to our college’s history. Yes, they were called to act in the name of expanded civil rights, but again and again the name of the college’s founder, John G. Fee, was repeated.

Courtesy Berea College Alumni Relations.

Ann Beard Grundy ’68 and Barbara Cranford Rhymes ’65 look at the photo of the “Berea 59” with Dr. Alicestyne Turley, the Director of the Carter G. Woodson Center for Interracial Education. Courtesy Berea College Alumni Relations.


Fee founded Berea College in 1855 as a school for men and women, black and white. Amongst his many beliefs was that he was anti-caste–believing that all people deserve equal treatment. Most spoke of how participating in the March had changed their lives–nothing was ever the same after Selma.

It made me regret not acting sooner to volunteer to be a part of the group that was traveling from Berea, but instead I had my own journey to take on Saturday. I was making a return trip to Alcoa, Tennessee to accept the donation of a collection of oral histories–Blount County Black History-As Told by Those Who Lived It-Then and Now. The collection had come to Berea via an Alcoa native and member of our faculty, Professor Andrew Baskin. We had been working with the donors for a few months and this was my second trip to Alcoa.

Working with this group (Dorothy Kincaid, Jo Davenport and Charles Pride) had been a pleasure, and after nearly a year of talking about how we might bring the collection to Berea College, it gave us all a sense of satisfaction. It was a concrete step in reaching one of our collection development goals of increasing our documentation of African-Americans in Appalachia.

I returned home feeling a strong need to write to two of my college professors, Greg Kaster and Kate Wittenstein. I had studied with them at Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, Minnesota, taking African-American history with Professor Wittenstein during spring semester of my first year and taking a number of classes with Professor Kaster, but the most memorable being a January term course during my junior year called “Do the Right Thing.”

Courtesy Berea College Alumni Relations.

Members of the “Berea 59″ who participated in the Selma marches in 1965, hold a banner created by Carolyn Hearne, ’66, who made the same one they carried 50 years ago. Courtesy Berea College Alumni Relations.


In that course we studied the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. We read and wrote a great deal and most memorably for me, we watched every single episode of Eyes on the Prize. I thanked them for the education they had provided to a young woman who had grown up in a very homogenous small town in Minnesota and how I was using those lessons every day in my work.

Much as I was a student of history then, I remain one now. I am learning the history of the college where I work and whose history I am charged with preserving, but I also am learning the history of the region where I now live. As a collection that represents the first integrated co-educational college in Kentucky, we have a deep desire to continue to preserve the stories of the people who were a part of our college and our region, whether they are black or white, man or woman.

Last week was one of those times when I felt the history happening around me and it made me proud to be a part of it, part of the history of Berea College and to continue to do what we are able to preserve the story and history of all peoples of Appalachia.




With their Heads Together as Lovin’ as Two Little Kittens

Posted by | March 13, 2015

Major crime remained very rare in Noble County [OH], and the occasional exceptions made big news. One of the county’s more baffling murder cases began on November 5, 1905, when the family of William Leisure returned to their Carlisle home from Sunday church services and found Leisure sitting fatally wounded in his chair with two bullet wounds to the head.

One bullet, fired from inside the house, was found lodged in the door, but no weapon could be found. Subsequent investigations were apparently fruitless as well, because in December, the county commissioners offered a $350 reward for evidence leading to conviction of the guilty party. They later increased the reward to $500, and on January 10, 1906, the apparent breakthrough came.

On evidence gathered by T.P. Gidden of Caldwell and a Cambridge detective, officials arrested James Harvey Leisure, a nephew of the deceased. A few weeks after his arrest, a grand jury indicted Leisure for first degree murder. Meanwhile, rumors spread that the accused had a romantic interest in his uncle’s daughter, while others spoke of his alleged love for Leisure’s wife.

By the time the trial opened on March 13, interest in the case was intense. Courtroom spectators reportedly stood “on window sills, on the backs of seats, on the tops of desks and wherever a footing could be had.” They watched as over fifty witnesses told their stories in an epic two week courtroom drama.

The prosecution based much of its case on James Harvey Leisure’s alleged love for his uncle’s wife. They produced one witness, a neighbor, who testified, according to the Republican Journal, that she had once seen the accused and Mrs. Leisure “with their heads together as lovin’ as two little kittens.”

They were unable, however, to secure a witness to the crime. This aided the defense, which called a large number of character witnesses before both counsels addressed the jury one last time. With two weeks of testimony to consider, the jury deliberated 6 hours before finding Leisure not guilty. No subsequent arrests were made in the case. James Harvey Leisure died in 1908.


from A History of Noble County, 1887-1987, by Roger Pickenpaugh, Gateway Press, Baltimore, 1988


Leo Finkelstein. Pawnbroker. Mensch.

Posted by | March 12, 2015

Leo Finkelstein’s father came to Asheville, NC in 1903; Leo was born in 1905. “Kosher food and orthodox cooking was family tradition until my father died. I attended camp in Brevard and canoed on the French Broad to Arden. I left my lunch behind and ate the bacon and eggs with the rest – despite the Jewish rules. I used to take a car from the square to Biltmore and fish in the Swannanoa. The Asheville Power and Light ran an open air street car and rides cost 5 cents each way.”

“My father gave me a job in his pawn shop for 50 cents a week – out of this I was to save 25 cents. Because of the serial movie on Saturday, I did not work Saturday morning.”


Finkelstein was in the 1922 class of what is now Asheville High School. His high school principal called him into his office and said “You’re wasting tax payer’s money – go out and get a job!”

“When I graduated from high school I inspected watches for the railroad. Railroad workers’ watches could not vary over 30 seconds a week. They were purchased from my father’s store. There is only one person in the city who can work with wind-up watches today.”

He eventually took over the family business, and was successful during the Depression when other businesses failed. “We made smaller loans during the Depression but the same 80% of items were redeemed. Anything that had value and was portable was handled. I knew most of my customers and made about 100 loans a day – 50% black and 50% white. The most reliable were the prostitutes. A lady came to my shop to pawn something – she was drunk, offered me a drink and dropped dead.

“The customers had no credit and couldn’t borrow from the bank. They needed cash for doctor bills, to buy drugs, and to eat. My father gave loans on practically nothing. He gave $5.00 with no collateral to a man who bought a portable stove and chestnuts which he roasted. The man later opened a restaurant with two sections – one black, one white.”

Finkelstein was in charge of the Jewish Aid Society. “I gave a 50 cent meal ticket to Peterson’s on the Square and helped them leave town. There were no shelters. The Jewish Aid Society, later the Federated Charity, was run by women. A drive was put on every year. One man refused to give more than $5.00 and was finally induced to donate $500.00!”

Leo Finkelstein, 1905-1998
Asheville, NC





The shiny needle darted in and out of scallop and loop

Posted by | March 11, 2015

At the first call of the robin in the spring, Aunt Emmie on Honey Camp Run, in clean starched apron and calico frock, dragged her rocker to the front stoop of her little house and there she sat for hours rocking contentedly while her nimble fingers moved swiftly with crochet needle and thread. “Aunt Emmie’s crocheting lace for Lulie Bell’s wedding garments.” Folks knew the signs. Hadn’t Lulie Bell ridden muleback from Old Nell Knob just as soon as winter broke to take the day with the old woman?

“Make mine prettier than Dessie’s and Flossie’s,” she had said.
Or, “I want the seashell pattern for my pillowcases.”
Or, “I want you to crochet me a pretty chair back.”
“I want a lamberkin all scalloped deep”–another bride-to-be measured a half arm’s length.
“I want my edging for the gown and petticoat to match.”

Kentucky lacemaker handsPassersby overheard the talk of the young folk. “Wouldn’t you favor the fan pattern?” Aunt Emmie offered a suggestion now and then while the shiny needle darted in and out of scallop and loop. Sometimes she dropped a word of advice to the young, how to live a long and happy married life, how and when to plant, what to take for this ailment and that. There were things that brought bad luck, she warned, and some that brought good.

“If a bride plants cucumber seed the first day of May when the dew is still on the ground, the vines will grow hardy and bear lots of cucumbers and she will bring forth many babes, too,” her words fell on willing ears of the young bride-to-be. “If you sleep under a new quilt that no one has ever slept under, what you dream that night will come true.” Many a young miss declared she had experienced the proof of the saying. There was something else. “Mind, don’t ever sew a ripped seam or patch a garment that’s on your back. There will be lies told on you sure as you do.” That could be proved in most any community in the Blue Ridge.

Yards upon yards of lace Aunt Emmie crocheted, the Clover Leaf pattern, the Sea Shell, Acorn, the Rose, and if a bride-to-be had no silver, the lacemaker was content to take in exchange a pat of butter, eggs, or well-cured ham. Her delight was in the work itself.


Source: American Folkways: Blue Ridge Country, by Jean Thomas, New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1942

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