General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson stands at attention at the West Virginia State Capitol in Charleston, a bronze contradiction. The state was born out of its secession from Virginia during the Civil War; West Virginians then fought the Confederacy to preserve the Union. Jackson was born in one of the western counties that formed West Virginia, and is part of the state’s history. Some take pride in him, though he was a traitor to the United States, a slaveholder, and an enemy of justice and democracy.
During our present twilight of the statues, when citizens across the country force the removal of effigies that represent racism and colonialism, Jackson is an obvious target for removal. Yet I’ve been thinking of another statue just a few yards away from Jackson: The West Virginia Coal Miner, a monument that papers over the collective historical memory of the state’s industrial history.
The Miner stands about seven feet tall atop a marble pedestal. He is white, around 40 years old, and wears the equipment of his occupation — a flashlight on his belt and another on his helmet. He has no name because he’s not a certain coal miner but rather every coal miner. I passed the monument every day on my way to and from the state archives while working on a book about Appalachia.
It bothered me then, and it does now.
The Miner stands alone, without the women and children in his household, though his work in the stifling depths of a coal shaft depended on theirs at home. He is also separate from his African American and Eastern European brothers. The monument obscures the ethnic and racial diversity of the West Virginia coalfields, including Scots-Irish, Italians, and Hungarians, and the African Americans, who escaped sharecropping and the restoration of white supremacist rule in the South at the end of Reconstruction.
Union leaders understood the enormous implications of this cosmopolitan migration to their region. The United Mine Workers needed to include all workers if it was to succeed in winning higher wages and safer conditions underground. Mine owners recruited African Americans with every false promise imaginable. Like other industrial managers, they saw them as an opportunity to weaken unions, dividing miners and undercutting wages by paying Black people less than white and pitting the two groups against each other. One observer said of the strategy, “Nonunion conditions will ultimately reduce both white and black to one dead level.”
Significantly, the union had also taken a stand against racism. In 1920, the United Mine Workers of America asserted an unequivocal policy: “No Discrimination . . . The Negro miner has exactly the same standing in the United Mine Workers as any other man, white, brown, yellow, red or black.” Thousands of Black miners had joined the union; hundreds held offices.
Mine owners moved to crush this fragile accord by intimidating and terrorizing Black workers. During one work stoppage, a witness saw sheriffs line up and execute Black miners against a box car. The owners didn’t want free-thinking workers exercising their freedom of protest. But the union held. A photograph from 1922, taken during the strike that included the Battle of Blair Mountain, shows Black and white households camping together after their eviction from company-owned homes.
The sterile, unimaginative figure that memorializes these workers in Charleston depicts none of these, or any other, hardships of coal mining history. The monument claims to honor these men and women, not as a memorial to their deaths by lung disease, machinery, and catastrophic burial, but for providing “the state, nation and world with low-cost, reliable household and industrial energy.”
Nor does it elevate their contributions. Rather than remember their service during wartime, their resistance to union-busting, or their practice of democracy in the mines and demands for it in the statehouse during a century of corruption, the inscription praises coal, “the fuel that helped build the greatest country on earth, has protected and preserved our freedom and has enhanced our quality of life.”
Coal never preserved anyone’s freedom. But even worse, the inscription tells us that the producers are only important for the product they make available to the rest of us. To Vivian Stockman, Executive Director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the monument fails every test of accuracy and dignity. It may not be fixable either. “To tell the whole story,” Stockman said, “we are going to need a really big monument.”
But an imperfect memorial is all we, and the coal workers community that remains, have. In 2013, three years after 29 miners died in Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, families of the fallen gathered at the Miner. Imperfect as it is, the statue remains important to mining families because there are so few monuments to the working class that are not also war memorials. Removing it, and other similar monuments to miners in Virginia, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Colorado, among other states, is not a solution.
West Virginians deserve better. To the people who designed and approved this statue and its inscription, the Miner is the ideal worker. Willing to sacrifice his life for low-cost energy and the wealth it creates for a few, he makes no claims on government or his employers to redress his losses — rivers poisoned, mountains blown apart, health broken. But to everyone who cares about West Virginia and its working people, he is the wrong symbol for a complex history of pain and hardship, dispossession and household resilience, anti-racism and union solidarity.
A year from now, we will mark the one hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest armed uprising in the United States since the end of the Civil War, in which tens of thousands of miners fought and 100 died. Yet the state of West Virginia refuses to memorialize the battle or the battlefield. In 2006, the National Trust for Historic Preservation included the 1,700 acres on its list of endangered sites. The legislature and governor can make a powerful gesture toward recognizing coal’s violent history by dedicating it as a National Monument.
Doing so would show political independence from the coal companies, a desire for truth and reconciliation, and a commitment to the dignity and memory of working-class men and women, Black and white, who stood together against the bosses and against racism for the most American of causes: freedom from tyranny.
Steven Stoll is professor of history at Fordham University and author of Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia (FSG, 2017).