In search of improved working conditions and livable wages, mine workers in two major coal producing states resorted to violence against coal mine owners and managers. The militants in one of those states are celebrated as heroic fighters of America’s industrial age. In the other state, the miners’ campaign for human progress is omitted from state history books.
In Pennsylvania, the state contributed funds to build a monument to honor the Molly Maguires, a secretive Irish organization that allegedly killed coal company officials as retribution for their treatment of miners. In museums and gift shops in the state’s anthracite coal region, visitors can purchase t-shirts and other memorabilia honoring the Mollies, 20 of whom were hanged after they were found guilty of murder and other serious charges in the late 1870s.
A big-budget Hollywood movie, titled The Molly Maguires, was released in 1970 with a radical coal miner, played by Scottish actor Sean Connery, as the hero and a Pinkerton detective, played by Irish actor Richard Harris, as the anti-hero.
In West Virginia, the state erased any mention of the miners who fought for better working conditions in the early 20th century. Veterans of the state’s mine wars and their ancestors learned to keep their mouths shut for fear they would be targeted by powerful coal companies or vindictive state officials. Instead of a major Hollywood production, West Virginia had to settle for director John Sayles’ low-budget, yet groundbreaking, independent film Matewan, released in 1987, to tell the story of the battle between company guards and coal miners in the southern part of the state.
In the 1930s, West Virginia Gov. Homer Holt took the radical step of threatening to reject New Deal money for his state if the federal government accurately depicted labor conditions in the state in official federal history books. Holt believed the Federal Writers’ Project’s portrayal of West Virginia, in its draft form, would discredit the state and was “propaganda from start to finish.”
Mari-Lynn Evans, director and producer of Blood on the Mountain, a new documentary about West Virginia’s industrial history, said she found letters from Gov. Holt saying that if President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not order the history book writers to remove any mention of the Hawk’s Nest disaster, the Battle of Blair Mountain, general labor strife, Mother Jones and other important events and people in the state’s history, he would not accept any New Deal money.
“The rumor had always been that our history had been written out of our history books; we found the actual letters that prove it,” Evans, a West Virginia native, said in an interview. “And then we found the letters from President Roosevelt that said it’s better to have a mediocre history book of West Virginia than to have those people starve to death because the governor won’t accept any New Deal funding.”
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