Category Archives: Labor History

Digitizing the Treason Trials

I’m excited to share that all 9,000+ pages of transcripts of the Battle of Blair Mountain Treason Trials are now available for download from West Virginia University Libraries. Several years ago, I worked with my friend Tyler Cannon to scan each and every page–a huge effort made possible by funding from MacDowell / the Calderwood Fund for Project Grants to Journalism Fellows. We donated the scans to WVU, which has now made them publicly available in a blog post as downloadable PDFs. This is an incredible resource for those of us interested in American labor history in the Progressive Era, and until now it has been locked away on reels of microfilm in the library’s vaults, only available to those researchers with the time and resources to come to Morgantown and read them on a special machine. The accounts of events given in these pages by eyewitnesses and others have greatly informed the story I am telling in my forthcoming nonfiction history of the West Virginia Mine Wars, providing detail, texture, and humanity to an otherwise hidden history.

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Whiting Nonfiction Grant

My book-in-progress, Disunion: West Virginia Coal Miners and America’s Other Civil War, was selected for a 2021 Whiting Creative Nonfiction Grant, given yearly to eight writers completing books of “deeply researched and imaginatively composed nonfiction.” Whiting curated a chapbook with excerpts and descriptions of each of the winners’ projects, which include a history of policing in Oakland, CA; a collection of interwoven diaries from Nazi-occupied Netherlands; a biography of the mother of modern Black nationalism; and an argument for the decriminalization of sex work.

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Best and Most Bizarre

A selection of first-person testimonies from On Dark and Bloody Ground was included in the “Readings” column of Harper’s, where the magazine reprints “excerpts from the best and most bizarre new books.”

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Public Scholar Award

This year I was awarded a grant from the Public Scholars program of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which supports the creation of well-researched nonfiction books in the humanities, written for the broad public by authors without academic affiliation. I’ll use the funds to finish researching and writing my book-in-progress, a narrative history of the West Virginia Mine Wars.

Smithsonian’s “Sidedoor”

Smithsonian’s “Sidedoor” podcast recently released a full episode on the history of the Battle of Blair Mountain. It’s an approachable and thoughtful introduction to the topic, featuring interviews with myself and my fellow WV Mine Wars Museum board member Chuck Keeney, along with several other historians…

One hundred years ago, in the hills of West Virginia, Black, white, and European immigrant coal miners banded together to demand better pay and safer working conditions and were met with machine guns. While the story made headlines in 1921, it didn’t make it into the history books. In our final episode of the season, we unearth this buried history to help mark the centennial of the largest labor uprising in American history.

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On Dark and Bloody Ground

Now for sale from West Virginia University Press! This set of oral histories from 1972 circulated for many years as an informal typescript volume, acquiring an almost legendary status among those intrigued by the subject. Key selections appear here for the first time as a published book, supplemented with introductory material, maps, educational resources, and photographs. Published to coincide with the celebration of the Blair Mountain Centennial in 2021, the book includes a preface by me and an afterword by Cecil E. Roberts of the United Mine Workers of America. All proceeds benefit the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum.

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Kudzu Punks

Larah Helayne (left) wears a Girls Rock Whitesburg shirt while holding a banjo and a protest sign at the Blackjewel blockade in Cumberland, Kentucky. Helayne visited the blockade to show support for the protesting miners and their families. (Photo by Lou Murray)

I’m an editor at Inside Appalachia, a weekly themed radio program based at WV Public Broadcasting. We recently published a story that I’m particularly proud of, produced by folkways reporter Nicole Musgrave. The story follows two campers at Girls Rock–a summer music camp in Whitesburg, KY, for female, gender-fluid, non-binary, and trans youth–as they discover how the rich Appalachian tradition of protest music sung by women maintains its relevance today.

On the surface, songs like Florence Reece’s labor anthem, “Which Side Are You On?”–which draws on the ballad and old-time music traditions–might not seem to have much in common with the punk tradition that inspire many Girls Rock campers and organizers. But there’s more in common than meets the ear. Listen here…

Greensboro Bound

I’m headed to the Greensboro Bound literary festival next week, where the novelist Wiley Cash and myself will talk about contemporary Appalachian voices, the representation and the role of writers/journalists as witnesses, and other fun stuff TBD. Musician Laurelyn Dossett will open. Cash’s novel The Last Ballad, is a fictionalized account of the life of Ella May Wiggins, a North Carolina textile worker who tried to unionize and was murdered in 1929.

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Georgia Review

The writer Jessica Smith graciously reviewed The Book of the Deada new edition of Muriel Rukeyser’s famous poem cycle about the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster–for The Georgia Review:

Admirers of Muriel Rukeyser have been waiting for a reprint of The Book of the Dead, long out of print, and West Virginia University Press’s new edition does not disappoint. Of course, it’s exciting to have Rukeyser’s seminal hybrid poetic work of social justice in its own affordable softcover volume (with French flaps!), but the great surprise for fans and scholars of Rukeyser is Catherine Venable Moore’s extended introductory essay, which comprises the first half of this volume.

Read the full review…

Two Reviews

Two review-essays prompted by WVU Press’s recent reprint of Muriel Rukeyser’s 1938 poem cycle, The Book of the Deadto which I wrote an introduction…

Los Angeles Review of Books, I Wake Up Choking,” by Maggie Messitt:

The Book of the Dead is a story about race. It’s about industry. It’s about being held accountable and the right to a safe workplace. But, to me — like so many Great Depression narratives — it’s about wealth and power and the ways in which that has trumped humanity and justice across time.

The Paris Review, Muriel Rukeyser, Mother of Everyone” by Sam Huber:

We often lament our porosity to the world’s data as a uniquely contemporary curse. Rukeyser imagines it instead as a capacity we might cultivate, no easier for having been attempted before by others like her, from whom we are lucky to learn, and by many more who will not be preserved or restored. So often in her poems, Rukeyser is both student and teacher.