I told a lie when I was 4 years old. One that I remember well because of the consequences. One that I never claimed until my Sister was dead and gone, and I past 40 years of age.
A large dog came around the corner at Grandmothers house one day. We all stopped to look at each other. I stomped at him saying "move". He looked at us and growled so I told my little sister to "hit that bad dog", and she did and he bit her. Within the space of a few minutes my Grandfather, Uncles, and young men of the family went to find that dog. I was frightened for the dog, crying for my sister, and knew deep down inside it was my fault for telling her to "hit that dog". They found the dog and shot him dead.
I never said I was mean to that dog or that I told Sister to 'hit it' In talking about Blair Mountain and the times leading up to the 2nd largest insurrection in American history I think about that lie and how it defeated the day and became a lasting bad memory for me. It is often said that the Coal Companies don't want the story told because of the brutal way in which they treated people and like the dog who was hit, that the miners "bit back". I say it is more than that. I know because I listened many years to the stories I was told. When I finish relaying to you Grandfathers words you will know the truth as he saw it."
"The truth shall set you free", is what the Bible says and I believe it more today than ever. A lie is a lie is a lie. Thank you, Lord for giving me the memory, the right mind, the right time, and the right heart to make a reply to those who think my people were unruly, unread and UN-American.
Why is it that we use fictionalized accounts and question what was the "tipping" point for the striking miners who went to war against the State of West Virgina in 1921, or why try to decipher clues from archives, dates, and notes, written by the Coal Companies about their reason for rebellion? Is it because the victor writes the history; or has some of the story been left untold? You know the answer. A lie has been told.
I know the answer is within us all. We know what is good, principled and right. If we live a life of value we cherish it more than death and yet, when that life of value is lived facing starvation, sub-standard living, threats, and beatings sometimes death or a sacrifice of death becomes a path that leads to freedom from false prophets and slave masters. Righteous indignation bares light upon wrongs. There were many, many deaths before the Battle of Blair Mountain. The Miners Unions had asked for Federal Congressional investigations before and after WW1 as to the brutal working and living conditions, all to no avail. Their country had forsaken them and they were owned by the state and local governments.
I have imagined the context in which to bring the truth of my families memories to you and I am sure to fail in ways that will never completely clarify the feelings of my Grandfather (from whom I quote most often). I may never come close, however, I feel strongly that the case must be made for ours and many other families whose views and experiences are similar to ours as they relate to the Battle for Blair Mountain. That experience is so strongly entwined and woven into the backbone of our morality and ethics till that as a people our faith, honor, and courage will never fail us. It is called "Fire in the Belly" by my Grandfather, and that is why I write to you now.
I listened intently whenever we visited West Virginia during Holidays. I was the oldest grandchild and I remembered living with my Grandparents until I was 5 or so. My siblings did not and were always content to play in the yard with the cousins, whereas I chose to stay under the knees of grown folk and so would hide behind the porch swing as they talked late into the night. I had no time for kids play.
One day Grandfather said to me, "do you here that train a coming"?
I said, "Yes Sir".
"We had to hit our bellies and lie very still every time we heard a train coming because we lived in tents, Daddy was striking, and they used to fire shots at the tents to scare us into breaking the strike and we were always afraid of sound of the train coming".
"Do you believe that happened right here in America"?
I said, "No it could not happen to here".
He dropped to his knees, eye level with me, and with angst in his eyes said, "it happened here in West Virginia, it happened a long time ago, and it can happen here again". I want you to know that.
I thought he exaggerated or was "telling tall tales" until after his death in 2004 when I researched and heard about the Bull Moose Special, the train with the mounted Gatling gun. I grieved the loss of my Grandfather in 2004 and I reexamined my life and my shared times with him.
After his death I asked Grandmother why he didn't talk to the others (children and grandchildren) about those days and she said it was something that their generation never spoke about out loud because so many men went to jail for years for "treason" and worse were labeled communists so that they and their families were maligned from ever working in the mines again. No-one spoke about it.
I only knew that the goodness of the story and the loving bond between workers was decimated by propaganda from the Coal Companies and State and Local Government Headlines.
In response to Chris Hedges article about Blair Mountain I felt compelled to begin writing a series of diaries committed to telling the story I was told as a child.
Denise Giardina in her novel Storming Heaven is used by Chris to expound upon why the "passive and cowed populations rebelled"
In the novel it exclaims "Hell, it aint got nothing to do with Jesus," the character Talcott tells him. "Half of em dont believe in Jesus. They just stood all they can stand, and they dont care for it."
I am a living testament today and I bare witness that it was because of the BIBLE that they rebelled. Grandfather told me many stories which I gladly relate to you. The one most important at this time is the reason Grandfather told me his Dad and others rebelled. Earl O'Neal, my Grandfather said, and always said, "the Coal Companies never counted on the miners to read the Bible". Imagine that! Can that be the simple, profound truth that history lessons omit? Yes. I say yes.
Does it say God asked Cain where is your Brother to which he replied, 'Am I my Brothers' Keeper"? YES. They began to understand a moral obligation to one another because of their shared, stark humanity and so they lived by a code of honor and strong ethics. No Stealing, No Lying. Share what you have. Help one another.
As I heard it, when they went to church, it was built by the company, and the preacher was paid by the company. The Miners found no spiritual refuge inside the church walls so they read the Bible for themselves. In that Bible was a scripture that said the priestly class was to care for widows and orphans, yet when a man died in the mine, the woman was evicted from her shack as soon as the next able-bodied man with a family came in - unless she had a child she could send in to replace her husband -. No compensation for the death of her husband, it was just "bad luck". Miners asked the Preacher why the church would not take these women and children in or find reprieve for them as Scriptures tell the priestly tribe to do.
Grandfather said,to me: My Daddy said as miners looked to the church to help these widows there was no compassion and no help to be found for those suffering the death of their husbands. He related to me that his father, Charles Arnold O'Neal and others began to take up money around the coal town to either send the women and children back east, (if they had family) or they would marry them to a "Brother" (a fellow miner) as the Bible said so as to spare her young child from the mine. Sometimes they'd move her and her family into their own homes once the Coal Company had cast them out. This was before the unions ever came in. . They had already a creed of ethics so rich in honest loyalty to God and to each other that as they began to care one for another through candle light discussion they began to see the wrongs being done to them as if Gods people bowing down to Pharaoh. If their reward was in heaven and they were to turn the other cheek how come it also said in the Bible that a Man should see good for all the hard work he does? They began to see the church not as a pastoral leader but as an offensive offshoot of Company dictates. The Preacher preached, "you are going to hell if you joined a union, that it was un-patriotic". They did not give up on God they gave into God and let righteous indignation carry them through a testing time.
My people were in the early Cabin and Paint Creek Strikes before WW1. Mother Jones came down to them and preached like a fire brand as to their worth and dignity. Grandfather said his Daddy told him she cussed like a Sailor but no-one spoke like she did. She inspired them and encouraged them to be brave and stay strong, hold the line and one day people will say they saw men of honor who wanted to build up a Nation, not tear it down.
The O'Neals from Cabin Creek camped at Holly Ford during the Paint and Cabin Creek Strikes Grandfather said they were lucky - they had two tents hooked together, one for cooking, and one for sleeping. Momaw had her beautiful rugs on the dirt floor and they were ruined after that. The children learned to crawl and walk on those rugs and their clothes and bedding didn't smell like smoke as some of the other Miners children did because they cooked on one side of the tent. They may have died of starvation and exposure but for the Miners in Pennsylvania and Ohio sending tents, 50lb bags of beans and cornmeal. They watched train loads of immigrants and freed slaves recently recruited from the South working their jobs and living in their company houses. Three and a half years of off and on striking my Great-Grandparents and their children lived in tents. I always thought it a grassy hillside by a river when in truth the only land they could camp on was Federal Property, just offside the rail road tracks. It's kind of like what the Occupy Movement does today. They waited and stayed put on public property.
Great-Grandfather Charles Arnold O'Neal was ten years old when he went to work in the coal mines. He came off the Paint and Cabin Creek strike when WW1 erupted and our US Military needed the coal. They promised not to strike and they did not. When their Country called for duty and service the Miners were there.
When the Great War was over they found commiseration for service, not honor, and less pay and more abuses, and still they waited. They stood in the tribulation room and waited, they lived in tents again and waited. Grandfather said they wanted their country to come and see what the Governor and the Coal Barons were doing. Even the AP Wire service was corrupted. No news to the outside world of what was going on.
Ethics is not something one is born with, I think it is cultivated in the way you bring a child up. I had the best upbringing money can't buy.. Because things like hope and change are not for the meek nor is compassion for a fellow man for sale. You either have it or you don't.
In closing, I say again: I carried a lie about a dog for 35 years and felt guilty that he was shot. I wonder do the same corporations sucking coal and mineral rights from the ground and those who want to "mountaintop remove" Blair Mountain have a conscience? Corporations are people right? Surely they are tired of the lie they have been telling all these years.
I'm going to tell you the reason why Grandfather said the story is not told. The real reason it is not taught in history class. It is not what one might think after all these years but the truth rings like a bell and when you hear it for the first time you will know the truth and the truth will set you free to.
I am Jeana Brown and I laugh and say, "I'm on the ground for you people". But it's the truth, I do everything I do for working folk and honestly I can't wait to tell you the honest - to -Gods' - Truth - Tomorrow in Never tell a Lie. Part 2.