Frank Keeney was a mine workers union leader who played a central role in the historic 1921 Battle for Blair mountain, the country’s bloodiest insurrection since the Civil War, a battle between 10,000 miners and coal companies intent on crushing their union.
Charles Keeney hadn’t heard of his famous great grandfather until he attended the yearly Memorial weekend family picnic in southern West Virginia.
He was eight or nine years old at the time.
“Lots of people were there,” Keeney told Russell Mokhiber, host of the Morgan County USA podcast. “I was out back behind the house with a toy plastic Army knife trying to throw it into a patch of moss on the side of the hill. It was going horribly at it. The knife just kept bouncing off.”
“And a guy who I had never seen before or I didn’t know – his name was James Jackson – he was one of Frank Keeney’s grandchildren. And he told me – you are throwing this all wrong. He showed me how to throw it. I was throwing by the handle. And he said – you may need to learn how to throw that thing. You might have a Baldwin-Felts guard after you one day.”
“That was news to me. I had never heard of a Baldwin-Felts guard nor did I understand why one might be after me. I asked him about that and he said – you are Frank Keeney’s great grandson and you don’t know what a mine guard is?”
“I said – no, I hadn’t heard of this.”
“I ran around to the front of the house and found my dad over a grill and I asked him – what’s a mine guard? And why would they be after me? And dad said – we’ll talk about it later.”
“I remember when I said that you could immediately hear a pin drop amid all of these people who were out at this cookout. It was not something the family talked about a lot for a whole bunch of different reasons. It was from there that my dad began to set me down and tell me. I then began later interviewing Frank Keeney’s surviving children and other family members about it.”
“It was this fascinating idea that there was this war fought in West Virginia, my great grandfather played a central role in it and yet there were no monuments to this war, there were no textbooks about this war, and it was only discussed in hushed tones.”
“That was one of the most mysterious and intriguing things about it to me. Nobody knew about this and nobody seemed to want to talk about it. That lit a fire in me to discover more.”
Charles Keeney went on to become a scholar of the West Virginia mine wars and helped save the Blair Mountain battlefield from mountaintop removal mining.
He has documented that nine year battle in The Road to Blair Mountain: Saving a Mine Wars Battlefield from King Coal. The book will be published in January 2021 by West Virginia University Press.
Keeney says that the history of mine wars was deliberately written out of West Virginia textbooks.
“I have a whole chapter on this in my book,” Keeney says. “I refer to it as the mind guard system, as opposed to the mine guard system. The coal industry was trying to rewrite the history even as the history was happening. That goes back to the Paint Creek and Cabin Creek strikes where newspapers that were sympathetic to the miners were shut down by Governor Henry Hatfield. And it continued on through Blair Mountain, where they would censor journalists or shut down journalists who tried to travel into the region to report on it.”
“But once you get into the 1920s, you had industry leaders form what was called American Constitutional Association. This was set up to promote the ideology of what they called ‘100 percent Americanism.’ That tied the idea of America to corporate success. The idea was to influence the curriculum in the schools. Phil Connolly headed the ACA. And he would control West Virginia history textbooks for about fifty years. He wrote a couple of the textbooks himself. He oversaw this huge propaganda campaign that left out (the history of the mine wars).”
“There is a paper trail of course for all of this. Phil Connolly’s papers are in the state archives in Charleston. It was a very deliberate effort to wipe these away — not just Blair Mountain, but other events like the Hawk’s Nest disaster.”
“They did not enter into any West Virginia textbook until 1972 when Otis Rice published his textbook. And even then less than a page is dedicated to the Battle of Blair Mountain. So yes, it was fifty years of it being completely absent and then only getting a small little footnote up through the 20th century. We are talking about a coordinated effort.”
Keeney says that this concerted effort by the coal industry to shape public opinion through the schools is ongoing today.
“They have organizations through Friends of Coal to send wives and mothers of miners into the classrooms to talk about the benefits of coal,” Keeney says. ‘They have their own curricula that they send out to teachers, particularly in the coal counties. They hold the West Virginia Coal Festival where they have students write up essays about the benefits of coal and they give prizes for first, second and third place.”
“Friends of Coal also understands the significance of sports and regional identity. The coal industry and Friends of Coal have done a successful job in sponsoring all kinds of sporting events all over the state, from high school sports to college events.”
“There is also a form of 21st century welfare capitalism where the coal industry has bought and paid for football and baseball fields throughout coal country and heavily advertised that. They understood the significance of tying the identity of coal with the identity of sports. That’s one way of deflecting legitimate criticism.”