Bill Blizzard & Wess Harris
William C. Blizzard was born in 1916, son of Bill and Rae Blizzard. He died in 2009 at the age of 92. William's father was the Union's legendary hero of the Battle of Blair Mountain and this quirk of fate would both bless and curse his entire existence. He attended West Virginia University but always regarded his time there as time spent at a school meant for the offspring of operators rather than miners. Moving to New York, he attended Columbia and studied journalism and photography. These were to be his trades throughout his life. He held numerous jobs but lost more than a few due to what he identified as FBI interference--and likely a few more due to his own progressive beliefs. In the early 1950s, he worked for Labor's Daily, a labor paper published in Charleston, West Virginia. It was while at this job that he completed years of work on his magnum opus: Struggle and Lose, Struggle and Win! The work, a history of the early struggles by miners for decent working conditions, was published in Labor's Daily in serial form. Unfortunately, the paper had a policy that staff writers did not get bylines. Three days after publication, this unsigned work was wrapping dead fish and unavailable to later researchers.
Until the publication of When Miners March in 2005, William C. Blizzard was best known as a writer/photographer for the Charleston Gazette. His Sunday features are remembered to this day as highlighting the best of West Virginia. As fate--or genetics--would have it, he was fired in the early 70s for refusing to cross a picket line. The next three decades would see tight finances and declining health until in 2004 he was found by Wess Harris and a partnership was born. The first edition of When Miners March became real in 2005 and William C. Blizzard enjoyed recognition more than a half century after it was deserved. He was featured on the History Channel and delighted in autographing his books--the last few months from his bed in a nursing home.
Wess Harris is a farmer, educator, and progressive activist living in central West Virginia. Paper trained as a sociologist, his most important credentials may be his black hat (a certified underground miner) and background as a Union organizer. These, combined with a stubborn streak, ultimately persuaded then 87 year old William C. Blizzard to publish his Struggle and Lose, Struggle and Win!
Blizzard's book has consumed most of his non-farming time in recent years but Wess has also been active in the movement to preserve Blair Mountain from the ravages of mountain removal coal mining. Wess currently uses the When Miners March Traveling Museum as a means of selling Blizzard's book as well as teaching about mine and Union history. As a younger chap, Wess came under the influence of Don West, Myles Horton, Arthur E. Morgan, and a host of other almost forgotten heroes. He has recently located and digitally preserved more than half of the estimated 100 Appalachian Portraits painted by Don's wife and Highlander co-founder, Connie. As a sociologist/historian, Wess is keenly aware that all traditions are always only one generation from extinction. The traditions of progressive activists from the abolitionists, labor organizers, environmentalists, anti-war protestors, and a host of others are being systematically attacked by the interests of those in power. Wess is devoting the remainder of his productive years to telling the stories to one more generation.
Picture: Labor Day Celebration in Charleston 2004. Wess Harris, Bill (William C.) Blizzard, and Cecil Roberts.
Written in Blood: Courage and Corruption in the Appalachian War of Extraction
Editor: Wess Harris
Publisher: PM Press
Page count: 264
Subjects: Politics / History-US / Labor
Written in Blood features the work of Appalachia’s leading scholars and activists making available an accurate, ungilded, and uncensored understanding of our history. Combining new revelations from the past with sketches of a sane path forward, this is a deliberate collection looking at our past, present, and future.
Sociologist Wess Harris (When Miners March) further documents the infamous Esau scrip system for women, suggesting an institutionalized practice of forced sexual servitude that was part of coal company policy. In a conversation with award-winning oral historian Michael Kline, federal mine inspector Larry Layne explains corporate complicity in the 1968 Farmington Mine disaster which killed seventy-eight men and became the catalyst for the passage of major changes in U.S. mine safety laws. Mine safety expert and whistleblower Jack Spadaro speaks candidly of years of attempts to silence his courageous voice and recalls government and university collaboration in covering up details of the 1972 Buffalo Creek flooding disaster, which killed over a hundred people and left four thousand homeless.
Moving to the next generation of thinkers and activists, attorney Nathan Fetty examines current events in Appalachia and musician Carrie Kline suggests paths forward for people wishing to set their own course rather than depend on the kindness of corporations.
“Written in Blood shines a critical light on the untold true history of the WV Mine Wars.”
—Mari-Lynn Evans, director and producer of Blood on the Mountain
“With Written in Blood, Wess Harris has once again called attention to how the West Virginia state government and the coal industry have struggled to keep our state’s real history buried beneath a slag heap of fairy tales and misinformation. His critics will find this book, like his other works, abrasive and filled with alleged distortions about the coal companies’ abuse and exploitation of the state’s coal miners and their families. His supporters will welcome Written in Blood as Harris once again pushes the boundaries in an effort to reveal that abuse and exploitation.”
—David Corbin, author of Life, Work, and Rebellion in the Coal Fields: The Southern West Virginia Miners, 1880–1922
“For two hundred years, the coal industry has promised us prosperity. Written in Blood leaves little doubt that the prosperity never arrives. The promise itself is contingent on us agreeing to our own destruction. We must agree to stand idly by as they destroy our communities, water, air, health, and lives. We owe them nothing. They owe us everything.”
—Maria Gunnoe, Goldman Environmental Prize winner and recipient of the University of Michigan Raoul Wallenberg Medal
“For more than a century, the real history of the working people of our state has been deliberately scrubbed from our children’s schoolbooks and our collective knowledge. Written in Blood helps bring the true history of West Virginia working families back into the light of day. Read it. Learn it. Pass it on!”
—Mike Caputo, International District 31 vice president, United Mine Workers of America
“Labor historian Wess Harris targets lost history in a brand new book that provides jaw-dropping accounts of how women were treated by an industry already widely known for its ruthlessness and callousness.”
When Miners March
Author: William C. Blizzard
Edited by Wess Harris
Publisher: PM Press
Published: September 2010
Size: 9 by 6
Page count: 408
Subjects: Labor, History-US
In the first half of the 20th century, strikes and Union battles, murders and frame-ups, were common in every industrial center in the U.S. But none of these episodes compared in scope to the West Virginia Mine Wars.
The uprisings of coal miners that defined the Mine Wars of the 1920’s were a direct result of the Draconian rule of the coal companies. The climax was the Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest open and armed rebellion in U.S. history. The Battle, and Union leader Bill Blizzard’s quest for justice, was only quelled when the U.S. Army brought guns, poison gas and aerial bombers to stop the 10,000 bandanna-clad miners who formed the spontaneous “Red Neck Army.”
Over half a century ago, William C. Blizzard wrote the definitive insider’s history of the Mine Wars and the resulting trial for treason of his father, the fearless leader of the Red Neck Army. Events dramatized in John Sayles film Matewan, and fictionalized in Denise Giardina’s stirring novel Storming Heaven, are here recounted as they actually occurred. This is a people's history, complete with previously unpublished family photos and documents. If it brawls a little, and brags a little, and is angry more than a little, well, the people in this book were that way.
"When Miners March is an extraordinary account of a largely ignored but important event in the history of our nation."
--Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States
"When Miners March is a national treasure, a recovered gem of American History that should be required reading today. Never has a book been timelier; never has Wm. C. Blizzard's inside account of his legendary father's march to liberate the Appalachian coalfields from the abuses of King Coal been more relevant."
--Jeff Biggers, author of The United States of Appalachia
"This engaging book...is a valuable contribution to the preservation of a history that should be honored and never lost. Read it and weep, and cheer."
--Harry Cleaver, author of Reading Capital Politically
"Essentially an oral history on paper, When Miners March is the story of the birth of the UMWA in West Virginia. It is also a study of the reality of capitalism and its toll on those who work in its sphere. It's about men who believe in the the possibilities of human solidarity and other men who succumb to greed and power. It is a testimony to the power of the idea that everyone deserves a safe workplace, a decent wage, and the life such a wage buys. Most importantly, this book is an inspiration to those who still believe that those things are worth fighting for."
--Ron Jacobs, Counterpunch
--Kari Lydersen, In These Times
For a calendar of speaking events, please click here
Reviews & Mentions
- Written in Blood: Publishers Weekly
- Written in Blood: CHOICE
- Written in Blood: Appalachian Mountain Books
- When Miners March: Appalachian Journal
- When Miners March: Appalachian Heritage
- When Miners March: In These Times
- When Miners March: Counterpunch
- Wess Harris on Mine Museum Displays: Charleston Gazette
Written in Blood: A Review
by George Brosi
This slender but powerful anthology from labor historian Harris (with William C. Blizzard, When Miners March) relates a people’s history of conflict between mining companies and the workers of Appalachia from the late 19th century to early 20th century. The collection draws on an eclectic array of sources, including the folk songs of Sarah Ogan Gunning, who calls for miners to “sink this capitalist system into the darkest pits of hell”; interviews with a whistle-blower, a miners’ defense lawyer, and miners’ families; and a reproduction of a pamphlet on the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain produced by the coal operator’s union. The book is especially strong on gender issues, such as the exploitation of young “comfort girls” in remote mining camps and the Esau scrip system, in which the wives or widows of miners exchanged sex for the ersatz money used at the company store. Some of the Appalachian history here is well established, but the book offers invaluable insight into organized labor’s power in one of America’s most dangerous industries, the collusion of state power and big business, and the resilient spirit of miners and their families. Examining the region’s history and future prospects, Harris’s volume offers deeply researched and ethically sound perspectives on an industry that has become a 21st-century political flash point. (Dec.)
Written in Blood: A Review
By B.M. Banta
Written in Blood comprises stories, interviews, and analyses that continue editor Harris’s unabashedly pro-miner and pro-union quest “to take back our story and the cultural institutions now in the service of extractive industries.” Focused on West Virginia’s coalfields, stories documenting the Esau system and sexual trafficking of teenage girls chronicle degradation and desperation. While these conditions occurred during the first half of the 20th century, Harris contends that contemporary struggles for workplace safety and economic security exist within a contest “between those who ... strive to see our land survive and prosper, and those representing the interests of large capital seeking to maximize profit.” Although the book lacks context, libraries with robust holdings in Appalachian and West Virginia history, labor history, and the history of extractive industries should consider adding this book to their collections. Libraries wishing to provide an introduction to the West Virginia mine wars should start with James Green’s The Devil Is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom (CH, Oct'15, 53-0941).
Written in Blood: A Review
by George Brosi
Appalachian Mountain Books
"It ends with three articles, not found elsewhere, by Nathan J. Fetty, Carrie Kline, and Wess Harris that bring coal field struggles up to date and provide both inspiration and concrete suggestions for constructive participation in rectifying past abuses and building a more just future. The result is that you need Written in Blood even if you have the two earlier books, but if you have Written in Blood, there is little need for either of the two previous books."
When Miners March: A Review
By Peter Slavin
Appalachian Journal: A Regional Studies Review
VOLUME 39, NOS. 3 & 4 (SPR/SUMMER 2012)
by Theresa L. Burriss
When Miners March: West Va. Coalfield Tales Still Resonate
By Kari Lydersen
In These Times
Blizzard’s description of massacres by company militias are breath-taking. At Ludlow in 1914:Women and children in the strikers’ camp were awakened by the murderous cough of machine guns and the ripping canvas and wood as slugs plowed through their temporary homes…the women and children crawled out of their holes under cover of darkness and inched along on their bellies to the safety of a freight train. And then the militia swarmed into Ludlow, set fire to the riddled tents and conducted a kind of war dance while they watched the flames eat into the April night.Hired militias brought into Matewan also carried out violence with near-impunity. Police chief Sid Hatfield, sympathetic to the union, was murdered in broad daylight. His companion, Ed Chambers was allegedly shot at close range right in front of his young wife, who hit the murderer, infamous informant C.E. Lively, with her umbrella.
By Ron Jacobs
According to the story, miners who were in the union (the union of course being the United Mine Workers of America-UMWA) or sympathetic to it wore red bandannas tied around their necks so that other miners and their families could differentiate friend from foe. Hence the name redneck. Wearing that red kerchief opened one to all kinds of abuse by the forces of law and order, private and public. It's not like there was really much difference between the two, however, seeing as how the coal operators and owners ran the entire state of West Virginia. Some things don't change very much, do they?
"Harris also takes issue with aspects of the portrayal of William "Bill'' Blizzard, the longtime union organizer who led the miners at Blair Mountain and was acquitted at his subsequent trial. One exhibit calls Blizzard a Socialist. He was instead a Republican for most of his life, Harris said.
Harris' sources on that include Blizzard's late son, who with Harris wrote When Miners March. The 400-page book chronicles the unrest in the coalfields that culminated in the Battle of Blair Mountain. Its recently released second edition includes several of Harris' criticisms of the museum's coal displays."