Protesters share connection with our ancestors

Published 5:10 pm Tuesday, August 6, 2019

By Clark Bailey

The Loyalist

As I sit down to pen this column, the protest at Sand Hill bottom continues into its second week after a first week that far exceeded expectations in regards to the amount of coverage and in the overwhelming positivity of the coverage. The first week that had a slew of officials, candidates and politicians who came by to lend both their ear and their support to the miners and their families. And a first week that ended with a rally and concert, that culminated with an impromptu visit from Governor Matt Bevin during the concert. All this quite an accomplishment, considering it all began with five miners getting word a loaded coal train was leaving the mine and them deciding they were going to block it. This action the impetus to the slogan, no pay, no coal — a slogan prevalent at the rally this past Saturday. It was prevalent on clothing, apparel and on people’s lips. Prevalent even in the very souls of the men and women there, and even back to their/our ancestors who fought so many rough and tumble battles over the years in these deep, dark hills.

Being called upon to emcee the concert for the protest rally, I took the opportunity to tour the camp in between my stints announcing. I ran into several familiar faces, guys I had known back to high school along with friends I had made along the way. There were also friends of friends, even some family and some people I got to meet for the first time.

There were people like myself, who were grounded in Harlan County all the way back to when it was still part of Virginia and called Kentucky County. There were people whose families came here during the first coal boom of the early 1900s to 1920s, both hailing from immigrant families from Europe and people whose families came here from other parts of Kentucky — a beautiful and living testimony of the diversity of culture nestled here in our mountain home. One brought together by the promise of work and the opportunity to work out a life here.

Walking through the camp and listening to the stories, and the hopes, and prayers of what the miners want to come about from this, I was awestruck at the cohesiveness among the men and their families. I was astounded at the level of community support. Not so much that was occurring, but that I was alive, and it was happening in a time in which I could be a witness, and in some small measure be a part of. After listening to all the miners’ stories, which varied to some degree, there was however a few common chords I wish to touch upon.

That of wanting to be paid what is due to them, wanting to go back to work, and wanting to stay here in their ancestral homes. Almost all of the men I spoke to without even having to mull it over felt that being able to go back to work was paramount, even over receiving their back pay. And mind you, everyone I spoke to expects to receive their pay, and readily admit that was a big part of blocking the train. But most all felt, that even more important was being able to continue to provide for their families by way of the job that was in their blood. Most every miner could speak of generations of men in their families, and often on both sides, that had worked the mines since the first cars of coal were hauled out of here.

Most all of us there were connected in some way to the coal wars, and the struggles throughout the 20th Century to make sure the people here could work and raise families and be treated fairly doing so. The consensus among all there was a feeling of pride amongst oneself and fellow Harlan Countians, that in some small measure, the unfairness of the company was being faced head-on by stopping this shipment of coal from being moved. The subject of moving also came up from time to time in discussions in the protest camp.

Many, like the rest of us, have moved before and came back. Discussion after discussion had stories of going to Lexington, Georgetown, or south to Georgia or Tennessee. One familiar refrain came along with all those stories. That of being called back here by forces seen and unseen. Men who couldn’t maintain homes in two places, and just the call back to these mountains where our ancestors, our blood, is intertwined with the landscape and embedded in our souls. One quote from a miner, a Todd Adams, of Putney, struck me as particularly salient. When asked about why it was so hard to at times to pick up family and leave, he replied; “Moving your family is like taking a bush out of your yard when you leave. There’s a chance the roots aren’t going to take hold somewhere else. No matter how much you care for it, it might not thrive.”

Some time early this morning a contingent of these Blackjewell miners and their supporters will be leaving the county headed to West Virginia and more court proceedings concerning Blackjewell’s bankruptcy. Rumors abound that there’s a company poised to purchase or has already made the moves to do so. No one knows what these proceedings hold or what, if any, benefit it will be to our miners. Being there as a show of solidarity and as a voice may be all that comes of it, but for now that will be enough. For the consensus among almost all that I spoke to was that they were dug in for the long haul. The men engaged in the processes of looking for new work, biding their time while on unemployment (if they could get it), intend to keep working together to make sure this protest continues till their demands and concerns are met.