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Ever heard of the Battle of Blair Mountain? Federal troops were called against 13,000 miners.

Three battles that led to the biggest armed insurrection since the Civil War.

Have you ever heard of the West Virginia mine wars?

Maybe they were mentioned in your high school history class, or maybe they were skimmed over, or even left out entirely for one reason or another. Too often, these stories are deemed not "important" enough to warrant the time and attention they deserve.

But the West Virginia mine wars are critical to understanding the history of the labor movement in the U.S. — and soon a new museum will be open to tell the story.


The Battle of Blair Mountain, for example, was — and still is — the most violent labor confrontation in history, in which union-supporting coal miners fought against local government and a coal company-funded militia, eventually involving the U.S. Army.

So, what happened?

Be glad you weren't born into "Coal Country" West Virginia in the 1800s.

In the late 1800s in West Virginia, it wasn't easy to be a coal miner. For starters, mining wasn't just a job, it was a way of life — and a hard way of life. You lived in a company town, bought all your food and supplies at the company store, were paid in company money called "scrip," sent your kids to the company school, read the company paper, obeyed the company-employed police … on and on.

Because the coal companies controlled every aspect of the miners' lives, they could do whatever they wanted: pay as little as they felt like, teach what they felt like, and trap the miners in a cycle of bare-bones survival as they saw fit.

Tennessee Ernie Ford's "Sixteen Tons" paints a good picture of the life of a coal miner.

Not to mention, the job was rife with danger. Fatal accidents were frequent, and illnesses such as black lung disease claimed miners and their families alike.

As the decades wore on, the owners of these coal companies kept raking in the profits. The fledgling United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) started to gain a foothold in many parts of the country — and even in many parts of West Virginia — to fight for a better way of life.

But southern West Virginia stayed mostly non-union, and the coal companies were quite determined to keep it that way.

The stakes were high and so was the tension building between workers and their bosses. And that tension built and built until it eventually exploded into what is to this day the largest armed insurrection since the Civil War.

Typical mining family.

"BLOODSHED REIGNS IN VIRGINIA HILLS!"

That was the terrifying newspaper headline that described how those tensions erupted into violence during the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike of 1912, near Charleston, West Virginia. It was the first major demonstration of the violence to come as the workers stood up for their rights.

Coal miners were fed up with the low wages and the poor working conditions — loading tons of coal for weeks, months, years on end in the cramped, dark mines, only to find themselves deeper in debt at the end of each day.

The miners demanded the right to unionize, the right to free speech and assembly (y'know, that bit in the U.S. Constitution!?), the right to be paid accurately and in real U.S. dollars rather than the company scrip. They were tired of being cheated out of their already meager wages. You see, being paid by the ton and having no access to scales, they had no choice but to take their earnings at the word of the company weigh men. “16 tons? Nah, that's only 12 today."

Coal coming out of a mine.

When nearly 10,000 miners finally went on strike, their protests were largely nonviolent. Until, that is, the mine operators called in the notorious Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to break up the strike. Over 300 armed men descended on the area on behalf of Baldwin-Felts.

Beatings were common. Sniper attacks and sabotage were also used. Miners were forcefully taken from their homes and tossed into the street to live in tents. Inside these tents, people were starving.

Miners called it the “Death Special."

The tent colonies were soon subject to a new tactic from the company goons — a heavily armored train that the miners called the “Death Special" was sent through the tent colony, firing machine guns and high-powered rifles at tents.

In a Senate committee investigation that followed, reported by the Wichita Times, one woman described her encounter with the train:

Mrs. Annie Hill, who limped into the committee room, told how she shielded her three little children from the bullets by hiding them in the chimney corner of her little home at Holly Grove when the armored train made it appearance. She said she had been shot through the limbs and the bullet had gone through the Bible and hymnbook on her parlor table.

Martial law was declared. Mary Harris “Mother" Jones (a feisty union activist already in her 70s who had come to the area to help the miners) was arrested and imprisoned.

"If they want to hang me, let them. And on the scaffold I will shout, 'Freedom for the working class!'" — Mother Jones

After nearly 12 months, at least 50 people lay dead. The number grew when others succumbed to starvation and sickness from the near siege-like conditions in the tents and on the streets.

A miner's family in the tent colony, 1920.

A Massacre in Matewan

Six years later, unionized miners in other parts of the country were seeing huge victories — like a 27% pay increase. This inspired the miners around Matewan, West Virginia, to join the United Mine Workers of America in record numbers. By the spring of 1920, 3,000 Matewan miners had joined.

But the Stone Mountain Coal Company retaliated.

This time, the miners had key public officials on their side: both the mayor and Sheriff Sid Hatfield.

So when the coal company called in the Baldwin-Felts (or the “Baldwin Thugs," as the miners knew them), Sheriff Hatfield met them at the train station. After a brief verbal tussle, the Baldwin Thugs carried on, throwing six mining families and all of their possessions out of their homes and into the rain.

Word spread fast, and soon an enraged group of miners headed to the train station where Sheriff Hatfield had promised to arrest the Baldwin men.

The two forces came together on the steps of the Chambers Hardware Store.


The site of the showdown: Chambers Hardware Store, then and now.

When the dust settled, the mayor was shot, seven Baldwin-Felts detectives were killed, and two miners were dead.

Sheriff Hatfield — who claimed credit for the deaths of two Baldwin Thugs — became a hero. This was the first time the seemingly invincible "Baldwin Thugs" had been defeated, which gave the miners hope.

The 1987 John Sayles movie "Matewan" is a dramatic portrayal of the events leading up to the Battle of Matewan. In this scene, the white miners discussing the union get a surprise visitor in the form of an African-American miner and learn a valuable lesson. (Warning: racial slurs.)

In the spring of 1921, charges against Hatfield and his men were either dismissed or they were found not guilty. The enraged Baldwin-Felts crew swore vengeance, and just a few months later, they killed Sheriff Hatfield and his deputy on the steps of the county courthouse.

Nearly 2,000 people marched in their funeral procession. It wound its way through the town of Matewan and to the cemetery in Kentucky. As the rage built among the miners, it headed toward a final confrontation —the Battle of Blair Mountain.

Matewan was "a symbolic moment in a larger, broader and continuing historical struggle — in the words of Mingo county miner J.B. Wiggins, the 'struggle for freedom and liberty.'" — Historian David A. Corbin



Logan defenders.

"ACTUAL WAR IS RAGING IN LOGAN": The Battle of Blair Mountain

Another newspaper headline described the outbreak of violence, the culmination of decades of mistreatment by the mining companies and years of rising tensions. This was the Battle of Blair Mountain.

It was just after the Matewan Massacre, and thousands of miners began pouring out of the mountains to take up arms against the villains who had attacked their families, assassinated their hero, and mistreated them for decades. The miners wore red bandanas around their necks to distinguish themselves from the company men wearing white patches and to avoid getting shot by their own troops. (And now you know where the word "rednecks" comes from.)

The sheriff of Little Coal River sent in law enforcement to keep the miners at bay, but the miners captured the troopers, disarmed them, and sent them running. The West Virginia governor also lost his chance for a peaceful resolution when, after meeting with some of the miner's leaders, he chose to reject their demands.

The miners were 13,000 strong as they headed toward the non-union territory of Logan and Mingo counties.

A Blair fighter in 1921.

They faced Sheriff Chafin — who was financially supported by the coal companies — and his 2,000 men who acted as security, police, and militia. Chafin stationed many of his troops in the hills around Blair Mountain, West Virginia. From there, Chafin dropped tear gas and pipe bombs on the miners.

For a moment, it seemed like the confrontation might come to an end when a cease-fire agreement was made, and many of the miners began to head home. But the cease-fire broke when Sheriff Chafin's men were found shooting miners and their families in the streets of Sharples, West Virginia, just beyond Blair Mountain.

They never imagined it would come to this: Federal troops were called in to break up a strike.

"FIGHTING CONTINUES IN MOUNTAINS AS FEDERAL TROOPS REACH MINGO; PLANES REPORTED BOMBING MINERS," reported a New York Times headline shortly after Aug. 25, 1921, when the battle escalated to a new point in U.S. history — with tactics that have not been seen before or since.

On Aug. 30, President Warren Harding intervened, placing all of West Virginia under martial law. Harding sent 14 planes to West Virginia that were fully armed for combat but were only used for surveillance. According to Robert Shogan, "the Federal force that mattered most were the infantry units that began arriving ... [on] September 2, some 2,100 strong."

Blair fighters turning in guns.

The miners never made it through Chafin's lines — and it's hard to say what would've happened if they had. After 1 million rounds were fired, the miners retreated. It was time to go home and fight another day.

Over 100 people had been killed — about 30 on Chafin's side and 50-100 on the union miners' side. Almost 1,000 of the miners were indicted for murder and treason, and many more lost their jobs.

Federal troops standing with arms collected from the striking miners after surrender.

In the short-term, the defeat of the striking miners was devastating to the UMWA. Membership plummeted from 50,000 to 10,000 over the next several years. It took until 1935 — post-Great Depression and FDR's New Deal — for the rest of the mines in southern West Virginia to become unionized.

But a single battle doesn't tell the whole story of the larger fight for justice.

In the end, the coal companies lost more than they gained. These bloody conflicts drew the nation's attention to the plight of the long-suffering mine workers, and unions began to understand that they needed to fight for laws that allowed them to organize and that penalized companies that broke the law.

These victories of conscience allowed a number of other unions, like the United Automobile Workers and the United Steelworkers of America, to flourish as well.

Each battle led to the next.

Each fight solidified the resolve and desire of the miners and their families to stand up for their rights to improve their lot in life.

For these brave workers, the American dream was something they had to fight for, something they died for, and something they wanted to pass on to future generations, despite the efforts of the coal companies to prevent them.

Many people have never heard these stories, but now, they can.

94 years after workers laid down their lives for the right to fair employment, their story is taking root inside the building that used to be the Chambers Hardware Store in downtown Matewan.

The first museum to tell the story of these brave people is opening this May.

The West Virginia Mine Wars Museum will open to tell the people's history of the mine wars — something all Americans can be proud of.

Want to learn more and help them reach their opening fundraising goal? You can donate here. Or read more about the museum and the mine wars here.

Images courtesy of Letters of Love
True

When Grace Berbig was 7 years old, her mom was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues. Being so young, Grace didn’t know what cancer was or why her mother was suddenly living in the hospital. But she did know this: that while her mom was in the hospital, she would always be assured that her family was thinking of her, supporting her and loving her every step of her journey.

Nearly every day, Grace and her two younger sisters would hand-make cards and fill them with drawings and messages of love, which their mother would hang all over the walls of her hospital room. These cherished letters brought immeasurable peace and joy to their mom during her sickness. Sadly, when Grace was just 10 years old, her mother lost her battle with cancer.“

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Losing my mom put the world in a completely different perspective for me,” Grace says. “I realized that you never know when someone could leave you, so you have to love the people you love with your whole heart, every day.”

Grace’s father was instrumental in helping in the healing process of his daughters. “I distinctly remember my dad constantly reminding my two little sisters, Bella and Sophie, and I that happiness is a choice, and it was now our job to turn this heartbreaking event in our life into something positive.”

When she got to high school, Grace became involved in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and a handful of other organizations. But she never felt like she was doing enough.

“I wanted to create an opportunity for people to help beyond donating money, and one that anyone could be a part of, no matter their financial status.”

In October 2018, Grace started Letters of Love, a club at her high school in Long Lake, Minnesota, to emotionally support children battling cancer and other serious illnesses through letter-writing and craft-making.


Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Much to her surprise, more than 100 students showed up for the first club meeting. From then on, Letters of Love grew so fast that during her senior year in high school, Grace had to start a GoFundMe to help cover the cost of card-making materials.

Speaking about her nonprofit today, Grace says, “I can’t find enough words to explain how blessed I feel to have this organization. Beyond the amount of kids and families we are able to support, it allows me to feel so much closer and more connected to my mom.”

Since its inception, Letters of Love has grown to more than 25 clubs with more than 1,000 members providing emotional support to more than 60,000 patients in children’s hospitals around the world. And in the process it has become a full-time job for Grace.

“I do everything from training volunteers and club ambassadors, paying bills, designing merchandise, preparing financial predictions and overviews, applying for grants, to going through each and every card ensuring they are appropriate to send out to hospitals.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

In addition to running Letters of Love, Grace and her small team must also contend with the emotions inherent in their line of work.

“There have been many, many tears cried,” she says. “Working to support children who are battling cancer and other serious and sometimes chronic illnesses can absolutely be extremely difficult mentally. I feel so blessed to be an organization that focuses solely on bringing joy to these children, though. We do everything we can to simply put a smile on their face, and ensure they know that they are so loved, so strong, and so supported by people all around the world.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Letters of Love has been particularly instrumental in offering emotional support to children who have been unable to see friends and family due to COVID-19. A video campaign in the summer of 2021 even saw members of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and the NHL’s Minnesota Wild offer short videos of hope and encouragement to affected children.

Grace is currently taking a gap year before she starts college so she can focus on growing Letters of Love as well as to work on various related projects, including the publication of a children’s book.

“The goal of the book is to teach children the immense impact that small acts of kindness can have, how to treat their peers who may be diagnosed with disabilities or illness, and how they are never too young to change the world,” she says.

Since she was 10, Grace has kept memories of her mother close to her, as a source of love and inspiration in her life and in the work she does with Letters of Love.

Image courtesy of Grace Berbig

“When I lost my mom, I felt like a section of my heart went with her, so ever since, I have been filling that piece with love and compassion towards others. Her smile and joy were infectious, and I try to mirror that in myself and touch people’s hearts as she did.”

For more information visit Letters of Love.

Please donate to Grace’s GoFundMe and help Letters of Love to expand, publish a children’s book and continue to reach more children in hospitals around the world.

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Images courtesy of AFutureSuperhero and Friends and Balance Dance Project
True

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The man inside the costume is Yuri Williams, founder of AFutureSuperhero And Friends, a Los Angeles nonprofit that uplifts and inspires marginalized people with small acts of kindness.

Yuri’s organization is one of four inaugural grant winners from the Upworthy Kindness Fund, a joint initiative between Upworthy and GoFundMe that celebrates kindness and everyday actions inspired by the best of humanity. This year, the Upworthy Kindness Fund is giving $100,000 to grassroots changemakers across the world.

To apply, campaign organizers simply tell Upworthy how their kindness project is making a difference. Between now and the end of 2021, each accepted individual or organization will receive $500 towards an existing GoFundMe and a shout-out on Upworthy.

Meet the first four winners:

1: Balance Dance Project: This studio aims to bring accessible dance to all in the Sacramento, CA area. Lead fundraiser Miranda Macias says many dancers spend hours a day at Balance practicing contemporary, lyrical, hip-hop, and ballet. Balance started a GoFundMe to raise money to cover tuition for dancers from low-income communities, buy dance team uniforms, and update its facility. The $500 contribution from the Kindness Fund nudged Balance closer to its $5,000 goal.

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James started a GoFundMe to crowdfund supplies for his students’ team ahead of the First Lego League, a school-against-school matchup that includes robotics competitions. The team, James explained, needed help to cover half the cost of the pricey $4,000 robotics kit. Thanks to help from the Upworthy Kindness Fund and the generosity of the Citizens of the World Middle School community, the team exceeded its initial fundraising goal.

Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team video update youtu.be

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4: AFutureSuperhero And Friends’ “Hope For The Holidays”: Founder Yuri Williams is fundraising for a holiday trip to spread cheer to people in need across all fifty states.

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AFutureSuperhero started a GoFundMe in July to cover the cost of gifts as well as travel expenses like hotels and rental cars. To help the nonprofit reach its $15,000 goal, the Upworthy Kindness Fund contributed $500 towards this good cause.

Think you qualify for the fund? Tell us how you’re bringing kindness to your community. Grants will be awarded on a rolling basis from now through the end of 2021. For questions and more information, please check out our FAQ's and the Kindness Toolkit for resources on how to start your own kindness fundraiser.

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