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Fairmont State lecture series to focus on mining, Blair Mountain

There used to be an expression heard in San Giovanni in Fiore, and the other little Calabrase mountain towns near the arch of the boot in southern Italy that have West Virginia coal-mining connections.

People would say it when they were on their way to an errand, or work, or just an outing with friends.

Paraphrased, it went: “Don’t worry. I’ll be fine. It’s not like I’m going to Monongah.”

In other words, the loved one leaving through the front door at that moment fully anticipated safe travels and a routine return.

And yes, they were referring to that Monongah in Marion County, the site of one of the deadliest deep-mine disasters in the U.S and world.

On Dec. 6, 1907, a series of deadly explosions were set off when a runaway coupling of coal cars snapped power lines to the mine.

Up to 500 workers died, many of them boys, working underground, underage.

A sad, sizable roll call of victims hailed from San Giovanni.

Davitt McAteer, the activist and former mine safety official who wrote the book on Monongah, is coming to Fairmont State University Sunday to launch a lecture series looking at labor history in West Virginia.

Particularly coal-mining history in West Virginia, which is marked by deadly disasters and defiant stands.

Blair Mountain came 14 years after Monongah in 1921.

The rugged peak in Logan County was the site of the county’s bloodiest insurrection since the Civil War, as miners struggling to unionize dug in against the coal barons – who wanted things to stay as they were.

McAteer, who penned the acclaimed book, “Monongah: The Tragic Story of the 1907 Monongah Mine Disaster,” is scheduled to appear at 2 p.m. Sunday at Fairmont State’s Frank and Jane Gabor West Virginia Folklife Center.

He will be the inaugural speaker for the center’s 2021 Phyllis W. Moore Authors Series.

Novelist and activist Denise Giardina will discuss online her book, “Storming Heaven,” a fictionalized account of the standoff at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Historian and activist Charles B. Kenney will discuss his book, “The Road to Blair Mountain: Saving a Mine Wars Battlefield from King Coal,” at 7 p.m. Sept. 27 at the center.

Kenney’s great-grandfather, Frank Kenney, led the charge of miners to the base of Blair Mountain in 1921.

Generations later, it was Charles Kenney who led the charge to save the site from the ravages of mountaintop removal – saying memories and motivations needed to remain intact.

The Fairmont State events are free and open to the public. Call 304-367-4403 for more information and the link for Giardina’s virtual appearance.

In West Virginia, talk can run deeper than a coal seam when it comes to the relevance of the mine wars, McAteer said.

The research and interviews he conducted as a law student during the Farmington mine disaster in 1968 led to a white paper that sparked sweeping mine safety legislation a year later.

Before that, there was Blair Mountain, McAteer said: The first victory in the battle for hearts and minds.

“They changed the narrative,” he said of those miners who carved out awareness and empathy for their plight as an oppressed – and expendable – workforce.  

“The ground shifted. Before that, anything the coal operator did was OK, because the coal operator was the coal operator. But the Blair Mountain miners said it wasn’t OK, and they fought back.”