I’m such a slacker. On Wednesday night, The Mine Wars premiered on the PBS series American Experience, and I have to admit I missed it. (If it’s any comfort, PBS, I was binge watching Downton Abbey at the time!) Luckily, this groundbreaking mini-series is streaming on PBS.org, and it’s an event we all should see.
In the earliest days of the 20th century, our region was being transformed. Newly established coal companies, almost always owned by outside interests, offered steady work in our mountains, an area that, until then, had relied mostly on subsistence farming. But regular pay came at a price.
“In our town we have many good things, good churches and schools,” one miner summarized, “but there is another thing of much more importance that the coal operators have intentionally overlooked — our freedom.”
While coal companies provided housing for miners and their families, they also turned Appalachian natives into the capitalist equivalent of serfs. Following a feudal model, they created coal towns with no elected officials, no democratic process or even local police forces. Instead, companies hired private guards armed with rifles and machine guns to police the towns, a practice miners detested. Thy even paid in their own currency, called scrip, which could only be used at company-owned stores.
As awareness of this exploitation grew, union leaders focused their attention on coal country, and miners faced a difficult choice—live in steady subjugation or fight for their rights.
Over the next several decades, violence erupted, a war that has been all but forgotten. Schools have rarely taught about it. No books or films on the topic have seen wide distribution. Appalachia’s mine wars have barely been a blip in the telling of U.S. history…at least, until this week.
American Experience is the nation’s most-watched history series, one that reaches millions of viewers and even influences classroom conversations through popular teacher guides. By airing The Mine Wars, the show is moving this bloody Appalachian story from the fringe to the mainstream, taking us a big step closer to rewriting history.
Do you feel like this is a story worth telling? Is coal part of your family story? And if you’ve seen the show, what did you think?
Please leave a comment below.