November 2, 2018 at 4:15 pm

Alumni News | Wess Harris at Public Library on Mine Wars, Dec. 1

A smiling Wess Harris

Wess Harris

Wess Harris ’74M presents “The Great Appalachian Miners’ Struggle: 1890 to the Present” at the Athens Public Library on Saturday, Dec. 1, at 2 p.m. He will also share photos from the Athens County Home. Details available in The Athens News and The Athens Public Library event calendar.

Harris is a sociologist, farmer, and educator who is widely recognized as a leading authority on West Virginia’s Great Mine War. He completed his graduate studies in sociology at Ohio University, earned his certification as a underground miner a few years later and briefly served as president of L.U. 1555. After leaving the mines (fired for organizing), Harris continued the work he had begun in Athens after graduation and replicated the model developed at the Athens County Home. In the mid-’80s he served as president of the West Virginia Behavioral Health Advisory Council.

Harris also is giving a talk for the Sociology and Anthropology Department on Friday, Nov. 30.

He teaches both labor history and environmental issues to students from around the country, while spending most of his time in the Appalachia region. Harris’s primary involvement is as curator of the When Miners March Traveling Museum, which is devoted to documenting and teaching the history of West Virginia’s miners that has been lost, ignored, or suppressed over the past century. In recent years, the Traveling Museum has appeared at numerous state and regional arts and crafts fairs and Appalachian festivals.

“As I reflect on my time the Ohio University Sociology Masters program,” Harris says, “I remain thankful for a solid education in theory and methods – but especially for a trust no one attitude. I never have taken any prisoners…. Thanks to the likes of Krebs, Mason, Shelly, Kuhre, Sheak.”

Each of Harris’s three major publications has shed light on previously unknown (oft-censored) history of the coal fields. In 1977 he published and in 2014 reprinted ‘Cross the Pond, an oral history of Appalachians in the Vietnam era military. Eighteen of the original authors were found to still be in the Morgantown area and supported the 2014 reprint by Appalachian Community Services. Several visit the display at Mountaineer Week each year. The work was given strong praise from NYU history professor Marilyn B. Young, a widely recognized authority on that conflict.

Book cover When Miners March by William C. Blizzard Edited by Wess HarrisHis major research contributions of late have focused on the publication of When Miners March by William C. Blizzard, who was a lifelong journalist and photographer who was overlooked by the “scholars” of the mine war era. He wrote When Miners March in 1952, but it sat unpublished until Harris’s efforts brought it into print in 2004. As a recounting of the events as they actually occurred by the son of Union leader Bill Blizzard, When Miners March is the definitive history of the major labor conflicts in West Virginia, winning praise from Howard Zinn as “an extraordinary account” and Jeff Biggers as “required reading.” When Miners March and the collaboration of Harris and Blizzard provide the foundation of the work of the Traveling Museum.

book cover Written in Blood: Courage and Corruption in the Appalachian War of Extraction

Written in Blood: Courage and Corruption in the Appalachian War of Extraction is a 2017 anthology including the work of both mainstream scholars, widely known independent researchers, and countless contributors who have encountered the Traveling Museum in recent years. It was edited by Harris and published by PM Press and breaks new ground in revealing the role of women in the coal camps and the oppression they lived under. Written in Blood received a starred and featured review in the October 30, 2017 Publisher’s Weekly and was reviewed and recommended by the March 2018 CHOICE—a publication of the Association of College and Research Libraries.

From Publisher’s Weekly:

The collection draws on an eclectic array of sources, including 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 was become a 21st-century political flash point.

Praise for Written in Blood:

“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

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