Posted February 22, 2010
In 1921, Blair Mountain, West Virginia became a flash point for the class struggle that raged in the southern coalfields. John Sayles’ 1987 movie Matewan was partly based on the working class insurrection, which involved over 10,000 miners. Now the coal interests are trying to erase the memory of this important site of working-class and labor history. Please do what you can to support the re-listing of the Battle of Blair Mountain on the National Register. History is one battleground on which we fight for the future!
This post was taken from the H-Labor listserv and comes via Brian Nida and Dr. Harvard Ayres who are involved in the effort to save this important site of U.S. Labor’s legacy:
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Some of you may have heard that the site of the Battle of Blair Mountain was recently slated to be REMOVED from the National Register of Historic Places, and is under imminent threat of destruction. The delisting was heavily supported by the Massey Coal Co., and the site will be subjected to mountain-top removal mining if an ONGOING APPEAL of the delisting decision is unsuccessful.
A campaign to send letters supporting the appeal (to return the site to protected status) is underway, and letters from labor activist and academics would be of great help in these legal proceedings. The web
site will help you direct letters to the agencies involved in the case.
The appeal will move forward very soon, so don’t wait to take this easy step!
A Story of Bureaucratic Fraud aka Big Coal Wins Again
This delisting was the culmination of a six-month process after Chief Keeper Paul Loether announced his decision to de-list the site based on an initial procedural error made by the West Virginia State
Historical Preservation Officer, Mr. Randall Reid-Smith. Mr. Reid-Smith had initially turned in a list of property owners and objection letters, and stated the number of objectors and non-objectors. However, that initial count of owners and objectors had 57 total owners, including 22 objectors and 35 owners who did not object. Since the objecting landowners were less than a majority, the site was listed. But immediately after the site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, April 6, 2009, Mr. Reid-Smith discovered eight objector letters which had been “unintentionally not counted, which changed the count to 30 objectors and 27 non-objectors, disqualifying the listing on the register.
On July 22, Mr. Loether announced his intention to de-list the battlefield, which automatically retained the category of “eligible” for the National Register. He said that one of the objection letters, that of Loretta White, was not an objector due to her right to her property being based on a Life Estate, a category which does not confer fee simple title to the property. So the count was changed to 29 objectors and 27 non-objectors.
Over the next several months, the record was open to comments on the intent to de-list the Blair Mountain Battlefield. A number of comments were made, pro and con de-listing, many of which touted the qualifications of this important site. One comment letter was submitted by battlefield archeologist Dr.
Harvard Ayers. His comments dealt with the records of ownership of battlefield properties and included a legal opinion on 2 title holders by John Kennedy Bailey, real estate attorney of Charleston. After extensive review of the tax, deed, and death records at the Logan County, West Virginia, courthouse, he concluded that five of the objectors of record submitted by Mr. Reid-Smith were not legitimate owners. Two were dead, two were Life Estates, and one had sold their property. Of the 10 of 57 properties that he researched in depth, he also discovered 13 additional owners not found by the cursory search of the West Virginia Attorney General’s office. The upshot of this research was that the count shifted to 25 objectors and 37 non-objectors, which would overturn any attempt to de-list the battlesite.
When this evidence was presented to Paul Loether of the Keepers office, he sent the Ayers/Bailey comments to Mr. Reid-Smith for a re-evaluation of the count. The SHPO refused to re-evaluate, citing a section of 36 CFR 60 which he felt supported his point. Mr. Loether maintained that he was not allowed to review and evaluate the comments because it was the duty of the West Virginia SHPO, disagreeing with Mr. Reid-Smith’s regulatory interpretation.
In December, journalist Jeff Biggers, book author (The United States of Appalachia) and contributor to the Huffington Post, spoke with Mr. Loether on the phone, explaining that there were dead people on the SHPO’s list of objectors as well as not one but two Life Estates and many other irregularities. As a result, Loether sent a pointed letter in November to the SHPO saying among other things the following. “Although we did not receive many comments, we want to ensure that your office is aware of all materials the NPS received in this regard (on Blair de-listing), and strongly recommend that that they receive your office’s full consideration. You may be particularly interested in the enclosed letter and materials we received from Harvard Ayers, who is challenging the accuracy of your office’s determination of property owners and, thus, the validity of the nomination’s owner objection count. As you know, Federal Regulations specify that ‘it is the responsibility of the State Historic Preservation Officer to ascertain whether a majority of owners of private property have
objected (36 CFR 60.6(g)).’”
The December 8, 2009, SHPO reply included the following. “In closing, we believe that we have fulfilled our obligation under 36 CFR 60.6(g). We acknowledge the commitment that individuals have made toward the listing of Blair Mountain. However, the State Historic Preservation Officer cannot make a re-determination as to the count for the following reasons: the re-calculation would occur outside the timeframe; Mr. Bailey’s work does not provide enough information to provide an accurate assessment; and it is not our office’s role in the de-listing process as outlined in the federal regulations.” In other words, NO, Keeper! We will not comply with your strong recommendation.
On December 30, without further reply, Mr. Loether de-listed the site. On January 6, 2010, Mr. Loether wrote a letter to the SHPO and others including Dr. Ayers saying in part the following:
“The removal of the battlefield from the National Register was made on the motion of the Keeper based on the procedural error you explained in your letter of April 6, 2009. The error concerned a miscalculation of the percentage of owners of private property objecting to the National Record nomination. The corrected count yielded more than 50% objecting, which precludes listing on the National Register, but results in a determination of eligibility (36 CFR 60.6(s)). In a letter of December, 2009, Susan Pierce (Deputy SHPO) declined to ‘make a re-determination as to the count based on public comments received in response to the announcement of the intent to de-list the battlefield.’ According to 36 CFR 60.6(g), it is the ‘responsibility of the State Historic Preservation Officer to ascertain whether a majority of owners of private property have objected.’ You have confirmed that the count of owners and objections yields an objection rate of more than 50%. We accept that determination and, therefore, the Battle of Blair Mountain has been removed from the National Register and it has been determined eligible.
Thank you for alerting us to the procedural error regarding the percentage of private property owners who objected to the National Register nomination of the Blair Mountain Battlefield. Although we regret its removal from the National Register, we are satisfied that the Federal regulations have been accurately followed and the determination of eligibility offers protection from federally funded or licensed adverse actions.”
In other words, SHPO, it doesn’t matter that you declined to make a re-determination as to the count based on public comments received in response to the announcement of the intent to de-list the battlefield,” and thus did not meet the “responsibility of the State Historic Preservation Officer to ascertain whether a majority of owners of private property have objected,” we accept that “You have confirmed that the count of owners and objectors yields an objection rate of more than 50%…. So thank you for alerting us to the procedural error…
Listed vs Eligible
An interesting addendum to the above seeming incongruities is the discussion that arises around the concept of the relative importance of listing vs merely “determined eligible.” Some would hold that there is not a significant difference. The piece below was a reply of Dr, Harvard Ayers to a related email query.
This is a very seductive argument which has some truth at its base. With all due respect to the rest of the folks on this email, none of whom I know, I will argue that there is a huge difference between
being eligible and being listed on the National Register of Historic Places. I will also argue that it should be listed not just because of its importance, but also because there is no legal reason not to list it, the opinions of the National Park Service and the West Virginia State Historic Preservation Officer notwithstanding. But here’s the simple answer to listed vs eligible.
Both do afford the same regulatory protection by the state and federal bureaucrats in the 106 process. Except in the minds of those bureaucrats, that is only one part of the picture. When push comes to
shove, and the coal companies apply to blow the place up, the public perception of what is happening is crucial. Which would be more important in the public eye? A site that is technically “eligible” to
be on the Register, or one that is so important that despite it being in the coal fields, certainly a hostile environment toward historical preservation, it IS on the National Register of Historic Places?
While there are legitimate reasons to de-list a site, see 36 CFR 60.15(k), one is certainly NOT the present case where the bureaucrats, both federal and state, are corrupt.
I am Dr. Harvard Ayers, Professor Emeritus of Archeology and Anthropology at Appalachian State University. I conducted archeological investigations at the Blair Mountain Battlefield in the summer of 2006 and found the 10-mile-long battlefield to contain amazingly in-tact archeological remains, which have the capability to inform us in a major way about this huge and important battle. Based on these facts and the excellent written history of the battle, the entire battlefront should be a National Monument. Why are we arguing about whether it can be listed on the Register? Easy answer; the coal industry owns the WV government and they have cut a deal with the National Park Service to reduce the historical importance of the Battlefield so the coal industry can blow it up through the process of Mountaintop Removal. All politics is local as most of us probably believe. Logan County, where the battle was fought, is coal country. Yet despite the grip that the industry has on Logan County, a demonstrable majority of the property owners within the boundaries of the battlesite did not oppose the listing. So there is no legal reason why the battlesite cannot be listed. Only the reason described in the above paragraphs explain why its been de-listed. The second Battle of Blair Mountain, the one to get the site its well-deserved recognition as at least a National Register site, is not over. Multiple wrongs have been committed. There will be appeals.