Fahad, the young Uber driver, arrived promptly for my trip back to JFK Airport, so I put a lid on my cup from the hotel lobby and asked if I could bring it along. I always ask. “Sure, sir,” he smiled. “A man needs coffee. So, where are you from?” I told him I now live in South Carolina but am originally from West Virginia. “Ah. West Virginia. I see.” His smile faded. “Don Blankenship West Virginia?”
It surprised me a little to hear that name on the corner of Flatbush Avenue and Tillary Street in downtown Brooklyn. But Blankenship, the millionaire West Virginia coal operator who was found guilty of conspiring to violate mine-safety standards after twenty-nine miners died in an explosion in 2010, was recently back in the news. He was running for a U.S. Senate seat and describing himself as “Trumpier than Trump.”
I am proud to be from West Virginia. I request John Denver’s song “Country Roads” (“Almost heaven, West Virginia…”) from bar bands and have sung along with it, quite badly, in six countries and at sea. During football season, I fly yard flags of my two alma maters, Marshall and West Virginia Universities, even though I now live deep in Clemson territory. I sent money to help support the late-winter 2018 teachers’ strike in West Virginia that inspired similar teacher uprisings in other states. Traveling the country over the past twenty-eight years, I have heard all the stereotypes, and gotten used to responses like “Oh, I had a college roommate from Richmond” (different state since 1863) and “Is it against the law to marry your first cousin there?” (Yes it is, though it’s still legal in California and Massachusetts.) But today comments like those remind me of a more innocent time, the good old days before Donald Trump started coming to West Virginia to hold rallies where people chant “Lock her up!” and “Build that wall!”
Neither of my parents graduated from high school, and we all helped out on our small leased farm to supplement Dad’s wages. The mine where he worked was “low coal,” often less than thirty inches from floor to ceiling. He genuinely loved his job, but he was adamant that my brother and I go to college and get “inside jobs.” He saved every spare cent to that end. By the time Dad died of lung disease (common among coal miners) in 2007, my brother was a high-school guidance counselor, and I was a manager and trainer for the federal court.
There was a reason Eleanor Roosevelt came to West Virginia to showcase the need for anti-poverty programs in the 1930s, followed by John and Bobby Kennedy in the 1960s. We finally got a flush toilet in our house when I was nine, but hot showers had to wait until I left for college. I was born the year before the state gave JFK a decisive victory over Hubert Humphrey in the 1960 Democratic primary, proving he could win over non-Catholic voters. Many of my relatives’ houses had portraits of FDR and labor leader John L. Lewis hanging in their living rooms when I was a boy. FDR was replaced with JFK memorial photographs in thin gold frames after November 1963. Talk of the “hard times” before the Mine Wars—before miners had secured the right to unionize the coalfields and before New Deal programs had improved education, nutrition, and health care—still dominated adult conversation. Listening to my elders talk politics, a child could conclude that the two American political parties were the Democrats and the Damnrepublicans. In truth, there wasn’t much difference between the parties on the state level. Democrats held most statewide offices, but elected leaders across the board were beholden to Big Coal, Big Gas, and Big Timber, while West Virginia consistently languished near the bottom of national statistics in health, education, and transportation.
But from my youth to today, the Mountain State has turned from a reliable source of Democratic national leaders such as Senators John “Jay” Rockefeller IV and Robert C. Byrd to a bastion of support for Donald Trump. In fact, Trump did better in West Virginia than anywhere else, receiving 68.5 percent of the state’s vote. The year Trump was elected, the GOP also won a majority in the state legislature promising “right to work” (anti-union) legislation. During this period of political transformation, the state has become older and poorer. The median age of its population is surpassed only by that of Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire. Only Mississippi has a lower per-capita income. Across the board, the statistics are grim: the lowest high-school graduation rate in the country, the highest rate of drug-overdose deaths—thirty-five per every hundred thousand residents.
What happened? I ask myself that often. My wife and I moved to the coast after I retired from my full-time job in 2010, but much of our family remains in West Virginia, and I return every June for our annual family reunion. At the 2016 reunion, “Make America Great Again” caps and bumper stickers were popular among the gathered descendants of the men and women who, two generations earlier, had risked their lives to unionize the coalfields. Coal jobs (and union membership) have greatly diminished in the state over the past two decades, and there was talk of Trump “bringing coal back” from years of decline. My relatives blame that decline on bad trade deals, environmental regulations, and illegal immigration. They rarely mention new labor-replacing technology, increasing supplies of natural gas, the declining international coal market, and the fact that most of the remaining coal seams are harder and more expensive to mine.
“Yep, I could take care of them illegals coming to take our jobs. Just give me a high spot with a tree stand and my deer rifle,” a cousin proclaimed between bites of apple dumpling. I could have told him that West Virginia has the nation’s lowest percentage of foreign-born residents. But what good would it have done? This was not about numbers, or facts. What had ended the state’s eighty-year run of progressive politics was a change of attitude, one easier to describe than correct.
The following day, I accompanied some cousins to place a homemade grave marker in the cemetery where my great-great-grandfather, a Confederate veteran, was buried 112 years ago. The cemetery is located on Cabin Creek in south-central West Virginia, on land owned by a coal company. We had to ask the company’s permission to hoist the stone over the locked gate. The path up the hill was much too steep and rough for a vehicle, so we pulled the hundred-pound stone on a dolly, trying in vain to avoid the luxuriant poison ivy, and checking ourselves for wood ticks each time we stopped to catch our breath.
A concrete machine-gun nest, or “pillbox,” dominated the crest of the hill. Its purpose was unmistakable: it was placed at the optimal angle to spray death down onto the no-longer existent village of coal-mine “company houses” below, while its narrow slits provided protection for the gunners. It was built by the coal company in 1913 to quash an early unionization effort, but still stands sentry on the mountaintop. I had seen similar installations left over from World War II while visiting Guam.
This pillbox was in the heart of Appalachia, where, according to most history timelines, no military action had taken place since the Civil War. My cousins and I knew better, having heard our grandparents’ stories of machine guns mounted on railroad flat cars being fired indiscriminately into miners’ houses, and pro-union men simply disappearing without a trace. The mine owners even used the primitive airplanes of the day to drop bombs on the miners.
In the early twentieth century, trying to unionize the coal mines of West Virginia was considered a capital offense by the mine owners. Those suspected of this crime could be executed with impunity by mercenaries hired by the mining companies. The same year this particular pillbox was built, the unionizer Mary Harris “Mother” Jones was placed under house arrest in Charleston for eighty-five days, without the benefit of the civilian judicial process.
The struggle reached its climax a few years later, in the Battle of Blair Mountain, fought over steep terrain in 1921. It was the largest armed battle on American soil since the Civil War, involving some thirteen thousand participants. Historians estimate that a million rounds of ammunition were fired. As in the Civil War, relatives and friends lined up on either side of the conflict, some content with the near-starvation paycheck offered by the coal companies, others deciding it was worth risking their feudal life in pursuit of freedom. In the end, President Harding’s threat to send in the regular army infantry and air corps caused even the stout-hearted Mother Jones to call for a truce, in order to avoid a massacre and live to fight another day.
There was no victory for the union cause until sweeping New Deal legislation made organizing a right and instituted basic safety regulations for the mines. The lives of coal miners slowly began to improve, and continued to do so as a result of Great Society programs in the 1960s and a series of well-negotiated United Mine Workers of America contracts. Though West Virginia owed its existence to the Republican administration of Abraham Lincoln in 1863, the state became reliably Democratic during and after the Great Depression.
But long before that humid, tick-infested day at the cemetery, things had changed. The drive up the hollow had taken us past countless front-yard Trump signs; they were a regular part of the landscape, like the aging mobile homes and junked cars. It was during that trip that it finally dawned on me that maybe the old Confederate soldier I had just risked Lyme disease and a heart attack to honor might be partly to blame for this sorry state of affairs—at least in my own family. Becoming a farmer and later a coal miner after the Civil War ended, my great-great-grandfather evidently passed down the myth of The Lost Cause and the expectation of white supremacy to his descendants. I suspect the old family rumor that his son was a member of the Ku Klux Klan is true.
My grandmother grew up with the old Confederate soldier living with her family. A staunch Fundamentalist Evangelical Dominionist who bore sixteen children, she used to bring me and my cousins into the bedroom after Sunday dinner to read us Bible stories, most of which dealt with white horses, sounding trumpets, rivers of blood, and unquenchable fire. It could all happen, she reminded us, before the day was over. Her stories used to scare the hell out of me. They also confused me, because no matter how terrible it all sounded, my grandmother seemed so satisfied with the gnashing-of-teeth scenario. Then there was her opinion of black people, for whom she used a different term. The term. She didn’t believe they actually had souls like the rest of us. Even my six-year-old self, eager to get story time over with so that I could play in the barn, found something dubious about the whole thing. But maybe some of my cousins did not, and still don’t.
West Virginia’s population is only 3.6 percent black and 1.6 percent Latino. Yet, to a populace trodden down by generations of corporate exploitation, being told one is superior to someone else is a powerful motivator. LBJ said it best. After seeing racial epithets scrawled on signs in Tennessee, he told his press secretary, Bill Moyers, “I’ll tell you what’s at the bottom of it. If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” After LBJ’s support for civil rights and Nixon’s willingness to exploit white fear, the Solid South began its slow transition from monolithically Democratic to even more monolithically Republican. West Virginia took longer than some states to come into the fold, but it’s firmly there now. Bill Clinton was the last Democrat to win the state.
Grandma was a Democrat. Her final vote was cast for Jimmy Carter in 1980, and she was a reliable supporter of Democratic presidential candidates in all but two elections, her first in 1928, and again in 1960. That was because Al Smith and John Kennedy were Catholics—lost souls. No JFK memorial portrait in her house. I think a mini-conspiracy in the family kept her from finding out that I eventually became a Catholic myself.
On the morning of November 9, 2016, I fielded tearful calls from my two Millennial daughters. “I can’t believe it. How could this happen?” I told them it would be bad, but that surely there would be reasonable people around Trump who would keep him from sending the country off the rails. They told me my assurances reminded them too much of the time I said their goldfish Leonard had gone away to live with his family.
The most poignant conversation I had that morning was with my mother, then eighty-five years old, the daughter of the woman who thought black people had no souls. Whenever someone says, “Oh, that’s just how she was raised,” as an excuse for someone’s racism, I refer them to my mother. “I can’t believe it,” she told me the morning after the election. “Working people will find out what they’ve done, and be sorry. They’ve spent all these years hating President Obama because he’s a black man, and told all those lies about Hillary, and now look what we have. And the preachers support it! Support that nasty man Trump and the things he says. That’s the part I can’t understand.” It was very sad, what she told me, but it was also true; and I found that somehow comforting. Now, whenever Trump visits my home state to drum up more politically convenient anger, I give my mother a call. Hearing her anger gives me hope.