Keeney brings ‘Redneck legacy’ to Bowdoin
BRUNSWICK — The “Redneck legacy” that West Virginia professor C. Belmont “Chuck” Keeney studies deals with workers rights, civil rights and a labor movement story he said is rarely taught in American history courses.
He’s willing to bet that’s not what the phrase “Redneck” brings to mind for most people.
His great-great-grandfather Frank Keeney was one of those “Rednecks,” Keeney said — a group of West Virginia mine workers who showed their solidarity by wearing red bandanas around their necks during a 1921 labor fight at Blair Mountain that turned into the largest armed conflict on U.S. soil since the Civil War.
On Thursday, Keeney will deliver a talk at Bowdoin College titled “The Redneck Legacy: King Coal and Appalachian Activism, 1912- 2012,” and that “Redneck legacy” is something he said he hopes to reclaim.
The author, professor and activist said that anyone interested in environmentalism, American history, labor rights and “the direction that the country is going” will have something to take from the talk.
Regarding his own heritage and the West Virginia coal miners of the early 20th century, Keeney said there is a hidden history of an early labor movement in the United States in the story of Blair Mountain.
“If you like weekends or the 40-hour work week, those were all achieved by the union movement and the front lines in the early 20th century were in central Appalachia,” Keeney told The Times Record in a phone interview.
“We have to remember that history to know how important that is to our country’s future.”
Last year, two local men — Henry Heyburn and Everett “Brownie” Carson, the former executive director of the Maine Natural Resources Council — traveled to West Virginia to take part in a march to re-enact the 1921 labor movement that Keeney’s ancestor helped lead.
Today, Keeney is the acting chairman of the group Friends of Blair Mountain, which is fighting alongside the Sierra Club and other groups to have the mountain entered into the National Reg- ister of Historic Places and has plans to develop the location as a historic park, rather than a new site for mountaintop removal mining.
“We’re not only trying to prevent something but also trying to build something and create sustainable jobs,” Keeney said.
In the meantime, Keeney said the group still awaits the results of a lawsuit filed after Friends of Blair Mountain and others submitted a complaint to West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection arguing that Blair Mountain land is unfit for further mining operations.
At the site that was a flashpoint for the early 20th century labor movement, Keeney said that legal battle and the questions it raises highlight new tensions that he said speak to larger trends across West Virginia and the country.
Recently, a federal judge reversed a decision to revoke a mining permit for a mining operation in Logan County, W.Va., near Blair Mountain, called Spruce No. 1.
“In some cases, this is a microcosm of competing political forces in this country and how it turns out will be a fair indicator of the direction the country is going to take in the decades to come,” Keeney said.
The group Friends of Coal, which advocates on behalf of the coal industry in West Virginia, promotes the industry as a way to stimulate the state’s economy and create jobs paying an average of $68,500 per year on its website.
In part, Keeney said his group’s plans are focused on jobs as well — in a tourist industry that he argues can be more sustainable than coal, if done right.
“It’s not just about preserving this area for environmental or sentimental or historical reasons, but it also makes good economic sense,” Keeney said.
That work has helped to bring about new collaborations between groups that he said have not typically worked together in West Virginia: environmentalists and miners.
“There is a higher level of cooperation than there has been in a long time,” Keeney said. “Where that will go remains to be seen, but it looks very promising right now.”
Personally, Keeney said his grandfather’s history as a union leader provides him “tremendous motivation” to continue that work.
“The union movement is hanging by a thread in this country,” Keeney said. “They’re under attack with Right to Work legislation in a number of states and they’re under heavy attack in West Virginia and Ohio and other places in the Appalachia region.”
In those places, Keeney said, historical connections to the union movement often fall by the wayside.
“It’s not a history that I was taught in school,” Keeney said. “It’s something that I learned at family reunions and church dinners — it’s an informal history that’s been passed down from generation to generation … the recent movement for Blair Mountain is kind of a passing of the torch, so to speak, and I am trying in a small way to continue that legacy.”
Keeney is scheduled to speak at Bowdoin College’s Smith Auditorium in Sills Hall at 7 p.m. Thursday. The event is free and open to the public.