LOGAN — The historic Coalfield Jamboree in downtown Logan was the site of a Labor Day church service late Monday morning to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Blair Mountain.
The service was titled “The People’s Church: A Dissident Coalfield Worship Experience,” and it was presented as part of the Blair 100 series of events. Presenting the service alongside Blair 100 was the City of Logan, New Wineskins, the Coalfield Health Center, Susan and Roger Perry, Rev. Dr. Barry Whittemore, Peter and Gloria Kelly and the Cora Summer Basketball League.
The Rev. Brad Davis, pastor of the Nighbert Memorial United Methodist Church in Logan, said the idea for the service came after discussions with officials from the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum about ideas for events that could be held in Logan.
“The idea kind of popped up, ‘Well what about a church service?’ ” Davis said. “Let’s have some sort of memorial, or some sort of service, to memorialize what happened at Blair Mountain. So, that was kind of how it all began and how this all started to come together.”
A variety of speakers delivered messages of faith that centered on themes pertaining the early 20th century mine wars and the miners’ struggles to organize unions. Speakers included the Rev. Rickey French, the Rev. Audie Murphy Sr. of Shiloh Baptist Church in Madison, the Rev. Jay Nunley of the Gilbert Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Darick Biondi of Charleston, Anitra Ellis and Marti Dolin.
Musicians included The Sycomores, an Americana gospel group from the Ashford area of Boone County; Sabrina Shrader, a McDowell County native; and Angela Jones, who performed a marching song titled “Oh Freedom!”. In between speakers, The Sycomores would often briefly perform a song called “Which Side Are You On?”, which went with the theme of miners’ church vs. the company-sponsored church prevalent during the service.
“What we intended to do in planning to have this service was to reimagine, in a contemporary context, an ‘organized church service,’ ” Davis said, “and what I mean by that is during the labor struggles and during the mine wars here during the early 20th century, there arose out of the tent colonies of the striking miners and their families who had been evicted from their homes — from their company-owned housing — they had set up these tent colonies, which were basically refugee camps … there arose from these colonies a movement which became known as the ‘organized church,’ which was a very, very heavily pro-union religious movement that was the antithesis of what was the company church, which were the institutional churches in the coal camps, in the coal towns, that were owned by the company.”
Davis said the speakers and performers were chosen with the intent of being diverse while also being connected to the areas where the mine wars were fought.
“I tried to be very intentional about, number one, the participants being from the coalfield counties,” Davis said, “and two, being as diverse as possible, because that was one of the hallmarks of the labor struggle and especially what happened at Blair Mountain. The miners came together as one, regardless of ethnic background, which is, I think, one of the unique stories of what happened at Blair in 1921. You had people of all different backgrounds, you know, the immigrant miners from Italy and eastern Europe and England and Wales and Ireland and the southern black folks that had come up to work in the mines. They all came together as one to demand their civil and human rights.”
The service culminated in a powerful sermon based on the 61st chapter of the Book of Isaiah in the Old Testament of the Bible. Davis said he chose the scripture based on its message of being in solidarity with oppressed people. Davis also used part of a speech delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the night before he was assassinated in 1968.
Davis ended the sermon by raising his fist and saying “Montani Semper Liberi,” the Latin motto for “Mountaineers Are Always Free” that appears on the West Virginia State Seal.
The stage backdrop featured what resembled the opening of a tent, which symbolically represented the tent colonies. Hanging in the middle of it was an antique-style brass oil lantern like those used by coal miners during the Blair Mountain era.
“In a church service, we have folks that ‘bring in the light’ of Christ,” Davis said. “Symbolically, they carry the light of Christ into the sanctuary and light candles on the altar to symbolize the presence of Jesus in the sanctuary, so the intention of the lamp being hung at the entrance to the tent was that — it was to mimic that in a church service.”
At the conclusion, Davis picked up the lantern and carried it out through the Coalfield Jamboree while the other participants followed. The carrying of the lantern symbolized the carrying of Christ’s light into the world.
To see a gallery of photos from the service, visit www.LoganBanner.com.