The West Virginia Mine Wars Museum is celebrating the end of another successful year. In 2017, more than 2,000 people saw exhibits on company town life, the dangers of mining, the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek Strike, and the Battle of Blair Mountain. Since its 2015 opening, the museum has added a Miners’ Memorial Exhibit, hosted historians, musicians, and storytellers, and has started a membership program.
In October, the Mine Wars Museum partnered with the West Virginia Humanities Council and the Appalachian Community Fund to host a 30th anniversary screening of the movie “Matewan.”
Writer and director John Sayles, producer Maggie Renzi, and actor Will Oldham came to South Charleston for a day of events. They joined museum members at a gathering that afternoon before the screening to talk about their memories of making the movie and hear about our experiences with the movie over the years. We were especially pleased that at least 20 members of United Mine Workers of America Local 1440 came from Matewan to be part of the celebration.
That evening there were two screenings of the movie at the La Belle Theater, and Sayles, Renzi, and Oldham all came up on stage after both screenings for a panel discussion. In an emotional moment, Local 1440 presented Sayles with a plaque and made him an honorary member of the local.
The panel discussions, videos of which are on the museum’s Facebook page, included questions from the audience about the movie, the filmmakers’ experiences in West Virginia, and future projects, including a possible digital re-release of the movie.
In “Matewan,” Renzi played the role of Rosaria, an Italian immigrant and wife of a miner, who is in conflict with a native Appalachian woman at the start of the strike. During the panel, Renzi was asked about what that subplot meant to her, and she remembered, “When we came down to make this movie, everybody said, ‘Nobody will welcome a bunch of Yankees.’” She said that when she came to West Virginia she learned—like the movie characters—that “it doesn’t take very long before you’re stuck together and you find common cause.” She continued, “So whenever I hear about red states and blue states and how different we all are and ‘those people,’ I think back to what we did here and I know it’s not true.”
Thinking about the movie’s relevance to current events, John Sayles told a reporter from West Virginia Public Broadcasting that coal companies still threaten miners’ with their lives, but it is by taking away their healthcare and their pensions. He went on to say, “The people who don’t want there to be unions have big economic reasons to not want them.”
Sayles wrote the script for “Matewan,” he said, after hitchhiking through Kentucky and West Virginia as a young man in the late 1960s and early 1970s and hearing about the hidden history that was the Mine Wars. This led him on a journey of discovering at a time when few others were researching the topic. Over the last thirty years, his movie has introduced the labor history of Appalachia—and in fact the history of the labor movement, period—to countless viewers who would not have learned about it otherwise.
In August, the National Endowment for the Humanities announced that the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum was one of the winners of the Creating Humanities Communities grant program. Over the next few years, the museum will use the funds to help organize the Blair Centennial Celebration, an ambitious program for the anniversary of the Battle of Blair Mountain. We are planning five days of events in different parts of southern West Virginia that will bring together historical societies, preservationists, and re-enactors to commemorate the death of Sid Hatfield, the miners’ march, the Battle of Blair Mountain, and other historic moments from 1921.
We are in the middle of our second annual membership drive, and our goal is to reach 200 members by the time it ends in January. While grants make great programs possible, the museum depends on its members to provide financial stability, pay for part-time staff, and keep the doors open. Supporters can become members for as little as $3.50 per month or as much as $25 per month and receive a one-of-a-kind membership card, a free copy of the museum’s journal, and the pride of helping preserve this important chapter in Appalachian history. It only takes a few minutes at the museum’s website.