Please welcome guest author Lou Martin. He is a board member of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum. He earned his Ph.D. in history from West Virginia University, and his research has focused on steel and pottery workers in northern West Virginia. His forthcoming book Smokestacks in the Hills: Rural-Industrial Workers in West Virginia will be published by the University of Illinois Press in the fall.
In July 2013, eight of us met at the union hall of Local 1440 of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in Matewan, West Virginia, to talk about the possibility of starting a museum located in the coalfields and dedicated to the history of West Virginia mine wars. We came from different backgrounds—mine workers, a retired teacher, an architect, historians, and community organizers—but we shared common values.
Among them were having people tell their own history, telling the history of the labor movement, and providing the younger generation an understanding of how we got where we are today and what miners sacrificed to get us here. And we shared one more value: getting folks from different backgrounds to work together.
The West Virginia Mine Wars began in 1912 when the UMWA went on strike up and down Paint Creek and Cabin Creek in Kanawha County. By the time the strike ended the following year, it was known around the nation as one of the bloodiest labor conflicts in American history. The UMWA’s most famous organizer, Mary “Mother” Jones, was among the leaders of the strike and witnessed the violence. Speaking around the country, she would recall snow stained with blood and miners’ families shivering in tent colonies through the winter. She told audiences, “When I get to the other side, I shall tell God Almighty about West Virginia!”
The UMWA emerged from the conflict with a contract and new leaders of District 17—Frank Keeney and Fred Mooney—who went to work organizing miners beyond Kanawha County. During World War I, organizing efforts brought new members in non-union strongholds like Logan County, but when the war ended, the coal operators fought back. In 1920, another organizing drive stalled out in Mingo County, and when the Stone Mountain Coal Company hired Baldwin-Felts agents to evict union men and their families from company housing, it precipitated a conflict that ended in gunfire on the railroad tracks of Matewan.
Ten men died in the shootout, and the chief of police Sid Hatfield was charged with murder. The following summer, Mingo County authorities jailed UMWA organizers, and the Baldwin-Felts shot and killed Hatfield as he climbed the McDowell County Courthouse steps to face trial. Ten thousand miners took up arms to free their organizers, bring the union to Mingo County, and avenge the death of the miner’s hero, Sid Hatfield.
At Blair Mountain, the miners’ “redneck army”—so-called for the red bandanas they wore around their necks—ran into the entrenched forces of Logan County Sheriff Don Chafin, who had arrayed some three thousand deputies, National Guardsmen, and Baldwin-Felts agents on the ridgeline. A battle raged for five days until the U.S. Army arrived and the miners surrendered, hundreds of them being charged with treason. It was the largest armed uprising in U.S. labor history.
In many ways, these events speak for themselves. Dozens of people died in these conflicts over basic civil liberties, the right to form unions, and the right to a decent wage and a life of dignity. Many historians and archaeologists have been drawn to this conflict. And yet, U.S. history textbooks rarely if ever mention the mine wars, and few Americans outside of the coalfields know about them.
There is also a lot of concern that the younger generation of West Virginians may not know about the origins of the UMWA in the state and the struggles of so many for basic rights and a decent standard of living. A museum dedicated to the mine wars can bring the story to Mingo County and Tug Valley visitors, and to the next generation of West Virginians. Current and retired coal miners can see their history honored in the museum’s exhibits. Finally, the museum will give visitors one more reason to visit picturesque downtown Matewan.
None of us had experience starting a museum, but in our second meeting, we listed all the resources available to us and all the people we know. When we stood back and looked at our list, it included museum directors, lawyers, community leaders, union leaders, historians, archaeologists, artists, journalists, and government officials. As we started to talk to other people about our idea, time and again people offered their help, their donations, and their ideas. With so much support, the Board of Directors, which includes Wilma Steele, Catherine Moore, Hawkeye Dixon, Katey Lauer, Kenny King, Chuck Keeney, Greg Galford, Gordon Simmons, and me, Lou Martin, decided to take the next step: finding a space.
We signed a lease for 336 Mate Street, a modest storefront located within Matewan’s Historic Downtown. One corner of the larger structure is still scarred by bullets from the 1920 Battle of Matewan, fought between the miners and the Baldwin-Felts Detectives.
We have spent nearly two years putting all the pieces in place, and we are having a Grand Opening on May 16, 2015. Even if you can’t make it to our grand opening, there is one very important way you can support these efforts. The museum is currently undertaking a crowd funding campaign to raise the money to pay local people to keep the museum open and take care of artifacts. Any amount helps. Go to https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/let-s-open-the-wv-mine-wars-museum to donate today.
You can also like our Facebook page “West Virginia Mine Wars Museum” and check out our awesome website.
See you in Matewan soon!