a patriotic pro-labor post from Matewan, WV

Get ready for a long one today… I didn’t plan it this way, I swear, but here it is the 4th of July, so let’s talk history, shall we?

I was so honored and grateful that (thanks to some connections!) the staff at the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum helped me out by making a special allowance for Hops. It’s been a few days of triple digits here lately – too hot to even run into a gas station to pee with Hops in the van, for sure. Being allowed to bring him into this museum made all the difference to us. And this was an important stop for me.

The Battle of Blair Mountain and the Matewan Massacre are ubiquitous stories here in my soon-to-be-temporary-home-state, and I come from labor organizers myself, so this was a thread I wanted to follow. The treatment of mine workers in these parts has been egregious throughout history, but the 1910s and 20s saw some of the most violent labor conflicts we’ve known. This humble museum offers a wealth of information on these events, which have been largely hidden from history by government inattention (to put it mildly) and the reluctance of those involved to share their stories, for fear of retribution.

I will give my best shot at a brief sketch, but I’m very new to learning these stories.

Working conditions in coal mines were terrible; miners and their families lived in company towns (I read as many as 90% of them), and were paid in company scrip that they had to spend at company stores; they had to buy their own equipment, including shovels, dynamite, and canaries. They were policed by mine guards with guns. They organized to ask for improved conditions, including fair and transparent weighing of coal, the removal of mine guards, and payment with, you know, real money. Offered a wage increase and reduction to a nine-hour work day, they refused and went on strike. The company brought in scabs and evicted miners from their homes, and so the miners, and their wives and children, set up tent cities. It was an increasingly tense situation, obviously. In Matewan, a private detective agency was sent in to enforce evictions; the mayor stood up for the miners; the agents wound up in a standoff with the mayor and sheriff and a few miners, and a gunfight ensued that left 10 people dead on the main street in town. Four bullets remain embedded in the building that now houses the Mine Wars Museum.

The mayor was killed in this massacre; the sheriff later faced charges, and when he appeared for trial, was assassinated along with a friend on the courthouse steps by other agents of the same detective agency. The murders of this pro-labor mayor and sheriff were some of the inciting events – along with continuing poor working conditions, strikes, and evictions – that led to the march over Blair Mountain toward Matewan, in what would become known as “Bloody Mingo” County. The United Mine Workers of America were organized, armed, and ready to do battle for labor rights. As the miners made their way toward Matewan, the United States Army sent out troops against them. General Bandholtz met with the miners and was reassured that they were turning home; but news of union activists shot near the town of Sharples apparently turned them around again (or else they were not actually intending to turn back at all?) – the miners continued to march for Matewan.

Their route took them through Logan County, where anti-union Sheriff Don Chafin held office; he organized an army of his own. At this point, both sides were armed and ready for battle. Guerrilla warfare was ongoing for a time in Mingo County and on Blair Mountain in Logan County; the miners tied red bandannas around their necks so they could tell one another apart from the enemy (a strategy that cuts both ways, of course), and became known as the Red Neck Army. This is said to be the origin of the usage, ‘redneck.’ Sheriff Chafin hired private planes to drop pipe bombs on the miners. It was truly a battle, said to be the largest armed uprising in this country since the Civil War. The museum has documented that the US Army intended to drop bombs on the miners as well, but bad weather grounded their planes. That would be the only time our military has planned to bomb its own people. Scattered fighting continued for months, but the main bulk of the miners surrendered or fled when federal troops came out again.

This is an important event in labor history, but functioned as a defeat for the miners on the ground, and for the UMWA, whose membership was decimated after the battle. Casualty estimates vary widely, from dozens to a hundred or more, but some claim the number is much higher than that. Victors write histories, and the US has habitually suppressed the history of union activity and organized resistance.

The above summary is my own understanding of events from minimal research and my visit to this museum, which is simple and small but very well put together. You shouldn’t take me as an expert, by any means. My next few steps in learning about this story include the movie Matewan, the documentary The Mine Wars, and the book The Devil Is Here in These Hills: West Virginia‚Äôs Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom. Consider these for further investigation. Also, please check out the museum link, above, and watch the 4-minute video to see a basic shape of what this museum means to its local community.

Now for pictures! I didn’t take as many as I should, but here you are.