Local volunteers and historians are opening a museum in Matewan dedicated to telling the untold and often-overlooked stories of coal miners’ long and bloody fight for labor rights.
The West Virginia Mine Wars Museum is to open Saturday, May 16, with a grand opening celebration at 1 p.m. Charles “Chuck” Keeney, a history teacher in Logan and member of the museum’s board of directors, said the museum is a collection of artifacts and stories from the early 20th century labor uprising that has mostly been passed down informally from generation to generation.
“There’s not a whole lot of emphasis on the history of what coal miners did and the struggles they went through and the tumultuous time,” Keeney said. “The Battle of Matewan has all the elements of a classic Western shootout, yet while something like the Gunfight at O.K. Corral has become a part of American lore, Matewan has languished in obscurity for a number of generations. We’re promoting this regional history that has been overlooked.”
The May 19, 1920, Battle of Matewan, also known as the “Matewan Massacre,” broke out in front of the Chambers Hardware building — the current-day home of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum at 336 Mate Street.
Lou Martin, associate professor of history at Chatham University in Pittsburgh and a member of the museum’s board of directors, said bullet holes from the shootout are still present in the brickwork of the current-day Mine Wars Museum. In fact, Martin said Matewan police chief Sid Hatfield and his deputies may have met in the back of the hardware store just before the shootout.
“It gets complicated in terms of the actual structure,” Martin said, “but we believe Sid Hatfield and some of his deputies met there.”
Hatfield had rounded up a group of men to ambush detectives with Baldwin-Felts Detectives, who had been hired by the Stone Mountain Coal Corporation to evict suspected union miners and their families from their company-owned homes.
Ten people died in the shootout, including Albert Felts, the leader of the detective agency and a Mingo deputy sheriff; Matewan mayor Cabell Testerman; Lee Felts, Albert’s brother; and C.B. Cunningham, one of the Felts detectives. There is still dispute over who fired the first shot and whether Hatfield or Felts shot and killed Testerman.
Hatfield was acquitted of murder charges in connection with the Matewan Massacre, but he and his friend, Ed Chambers, were shot and killed by Baldwin-Phelps detectives on the stairs of the McDowell County Courthouse in Welch on Aug. 1, 1921. Hatfield’s assassination marked the boiling point of miners’ fight to unionize. Thousands of miners gathered in Charleston in the ensuing weeks and began marching south to Logan on August 24.
Keeney’s great-grandfather, United Mine Workers district 17 president Frank Keeney, was among those who organized the march, which is thought to be the largest armed uprising in American labor history.
The march culminated in the Battle of Blair Mountain, where the miners eventually surrendered to U.S. Army soldiers.
Keeney said that because of the risks miners faced if their company found out they’d unionized, miners rarely wrote of or talked about the Battle of Blair Mountain or the strikes that led up to it.
“The term ‘mine wars’ is not just a colorful adjective,” Keeney said. “It was a literal war that was being fought and many of the miners stuck to a code of silence about their goings on, about the specifics of what happened, largely because they could have all been prosecuted for various crimes, everything from insurrection to murder to treason. There’s not as an extensive written record of the events that you might have, say, for the Battle of Gettysburg, where one can look at letters, diaries and official communications back and forth.”
Martin said the Battle of Blair Mountain was overshadowed in labor history by the labor uprising in Kentucky in the early 1930s. President Franklin Roosevelt signed the National Industrial Recovery Act into law as part of his Depression-era New Deal reforms in 1933, which protected collective bargaining rights for unions nationwide.
The national media, Martin said, cast the West Virginia miners in a negative light — perpetuating stereotypes of the state that still exist today.
“Many of the writers from the New York newspapers would sometimes start their stories about the mine wars by saying this was the land of the Hatfields and McCoys,” Martin said. “Rather than getting into the complex issues that lay underneath the conflict, they tapped into a popular image of Appalachians as inherently violent. Our museum strives to present a more complex and better understanding of why these events happened.”
Keeney said he believes even the word “redneck” has been mischaracterized in modern language in part because of the untold history of the mine wars. Today, the phrase refers to an “uneducated” white person from a small town or rural area, but Keeney said the word had a much different meaning in the early 20th century.
“In 1921, it referred to a West Virginian, probably a coal miner, who was fighting for their rights,” Keeney said. “Freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, their constitutional rights. Had this been a history that had been celebrated all along as opposed to not celebrated, then the word ‘redneck’ would mean something much different today, and that would cast West Virginia in a very different light. It’s affected our identity.”
What makes today’s meaning of “redneck” ironic, Keeney said, is that the miners who marched from Charleston to Blair Mountain were a diverse group of people whose alliance transcended skin colors, in a time when schools, restaurants and buses were segregated.
“During the Miners’ March on Logan, as they went through the towns, the miners desegregated all the restaurants,” Keeney said. “Black miners, immigrant miners and white miners would walk into restaurants and force the cooks to serve them all at the same place. This is 30 years before Rosa Parks; it’s 40 years before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. These guys were all wearing red bandanas around their necks and calling themselves rednecks. And today, the word redneck for many people in America is linked with racism, yet the rednecks of 1921 were doing acts which were far progressive and far ahead of their time as far as racial relations go. Understanding that history not only puts a new light on the word, but puts a new light on the history of this state.”
Museum board member Catherine Moore said the history of the West Virginia mine wars is one of a working class, blue-collar group of people who had few resources. Their story hasn’t been told, she believes, because it’s a painful history that casts people in power in a bad light.
“It’s not a history that’s necessarily favorable to certain coal operators and companies,” Moore said. “It’s a little bit of a painful thing for people to look back. It’s hard to look at a painful past, so when you look at the history of company guards abusing coal mining families and threatening their rights, you aren’t proud of that … but if we don’t talk about it with each other and talk about what it means, we are prone to fall into the same traps.”
Moore said a place like the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, where people can learn about and pay homage to the miners who lived in tent cities and physically fought for the labor rights workers enjoy today, has been long overdue. She said volunteers have been “blown away” by the amount of support the museum has received from people across the state and nationwide.
Since the board began planning the museum, Moore said they have received $45,000 in grant funding and more than $12,000 from a crowdsourced fundraiser to pay employees to keep the museum open to the public.
On top of monetary donations, Martin said people have been donating original items from the labor uprising era to the museum as word has gotten out. He said a donor came forward two weeks ago with a ribbon handed out at Sid Hatfield’s funeral, bearing the faces of Hatfield and Ed Chambers.
“For me, I think that the artifacts that have been most interesting to me are the most mundane ones,” Martin said. “The scrip, the check tags, a canary cage and the little things that bring the life of coal miners’ life. It hasn’t so much for me been about bullet casings — although we have those, as well — as much as it has been about understanding what the life of the average coal miner and their family was like, and that’s how our museum will start off; bringing the visitors into the life of an early 1900s coal camp.”
The West Virginia Mine Wars Museum will open to the public at 10 a.m. May 16. At 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., an outdoor drama of the Matewan Massacre will take place at the site of the shootout.
A free lunch will be served at noon May 16, and the grand opening ceremony for the museum will take place at 1 p.m. Speakers include United Mine Workers of America president Cecil Roberts and historians Dave Corbin and Francine Jones.
Keeney said he hopes the museum will bring “identity reclamation” to Matewan by teaching the public about who the original “rednecks” really were, and what they were fighting for.
“Coal miners today have a very good job, but they only have a very good job because of the struggles that happened,” Keeney said. “And many of the miners who are working the jobs that they’re working right now don’t know the history behind their own profession. It’s about bringing that to life.
“Even though this is a very violent, tumultuous period we’re talking about, there’s a lot of things within this museum and artifacts which deconstruct stereotypes about West Virginians and about working people in general.”