Workers in southern West Virginia’s coalfields have not received the recognition they deserve for their sacrifices in creating better working and living conditions for all Americans. But the tide is turning as the state’s rich history of militant labor union activity is attracting greater appreciation from a wider audience.
A group of West Virginia residents, tired of officials deliberately suppressing history of the state’s labor union movement, recently banded together to tell the story of how thousands of coal miners in the early 20th century united to fight a powerful industry. Their efforts resulted in the creation of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum in the historic town of Matewan in Mingo County, W.Va. The museum, fresh off its grand opening in mid-May, offers visitors a captivating look at a series of sometimes violent battles that occurred in southern West Virginia’s coalfields.
The West Virginia Mine Wars Museum represents a form of what historian Chuck Keeney describes as “identity reclamation.” Coal companies, when they do surface mining, engage in a reclamation process after the mining is finished to restore the land to a more natural or economically usable state. “This museum is our own form of reclamation. It’s cultural or identity reclamation,” said Keeney, one of the museum’s founding board members and a professor of history at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College.
A perfect example of identity reclamation is the term “redneck” and how it was a symbol of solidarity and pride among miners during the mine wars. Redneck referred to the red bandanas that West Virginia miners wore around their necks. “If you said the word redneck in 1921, it was not a joke. It wasn’t a caricature. It was referring to violent rebels. It was referring to pro-union people,” Keeney said in an interview.
West Virginia officials believed it was important to paint the rebel miners as ignorant and standing in the way of progress. At the time of the mine wars, from the late 1890s through the Battle of Blair Mountain in the early 1920s, officials insisted the only reason miners were revolting was because they had an innate cultural backwardness.
“If you paint people as ignorant and backward, then it is easier to marginalize them, it’s easier to dismiss them. It’s also a good way of burying history,” explained Keeney, great-grandson of Charles Francis “Frank” Keeney Jr., the legendary president of the United Mine Workers of America District 17. “If you tell people they are a certain way long enough, they’ll start to believe it.”
But Keeney also emphasized that the story of the mine wars is complex. There are villains on both sides. “It’s more than just a bunch of angry moonshining hillbillies versus evil capitalists,” he said.
Aside from Keeney, the museum’s all-volunteer board of directors includes Greg Galford, Wilma Steele, Catherine Moore, Lou Martin, Kenny King, Charles Dixon and Katey Lauer. The board hired Shaun Slifer, a Pittsburgh, Pa., artist, to design the museum’s exhibits.
Keeney wrote most of the words that accompany the museum’s exhibits. Amidst the exhibits are quotes from individuals who fought on both sides of the mine wars. One quote from a coal operator illustrates the mindset of the industry: the official warned that any local resident who gave the company trouble would be met with a heavy hand.
Museum Retains Its Independence
Matewan, separated from Kentucky by the Tug Fork River, offers a perfect setting for the museum. Easily accessible to visitors off the region’s main highway, Route 119, Matewan was the site of a famous gunfight that started between police chief, Sid Hatfield, a union sympathizer, and agents of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, who would conduct the dirty work of the coal company bosses. The gunfight, known as the Battle of Matewan and recounted in John Sayle’s 1987 film Matewan, began along the train tracks outside the backdoor of the building that now houses the museum. Though Hatfield survived, the battle ended with the killing of 10 people.
UMWA Local 1440 in Matewan, the largest UMWA local in the United States, donated money to help get the museum up and running. The museum received a grant from the West Virginia Humanities Council. The museum also generates revenue from the sale of red bandanas, books, t-shirts, coffee mugs and other merchandise.
“There’s no major company that’s funding us and telling us what to say. And the state’s isn’t telling us what to say,” Keeney emphasized. “So we don’t have to be politically correct. We can just tell the story. We can take charge of our own narrative. And that’s very liberating.”
With plans to expand, though, the museum continues to look for benefactors and welcomes donations. Board members remain busy with grant writing. They plan to engage the community and visitors in creative activities like writing contests and live concerts. By the end of the year, the museum hopes to begin publishing a journal on a regular basis that includes articles about the mine wars period and news about the museum.
“We want to do revolving exhibits at some point because there are so many things, like the role of immigrants, the role of women, that need to be covered,” Keeney said. Another exhibit could focus on the less-famous Battle of the Tug, three days of fighting between union miners and coal operators in 1921 that resulted in the death of about 30 people.
“We want to be able to change things up to keep it fresh, to keep people wanting to come back,” he explained. “Eventually, we would like to expand the space of the museum. I would like to see a complete archive here so people can come here and do original research.”
People from across the U.S. and Canada have already visited the museum. Even Don Blankenship, the former Massey Energy Co. coal boss who is facing federal felony charges, has visited the museum several times. During a conversation at the museum, Keeney and Blankenship, who attended high school in Matewan and lives in the region, debated several topics, including Blankenship’s claim that unemployment rates were high in the coalfields because UMWA pension plans encourages workers to retire and not to continue working.
“Blankenship made a career on busting the UMWA. More than any individual in the 1980s and 1990s, he played the greatest role in destroying the United Mine Workers,” Keeney said.
Visitors Embrace Museum’s New Narrative
West Virginia coal operators and the West Virginia Coal Association, whose slogan “Friends of Coal” can be seen across the southern part of the state, “despise everything about this museum,” Keeney said. “If they were building this museum, they would talk about the company towns as a good thing.”
Students did not learn about the mine wars in their eighth-grade West Virginia history class when Keeney was in school. Even Keeney’s parents and grandparents did not talk about the union organizing of his great-grandfather, Frank Keeney. “Remember, the miners lost the battle of Blair Mountain. My great-grandfather was charged with treason. He was also charged with murder. People didn’t talk about those kinds of things,” he remarked.
Frank Keeney was found not guilty of murder, which were trumped-up charges related to shootings that occurred around the armed march on Blair Mountain in Logan County, W.Va. He was also indicted for treason surrounding the 1921 mine war, but the treason charges were later dropped. “Up until very recently, the mine wars have never been cast as something we should be proud of,” Keeney said.
Times have changed. Along with the opening of the mine wars museum, a pair of New York-based actor/writers are attempting to turn Storming Heaven, Denise Giardina’s award-winning fictionalized account of the mine wars, into a musical, which they hope will one day land on a Broadway stage. Work also is nearing completion on a new two-hour documentary on the West Virginia mine wars that is scheduled to be broadcast this winter on PBS’s “American Experience.”
And yet in West Virginia, with the waning power of the UMWA over the past few decades, the coal industry has grabbed even greater control of the narrative. In 1950, the UMWA had 100,000 members in West Virginia. Today, there are about 15,000 coal miners left in the state and only half of them are unionized.
“During the time of the mine wars, you had mine guards. Well, now, you have mind guards,” Keeney explained. “They don’t have to use strong-armed tactics anymore. They control the radio. They control the news. They control the schools. When a region or a country doesn’t know its own history, it’s like a person with Alzheimer’s. When you lose your memory, you lose your identity. You don’t know who you are. When people don’t know who they are, they become much easier to manipulate.”
Coal served as the backbone for the industrial revolution. But while coal may have been really great for the rest of America, Keeney said it has not been great for the people digging it out of the ground. A primary goal of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum is to focus on the people who dug the coal out of the ground. “One of the reasons that people think this museum is special and are coming here is because this is not the industry’s official narrative. It’s a new narrative,” he said.