Reopening Of Mine Wars Museum Includes Uncovered History
The West Virginia Mine Wars Museum reopened Sept. 3 in a new location in Matewan, West Virginia featuring more detailed and researched exhibits about Appalachia’s labor union history in the early 1900s.
The museum originally opened in 2015 in an old hardware store in downtown Matewan. The small building still bears bullet holes from the Matewan Massacre – one of the many strikes that took place from 1900-1921. It was a prominent time in West Virginia’s history where labor workers began to unionize, fighting for basic rights from their companies, which at the time controlled the economy, politics and even entire towns.
According to the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum webpage, it is a history that is often overlooked. After generating worldwide interest in the Mountain State’s miner history, the museum founders agreed to move the museum to a larger spot across the street that could host more exhibits.
Chuck Keeney, a founding board member of the museum, spoke with our southern coalfields reporter Caitlin Tan about the new additions.
**This story has been lightly edited for clarity.
Caitlin Tan: So, Chuck, for those who don't know, tell us a little bit about the Mine Wars Museum.
Chuck Keeney: The purpose of the museum was to create a grassroots people's history museum that focused on a very overlooked and even suppressed history in the state that highlights the labor struggles, and also highlights the underlying conditions that created the Appalachia that we know today.
Tan: Can you walk us through a little bit about the start of the mine wars in the best way you can? I know that's a lengthy question.
Keeney: Yeah. Without getting into a lecture, the mine wars really were the struggle not just for unionization, but for basic constitutional rights, in which the American dream was denied to them because of this system that they were living under, completely and totally controlled by corporate interests. So, they were living in towns and communities in which everything was owned by absentee corporations, from the houses that they lived in to the stores that they bought in, they were not allowed freedom of assembly, they were not allowed freedom of speech.
Tan: So, something that stood out to me was that the redesign includes more information on the Treason Trials. In the press release, it was described as the labor turmoil after Blair Mountain, which, of course, was the largest labor uprising in America taking place in 1921.
Chuck, can you tell us more about the Treason Trials and why we might not have heard of them?
Keeney: Well, of course these people's lives did not end after the Battle of Blair Mountain. Those people that fought, the union movement, the socioeconomic and political order in West Virginia all continued on, so it's important to look at what happened after. There was a series of trials revolving around treason, murder, conspiracy to commit murder all around the Battle of Blair Mountain, that actually went all the way into 1924. And so these trials constituted one of the few treason trials in American history, because it was a serious constitutional issue. And it was also about to what lengths can workers go to challenge the power structure in America? When do they have a right to stand up and fight for themselves? And that's really significant. You know, when you look at what's happening in contemporary America with lots of protests, with lots of unrest, the legality of that, what is the individual's right to protest?
Tan: And in that same vein, do you feel like some of the history offered at the museum is relevant or even applicable to modern day events right now?
Keeney: It all is applicable to modern day events for a lot of different reasons. First of all, minority issues of race and immigration, which are of course big topics right now. You look at the Battle of Blair Mountain. As the miners march toward Blair Mountain, they actually desegregated company towns when they went through on their way to Blair Mountain, which is not something that's associated with this region.
When people use the word redneck, they often think of a racist, right? Or that stereotype regarding that. However, when you look at the rednecks of 1921, they were doing something that was very opposite of that. It was immigrants, African Americans and poor white people all working together for a common cause to better their working and labor conditions. And that's very relevant to everything that we're undergoing today.
The economic issues surrounding coal, and the influence of the fossil fuel industry is also a primary concern. Not just in this region, but when you're talking about climate change, understanding those power structures and why fossil fuels are so permanently embedded into our economy and political system go back to these labor struggles that happened 100 years ago. And it's also about learning from this past that we're able to kind of forge a better way to the future, in my opinion.
Tan: The redesign includes more research on the roles of women and minorities during the mine wars, kind of like what you were just talking about. And I feel like those are two groups that typically aren't part of the narrative that we hear about. Can you expand a little on that and what people might expect to see if they go to the museum?
Keeney: We now have a women's resistance exhibit in the museum to look at the extraordinary role that women played in all of these strikes, and also women's everyday lives in the coal camps. Catherine Moore, who's one of our museum founding members, her research really focuses on women and minorities looking at African American organizers in Mingo County, and in the Paint Creek Cabin Creek strike. And so she's really focusing on that in her research, and she was able to take a lot of that research and really give us a much broader look at these specific groups that have even been overlooked in previous histories of the mine wars.
The new West Virginia Mine Wars Museum is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays in its new location in downtown Matewan.