This past weekend, over 500 people visited Matewan, West Virginia to catch a glimpse of a new museum that tells the story of a dark and bloody time in West Virginia’s labor history.
In the early 1900s, coal miners were fighting for the right to organize and to stop the practice of using mine guards. They also wanted an alternative to shopping at coal company stores and being paid in scrip, instead of money. In the early 1900’s, miners led a series of strikes in southern West Virginia, leading up to the climatic march on Blair Mountain in 1921.
Now, this history is honored at a museum, called the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum.
“My name’s David Hatfield, I’m the great-great nephew of Sid Hatfield, who was the police chief here back in 1920. So this mine wars museum means a lot to me, and to this town, and to this whole area. And I’m just grateful to all the people who worked on it, took their time, and blood sweat and tears, to make it possible. And if they could, I’d love for everybody to come down and see it because it’s something to behold.”
David Hatfield’s ancestor, Sid Hatfield, has come to represent many things for the people of Matewan, depending on who’s telling the story. For most people, Sid Hatfield became a hero who stood up for the families of striking miners.
But for the coal company owners and the Baldwin Felts Agents who opposed him, "Smiling" Sid Hatfield was seen as a lawless, renegade cop.
During the Matewan Massacre of May 19, 1920, Baldwin Felts agents approached Sid Hatfield and mayor Testerman by the railroad tracks.
“And just as they reenact here every year in Matewan, the two groups of men had a tense stand off, with the Baldwin Felts agents, asserting that they had a warrant for Sid Hatfield’s arrest, and the mayor insisting that their papers were bogus or falsified,” said Lou Martin, a historian and one of the board members of the Mine Wars Museum.
Nobody is sure which side fired first, but a gun fight erupted beside the railroad tracks in downtown Matewan.
Some of those bullet holes are still visible in the bricks in the back of the new Mine Wars Museum.
Beside the bullet holes, there’s also an audio exhibit where visitors can hear the story first hand- from interviews with Matewan residents. These interviews, as well as countless artifacts and research material from the mine wars, have been collected by local historians throughout the years. But there hasn’t been a local museum to curate them, until now.
“All through the decades there have been people, especially locally, trying to preserve this history, trying to honor it. We feel them cheering us on, and we know that a lot of people have been working towards something like this for a long time,” said Martin.
And some of those people who’ve been working to preserve the Mine Wars history for many years joined up with young organizers and historians to build the new museum.
Mingo County native, Wilma Lee Steele, is one of the board members for the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum. Steele is a retired art teacher. For her the passion of sharing this history started from telling young activists about the history behind the word "redneck" and the red bandana. Striking miners tied Red Bandanas around their necks during the march on Blair Mountain.
“The thing that gets me, I guess, and what makes me want to do this, and tell other people about this, is that all these immigrants from all these different countries, they didn’t speak the same language. They did not have the same culture. And they were fighting each other and divided. But when they tied on these bandanas and marched, they became a brotherhood. And one of the things I love about the union is that the union was one of the early ones that said equal pay for blacks and whites. It’s pretty special.”
“It was strange growing up with this history because when I was first learning about it this history was not being celebrated at all,” said Chuck Keeney, a history professor at Southern Community College. He’s another one of the board members of the new museum. He’s also the great-grandson of Frank Keeney, who led striking miners in the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek Strike of 1912–1913. These were some of the bloodiest battles of the Mine Wars.
“The first time I heard my great-grandfather’s name was I was around 8-9 years old. And it was my great aunt’s house. And it was just a family gathering, and I was actually out back behind her house and was trying to throw a little toy knife into the side of the hill. And an old man walked up to me and said to me, ‘you have to learn how to throw that thing well. Because you never know, you might have a Baldwin Felts thug after you one day.’"
“And I had no idea what he was talking about. So I asked him, ‘what’s a Baldwin Felts thug? And why would they be after me? And he said, ‘well don’t you know that you’re Frank Keeney’s great grandson?’”
During the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek Strike, Baldwin Felts agents were sent to fight the striking miners. After the strike, Frank Keeney became the president of the UMWA District 17 in 1917.
But Frank Keeney had blood on his hands, and historians generally did not name him a hero. He was tried for treason and murder, though he was acquitted.
Until recently, the story of the Mine Wars was largely uncelebrated, even by the UMWA.
“So I mean there are enormous chunks of our own history that are just missing. It’s no wonder that the people in our state have an identity crisis; we don’t know our own story. If you don’t know your own story, how can you determine what you are?” said Chuck Keeney.
That’s why the local community and volunteers from far and wide have come together to build the Mine Wars Museum. The funds to build the museum came from the West Virginia Humanities Council, the United Mine Workers of America, the National Coal Heritage Area, Turn This Town Around, and hundreds of private donations.
And the museum, like the history, means different things for different people.
Wilma Lee Steele says she hopes the museum will become a place where people throughout the coalfields can come to reclaim their identity.
“I think that we have a lot to say, and I think we’re gonna say it. We’re gonna tell our history, and we’re gonna come together as a community.”
Beginning May 23, the museum will be open on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and is located in downtown Matewan, 336 Mate Street. The museum's board members are Greg Galford, Lou Martin, Chuck Keeney, Kenny King, Katey Lauer, Wilma Steele, Charles Dixon and Catherine Moore. Most of the museum's designs and exhibits are by Shaun Slifer. in Matewan. For more information, visit www.wvminewars.org. Note: there are many stories about the origins of the term "redneck". Most scholars agree that the term probably was originally used at least a century before the Mine Wars, to refer to southern farmers who were exposed to long hours in the sun while working in the fields. Do you have a story about where the term redneck came from? You can send a tweet to Roxy Todd @RoxyMTodd to join the conversation.