Markers, museum recall Matewan Massacre

EDITOR'S NOTE: "None of our movement’s achievements would have happened without the effort, organization and advocacy of our brothers and sisters," says the introduction to the AFL-CIO's online "Our Labor History Timeline." "But injustice still runs amok. We must look to the past not only for inspiration, but for the tools we need to continue the fight. The roots of the problems we face today can be found in our past. So can the beginnings of the solutions we need for our future." We agree and regularly post stories about labor history. This is the first in a series of three stories about the West Virginia Mine Wars of the early 20th century.   

By BERRY CRAIG

AFT Local 1360

MATEWAN, W.Va. -- A pair of state historical markers recall the Matewan Massacre, a 1920 shootout that left 10 men dead in this old West Virginia coal mining town.

All but unnoticed are four gruesome relics of the bloodbath. Kim McCoy shows them to visitors at the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, where she's a guide.

“Right up there,” she said, pointing to a quartet of rusty slugs stuck in the museum’s red brick back wall.

A Matewan native, McCoy gets paid. But her job is a labor of love. "I eat, sleep and breathe coal."

She and her husband are descended from United Mine Workers of America coal miners. Her grandfather, Earklis Perkins, was buried in his UMWA cap. 

"He told us all about the Mine Wars," McCoy said. "His father fought in the mine wars."  

Her last name naturally invites questions about her connection to the notorious 19th-century Hatfield-McCoy feud. The deadly quarrel raged in the Mingo County hills and hollows around Matewan and in Pike County, Ky., just over Tug Fork, a branch of the Big Sandy river that divides the two states hereabouts. 

She's a Hatfield descendant; Her spouse is a real McCoy. More on that in a minute.

The museum, filled with rare relics, photos and displays, is housed in an old store on Mate Street, the town's main thoroughfare. It chronicles coal miners' early 20th-century struggles to unionize against union-despising coal operators. The bosses assembled what amounted to private armies to keep the UMWA at bay.

The mine owners even ran armored trains, McCoy said. “One of them was called the ‘Bull Moose Special.’ It would come from Bluefield filled with guards who’d shoot at striking miners and their families.”

Bullets weren't the only peril the miners' faced. Digging coal was one of the most dangerous jobs in the country.

Men--and boys as young as nine--toiled deep underground with picks and shovels, often in spaces so small they couldn't stand up.

Scores of miners died or were seriously injured in accidents. Shafts collapsed, flooded or exploded from coal dust. Longtime miners suffered from black lung disease.

Most mine owners rejected significant safety and health measures, claiming they were too costly.

Miners lived serfs in miserable company housing that usually lacked electricity and running water. They were paid starvation wages, typically in scrip--paper and small metal tokens that were legal tender only in company stores, which generally charged higher prices than independently-owned stores.  

Driven by desperation, debt and despair, hundreds of miners joined the UMWA and staged a series of strikes.

The mine owners violently resisted the union. They hired strikebreakers and summoned company guards, police and deputies to protect the scabs. They employed the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to fight strikers and evict them and their families from company houses.

The miners refused to give in. They stayed off the job, erected tent camps and foraged for food.    

The Stone Coal Co. operated mines around Matewan. The town was founded in 1890 along the Norfolk and Southern railroad.

The line was pushed into the mountains to haul away coal for feeding the country's seemingly insatiable hunger for the mineral that fueled industry and warmed homes and businesses.

The miners especially hated the Baldwin-Felts “gun thugs.” They “were basically the West Virginia coal companies’ hired assassins,” said historian Erik Loomis.

 A silver-painted historical marker at the tracks at the south edge of Matewan says Baldwin-Felts men showed up on May 19, 1920, to toss miners and their families out of a coal camp near town.

Having finished their work, they headed for the depot to catch a train back to Bluefield.

Mayor Cabell Testerman and Police Chief Sid Hatfield blocked their path. Both sympathized with the UMWA. "Sid tried to arrest them because they had no jurisdiction,” McCoy explained.

The pistol-armed detectives refused to surrender. “Instead, they tried to arrest Hatfield,” McCoy said.

The gun thugs didn't know it, but the chief and the mayor had potent backup. Deputies and miners with rifles were hiding in stores and on rooftops. 

A shot, then more shots, rang out, stopping the standoff.  “Nobody knows who fired first, but after it was over, 10 men lay in the street.”

The gunbattle is the climactic scene in the 1987 movie, Matewan, a video of which plays for visitors at the restored Matewan depot. "It was filmed in Thurmond, which is pretty far from here," McCoy said. 

Nonetheless, movie makers figured Thurmond looked more like 1920 Matewan. "It also had one main street and the railroad like here," said McCoy. "But it's a ghost town now."    

Hatfield (played by David Strathairn in the film) survived the gunfight but the mayor fell, mortally wounded. Two local miners also perished.

The detectives got the worst of it. Seven died, including siblings Albert and Lee Felts.

Afterwards, the governor ordered the state police to take over Matewan. Hatfield and his men peacefully complied.

“We’ve been under martial law here three times,” McCoy said, adding that nobody went to jail over the massacre.

Hatfield and 14 other men were charged with murdering Albert Felts. But in March, 1921, all were acquitted in a Mingo County court, says a plaque that provides more detail about the massacre.

Later, Chief Hatfield was charged with blowing up a coal tipple in nearby McDowell County. On Aug. 1, Baldwin-Felts gunmen killed Hatfield and Ed Chambers, his deputy, on the courthouse steps in Welch.

"Their murders outraged thousands of union miners from across the state who planned to march on Logan and Mingo counties, which were controlled by anti-union forces," the plaque explains.

The march culminated in the Battle of Blair Mountain, about 45 miles northeast of Matewan. A state marker at the site explains that "...7000 striking miners led by Bill Blizzard met at Marmot for a march to Logan to organize the southern coal fields for the UMWA."

The miners, red bandannas knotted around their necks, reached the mountain on Aug. 31. They found Sheriff Don Chafin and a force of deputies and mine guards dug in on the slopes.

Though they were driven back, the miners regrouped and gave battle anew. They hung on for another four days before federal troops arrived to overpower and defeat them.

The battle of Blair Mountain was the largest labor uprising in American history. The miners' setback halted "UMWA organizing efforts in southern WV...until 1933," the marker says.

A court battle over Blair Mountain lasted for years. Coal companies aimed to mine the coal-rich mountain. But they also wanted to destroy what the UMWA considers hallowed ground.

Last June, the union, environmentalists, historic preservationists and others succeeded in getting Blair Mountain restored to the National Register of Historic Places.

Back in Matewan, the massacre is reenacted in May and September every year. Tourists are also invited to visit nearby stops on a Hatfield-McCoy Trail that winds through southern West Virginia and easternmost Kentucky.

Kim, whose mother is a Hatfield, married Gereron McCoy. The Hatfields lived in Mingo County, around Matewan. McCoy territory was across Tug Fork in Pike County, Ky.

“I am the four-time great-granddaughter of Valentine 'Wall' Hatfield,” McCoy said. He was the brother of “Devil Anse” Hatfield, the clan leader.

She said her spouse is the four-times great-grandson of Asa Harmon McCoy, whose brother was "Ole Ran'l" McCoy, head of the Hatfield's sworn enemies. 

Kim and Gereron live just over in Kentucky. “But we keep the feud going,” she said with a grin. “We fight every day.”

Click here for more information about the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum.