The 100th Anniversary of the Biggest Uprising Since the Civil WarHistorians in the News
tags: violence, West Virginia, labor history, Coal Mining, Coal Wars
LOGAN, W.VA.—Heading east from here, County Road 17 snakes up and down craggy hills for several miles before crossing an unremarkable intersection. A deserted church sits on one corner. On the other, a small bronze plaque recounts the Battle of Blair Mountain, a labor dispute that saw almost 10,000 miners face off against a union-busting sheriff, several thousand deputized locals, and the US military. It was the largest armed uprising in the country since the Civil War. This year marks the 100th anniversary, yet hardly a soul today remembers it.
The origins of the battle can be traced to the Matewan Massacre, when gun thugs working for Baldwin-Felts—an infamous strike-breaking “detective” agency—got into a shootout with a group of miners and Sheriff Sid Hatfield. After Baldwin-Felts agents murdered Hatfield in revenge the following year—on the steps of the county courthouse—his death became a martyrdom that roused miners to battle.
Coal life was already hard enough. Dangerous conditions (the Monongah Disaster alone killed upwards of 400 people, not to mention the long-term effects of breathing in coal dust), low wages (mine owners had been convicted of war profiteering during World War I), and exploitative credit systems were par for the course.
The situation only escalated in the summer of 1921 after hundreds of striking workers were arrested and held indefinitely. Hatfield’s death was the final straw. By August, thousands of miners were marching toward Matewan, intent on freeing their comrades and bringing their guerilla version of class warfare into action.
Today, downtown Matewan—population 499—stretches two blocks and features a barbecue joint, a halfway house, and two souvenir shops. On a recent Saturday morning, tucked inside a concrete building at the end of the street, 30 retired miners from Local 1440 of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) were holding their monthly meeting. The engine snarls of ATVs—visitors to Hatfield-McCoy Trails, southern West Virginia’s main tourist attraction—had yet to fill the air. Two pots of coffee brewed in the kitchen; still-warm egg-and-cheese sandwiches were laid out on a side table. A single gavel called the meeting to attention, followed by a prayer for the miners on strike in Alabama. The hall is a place for these men to banter with old friends and vote on union issues. It is the closest thing to a community center Matewan has, one of the few signs of life in an area on a long decline.
West Virginia has the sixth-highest state poverty rate in the country—and the highest for men. The mining industry, almost 94 percent male, has fallen from a peak of 177,000 jobs nationwide in 1985 to around 42,000 today.
“There’s the hospital outside Logan and Walmart for work,” said Terry Steele, one of the local’s more vocal members. Steele and a few others could recall running coal in the past 20 years. A handful said they had a child who had mined at one point, proof enough that union jobs have disappeared, and with it the opportunity for social mobility that the UMWA had offered for over 100 years.
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