Local volunteers and historians are opening a museum in Matewan dedicated to telling the untold and often-overlooked stories of coal miners’ long and bloody fight for labor rights.
The West Virginia Mine Wars Museum is to open Saturday, May 16, with a grand opening celebration at 1 p.m. Charles “Chuck” Keeney, a history teacher in Logan and member of the museum’s board of directors, said the museum is a collection of artifacts and stories from the early 20th century labor uprising that has mostly been passed down informally from generation to generation.
“There’s not a whole lot of emphasis on the history of what coal miners did and the struggles they went through and the tumultuous time,” Keeney said. “The Battle of Matewan has all the elements of a classic Western shootout, yet while something like the Gunfight at O.K. Corral has become a part of American lore, Matewan has languished in obscurity for a number of generations. We’re promoting this regional history that has been overlooked.”
The May 19, 1920, Battle of Matewan, also known as the “Matewan Massacre,” broke out in front of the Chambers Hardware building — the current-day home of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum at 336 Mate Street.
Lou Martin, associate professor of history at Chatham University in Pittsburgh and a member of the museum’s board of directors, said bullet holes from the shootout are still present in the brickwork of the current-day Mine Wars Museum.
In fact, Martin said Matewan police chief Sid Hatfield and his deputies may have met in the back of the hardware store just before the shootout.
“It gets complicated in terms of the actual structure,” Martin said, “but we believe Sid Hatfield and some of his deputies met there.”
Hatfield had rounded up a group of men to ambush detectives with Baldwin-Felts Detectives, who had been hired by the Stone Mountain Coal Corporation to evict suspected union miners and their families from their company-owned homes.
Ten people died in the shootout, including Albert Felts, the leader of the detective agency and a Mingo deputy sheriff; Matewan mayor Cabell Testerman; Lee Felts, Albert’s brother; and C.B. Cunningham, one of the Felts detectives. There is still dispute over who fired the first shot and whether Hatfield or Felts shot and killed Testerman.
Hatfield was acquitted of murder charges in connection with the Matewan Massacre, but he and his friend, Ed Chambers, were shot and killed by Baldwin-Phelps detectives on the stairs of the McDowell County Courthouse in Welch on Aug. 1, 1921. Hatfield’s assassination marked the boiling point of miners’ fight to unionize. Thousands of miners gathered in Charleston in the ensuing weeks and began marching south to Logan on August 24.
Keeney’s great-grandfather, United Mine Workers district 17 president Frank Keeney, was among those who organized the march, which is thought to be the largest armed uprising in American labor history.
The march culminated in the Battle of Blair Mountain, where the miners eventually surrendered to U.S. Army soldiers.
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