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This Day in Labor History: May 19, 1920

[ 35 ] May 19, 2012 |

On this date 92 years ago, the Matewan Massacre took place in the small town of Matewan, West Virginia.

In January 1920, the United Mine Workers of America had a new president: John L. Lewis. Lewis, who would become one of the most powerful labor leaders in American history, wanted to organize the miners of southern Appalachia. The coal companies ruled West Virginia as a fiefdom. In those hollows, where people or information could not easily come in or out without the companies knowing, miners lived as it if were the Middle Ages. Little schooling, shoddy housing, high-priced company stores, debt, mining accidents, and black lung disease defined people’s lives. The UMWA had fought for decades to organize these workers, but in such remote areas, far from eastern cities and the attention newspapers would bring, the mine companies had no problem beating and murdering union organizers, blacklisting union supporters and throwing them out of their homes, and doing everything possible to keep the miners under their thumb. The coal companies controlled politics throughout the region but nowhere more so than West Virginia, where they completely ruled the state.

Miners from across the region rushed to get charters from the UMWA when Lewis announced the new campaign early in 1920. The UMWA had a complex interest in organizing the miners of West Virginia. Lewis had just won major victories in other coal areas around the nation. Not only did he force the companies to recognize the UMWA as the bargaining agent for coal miners and sign contracts, but they agreed to pay raises of up to 27%. However, as part of the contracts, the coal companies forced Lewis to agree to organize miners in West Virginia and Kentucky in order to keep the union companies on a level playing field with nonunion companies. As Lewis already wanted to organize these workers, it had great potential for the UMWA. But mining was not as monopolized as it is today and operators in Illinois or Pennsylvania were not always gigantic multinational corporations with interests around the world. The UMWA might have add support from companies far away, but in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, that meant nothing.

Among the areas to acquire a charter from the UMWA was miners near Matewan, a tiny town in the western part of the state, on the border with Kentucky. In 2012, as in 1920, you have to really want to get to Matewan. This area was somewhat famous in American culture for it was the home of the famed Hatfields and McCoys feud in the 1880s that both captured American imaginations in outlaws and riveted stereotypes about Appalachia in American minds, although this feud was in fact grounded in the Civil War, when the Hatfields were Confederates and the McCoys fought for the Union. In any case, the mine owners knew this history of violence and responded to unionization there with maximum violence. They hired the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to deal with the union.

Matewan, West Virginia, 1922

And the thugs had a lot of union members to deal with for the UMWA saw immediate success in the area around Matewan. By May, over 3000 miners had joined the union, desperate to improve their lives. Unlike many towns, the local political structure supported the miners, including the chief of police, Sid Hatfield and the mayor, Cabell Testerman. Hatfield attempted to keep the Baldwin-Felts agents out of his town, but the mine owners quickly saw him as their open enemy. On May 19, 1920, Baldwin-Felts thugs, including the three Felts Brothers, arrived in Matewan to evict miners from company housing. Hatfield attempted to intervene and miners from around the region rushed to the town to protect the workers. That afternoon, Hatfield attempted to arrest Al Felts for illegally kicking people out of their homes. Armed miners were stationed around the town, ready to fight the thugs. As the two sides faced off, someone fired a shot. No one knows who or which side that person was on. A firefight raged. Mayor Testerman and Al Felts were both shot and killed. When it ended, 7 detectives, including 2 of the 3 Felts brothers, as well as the mayor and 2 miners were dead.

The Matewan Massacre is one small piece of the larger story of Appalachian resistance to the coal companies in the early 1920s. In 1921, the companies had Sid Hatfield murdered for his actions at Matewan on the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse in Welch. This murder sparked the Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest workplace insurrection in American history, which I wrote about before I began this series. 10,000 miners walked off their jobs and went to war against the coal companies. Over five days, 30 thugs and 100 miners died in pitched battles before President Warren Harding called in the Army to crush the strike. The UMWA attempt to organize West Virginia failed, but Lewis would eventually lead his union to victory, at least reducing if not ever ending coal corporation control over miners’ lives.

The grave of Sid Hatfield

Most of us might only know about Matewan only because of John Sayles’ excellent 1987 film, which brought him a good deal of attention and began a decade where Sayles was arguably the most vital and important American filmmaker working (sadly, the quality of his films fell off after this and he has almost faded back into obscurity). Without Sayles telling this story, Matewan is just another forgotten incident in the history of American labor, another attempt for working-class people to take control over their lives erased from our collective memory.

This series has also discussed such events as the Centralia Massacre of 1919 and the murder of Jock Yablonski in 1970.

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Comments (35)

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  1. DrDick says:

    An important reminder that every right and benefit that workers have today was literally bought with the blood and lives of union men and women.

  2. dp says:

    When you refer to coal companies ruling West Virginia as a fiefdom, why do you use the past tense?

    Thanks for these posts, they are excellent.

  3. JoyfulA says:

    That’s one helluva story. No wonder there was a movie.

  4. Bill Murray says:

    On this date 82 years ago, the Matewan Massacre took place in the small town of Matewan, West Virginia.

    to be pedantic, 1920 was 92 years ago

  5. kth says:

    One style suggestion: scare-quote “detective” (these guys weren’t investigators with magnifying glasses, dusting for fingerprints), or call them by their proper names: paramilitaries, security forces. “Goons” would be too far: not objective, though hardly less so “detectives”.

    • Hogan says:

      I prefer the personal touch you only get with hired goons.

    • Jeremy says:

      “Goons” is good, but a little too humorous for this. “Thugs” is better.

      On the topic of ‘detectives’, in the James Bond novels, Bond’s American contact Felix leaves the CIA and starts working for the Pinkertons. Every time I read that name, I can’t help but think of strikebreakers and Deadwood.

  6. James E Powell says:

    It has always struck me as odd that, with a history like this, the good Americans of West Virginia vote Republican. And very right-wing Republican at that.

    Also too, an analysis and attempted explanation of the decline of John Sayles would make a worthy post.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Yeah, the decline of Sayles is really interesting. Superficially, he moved from a director who switched from genre to genre with ease to tell different kinds of stories, not only elucidating ideas about America but making credible moves on Guatemala, into a director who basically made lesser versions of Lone Star over and over again. I don’t have anything really deep to say on that I guess. Sometimes people run out of stories. I’m sure there are smart essays out there about the decline of Sayles. It is unfortunate though.

    • Murc says:

      It has always struck me as odd that, with a history like this, the good Americans of West Virginia vote Republican.

      It’s not odd at all. It’s a question of priorities. Given a choice between having the boot of the energy industry on their neck, or having to treat blacks, women, gays, and immigrants as equals, the majority of West Virginians have decided they’d rather have the boot.

      I’ve seen this happen in my own family. My paternal grandfathers father was imported labor; he came here from Sicily to work in coal country because Italians were thought to be less likely to unionize than natives, and because the mining companies could pit various ethnic groups against each other to maintain control.

      He was crippled in a mine collapse and died in his fifties. His son, my grandfather, moved north to Rochester to work on the railroads. He was a union man all his life and never had a kind word to say about management.

      And for the last thirty years of his life, until he died a few months ago, he voted Republican, because he was a devout Catholic with all the baggage that came with it, and stopping abortion, illegal immigration (I could never quite make him understand that if his father tried to get into the country legally today, an illiterate sicilian with a criminal record, it wouldn’t have happened), gay rights, and women working in “inappropriate” jobs was way, way, way more important to him than sticking it to the fat cats.

    • John Tate says:

      I’m currently reading “When Miners March” which is very interesting for the crooked politics of the early 1900s. All those governors were republican and just horrible to the miners. Heck, even read on the more recent Buffalo Creek flood and the crooked ways of Arch Moore. Darn, there was a governor that was convicted and still managed to get re-elected!

  7. Joe Benge says:

    Great post, Erik. It’s interesting that Sayles made Matewan just a few years after AT Massey started aggressively driving the UMW out of that part of West Virginia, using private guards and the like. I’m not sure if Sayles knew it at the time, but Don Blankenship was actually from Matewan.

  8. HP says:

    I really enjoy the This Day in Labor History series, although I don’t have much to add.

    A couple of requests for labor history I’d like to know more about:

    - Something about the AFM 1942-44 recording ban, which changed America’s (and via cultural imperialism, the world’s) popular music forever. 2012 is the 70th anniversary of the start of the strike. There was a time when James Petrillo was the most widely known labor leader in America, and his cultural influence (for good or ill) is incalculable.

    - Those amazing (and futile) ILGWU television spots from the 1970s. I freely admit to the worst sort of teary-eyed nostalgia watching “union label” PSAs on YouTube.

    • Roger McCarthy says:

      On TV spots the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special had several adverts for unions in the version I saw online and if anything these depressed me more than the-so-awful-its-not-even- funny show itself.

      How hath the mighty fallen.

  9. J R in WV says:

    John L Lewis was hung on the walls of hundreds or thousands of homes throughout the coal fields, beside FDR and (later on) JFK.

    The last big labor success in the coal fields was in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when wildcat strikes over black lung succeeded in seeing federal recognition of the tragic and horribly fatal industrial disease.

    Of course many industries had their own fatal lung diseases, brown lung, white lung, etc in the various mills, giant printing shops etc.

    The real tragedy is that today young miners are testing positive for black lung younger than ever before, as non-union mines turn off the life saving water sprays at dusty points in the mining process, to save maintenance downtime.

    This illegal practice contributed to the Upper Big Branch explosion, as coal dust is far more explosive and damaging than methane. Big Coal still owns southern W Va, and – until it’s mined out – always will.

    Having visited towns in the west where huge hard rock mines have played out, and many small towns in the coal fields shrinking away after mines close, I do not look forward to an emptying out West Virginia.

    When I worked in a coal regulatory agency some years ago, many expected WV mines to begin to dwindle away in 15 years, which is to say, about now. I’m torn, the end of the environmental destruction would be a good thing, but unemployment and out-migration is ugly too.

    A strong union is the workers’ best protection against workplace illness and death! Not to mention the Republican death party…

  10. Anonymous says:

    Saw a tv documentary on Matewan not long ago (History Channel, I think) and it was quite good.

    I think there was some footage about contemporary efforts to preserve some of the historical sites in the town and on Blair Mountain.

  11. [...] strike begins in San Francisco May 16, 1934–Minneapolis Teamsters Strike May 19, 1920–Matewan Massacre May 30, 1937–Memorial Day Massacre in Chicago June 6, 1943–Detroit Hate Strike June 20, [...]

  12. [...] of slavery, the state developed into a medieval fiefdom of the coal industry with much of the nation’s worst industrial violence, endemic poverty, and resource exploitation. Even as coal withdraws from the state, it looks at the [...]

  13. [...] place in the aftermath of an event far more famous thanks to the John Sayles film detailing it, the Matewan Massacre, when Baldwin-Felts thugs got into a gun battle with the worker-sympathetic law enforcement [...]

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