West Virginia’s Bloody Fight for Civil Rights

As my boy Jake and I sat in the City Cafe in Chattanooga planning our road trip through Kentucky, I wrote our list of places to go on the red paper placemat. Then he asked, “Have you heard of Blair Mountain in West Virginia? The government dropped bombs on coal miners there. It was the largest attack of the government on citizens since the Civil War. I think that is where we should go.”

We tossed the placemat and went after the story.

On the six hour drive from Chattanooga to Matewan, West Virginia, Jake read of massacres, uprisings, and deadly mine conditions that drove men of different colors and nationalities to speak out. For five days in late August in 1921,10,000 coal miners marched toward Mingo County, fighting lawmen and coal companies for the right to join the Union Mine Workers Association (UMWA). Law enforcement attacked from the mountain’s ridges dropping bombs and tear gas from planes. The miners lost and dozens died in the country’s biggest armed uprising since the Civil War and it’s most violent labor insurrection.

With a past shaped by the Civil War and civil rights, there are lessons to learn from the state that formed from a split with Virginia over slavery. It is a history of farmers and feuds, moonshine and massacres. Immigrants and revolution. Bumper stickers say “Keeper of the Mountains” and “Friends of Coal.”

Rain rushes down and the floods come fast, washing tires, bikes, boots, computers, plastic toys, and Christmas lights into the rivers.

Southwest West Virginia, in the heart of Appalachia, is surrounded by mountains so steep they block sunrise and sunset. Isolated towns and unincorporated communities with names like Red Jacket are built in hollows barely wide enough for a road, a train track, a creek or a row of houses. Rain rushes down and the floods come fast, washing tires, bikes, boots, computers, plastic toys, and Christmas lights into the rivers.

It is a state in opioid crisis and signs of addictions are easy to find. A shirtless man on the street sings to his stuffed dog placed on a bucket and wearing a baseball cap.

Each community has monuments to veterans of the two World Wars. Stores once opened by immigrants and passed down to their children stand empty after the third generation moved away. ATVs covered in mud roar through the towns along the Hatfield and McCoy trails built for off-road vehicles. Four wheelers bring outsiders in.

Matewan, close to Blair Mountain, is located in Mingo County, known as “Bloody Mingo” for being one of the bloodiest places in the United States. Separated from Kentucky by the Tug River, it is the home of the Hatfields and McCoys and every local is a descendant of at least one side, sometimes both. But the ancestry reaches back to the Scotch-Irish immigrants who settled the area as farmers growing corn in the valleys and up the mountains.

We met Wilma and Jerry Steele at the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum in Matewan. Jerry is a retired coal miner and member of the UMWA. Wilma is a retired teacher who helped found the museum. They fought for over 20 years to get Blair Mountain listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Originally listed in 2009, coal companies and miners protested the protections that would end to mining on Blair. The mountain was delisted and once again coal companies won a battle of Blair Mountain. But activists like Wilma and Jerry kept fighting and approval went through again on June 27, 2018.

For decades, power and politics silenced the past, keeping the story of Blair Mountain out of history books. Relics of resistance were ignored or destroyed until Kenny King, a descendant of a miner who fought in the Mine Wars, unearthed pistols and shell casings and with his metal detector raised awareness of a past many tried to erase.

“You can burn communities and houses to the ground and they will rebuild,” says Wilma. “But if you destroy their history, their accomplishments and their culture, it was like it never happened.

“It is time to take pride in our past.”

A few doors down from the museum, Eric Simon recently opened Appalachia Lost and Found to sell goods made by locals. His family founded Matewan and he tells the stories that keep the history alive. His fifth great grandfather, Richard Ferrill, hiked in and hunted this land with his dog, Mate. The dog was killed by a black bear and he named the creek where the dog died Mate Creek. Ferrill moved his family here around 1810 and owned 7,000 acres.

“We are different here. We are Scotch-Irish living in the dead center of Appalachia,” says Eric Simon. “Our people descend from more patriots that fought in the American Revolution than anywhere else. Our ancestors fought to create this country.”

Simon says Matewan and Mingo County were peaceful places until the Civil War came to the valley, and the bloodshed continued until the 1930s. Those above the valley and across the river in Kentucky sided with the North. The valley joined the South because former Virginia governor John Floyd was a loved politician and friend to the area. He was made a general for the Confederacy and the people followed him.

The war turned friends and families against each other. Hatfield vs. McCoy was not the only feud here, just the most famous. Competition and violence also erupted between moonshiners, and murders were often the result of vendettas.

After the Civil War, the expansion of railroads brought speculators buying land and mineral rights, seeking fortunes in coal and fueling industrial growth in the north. Fifty cents an acre was big money for farmers who believed they were getting paid for something that would never happen. Soon, the rich natural resources of West Virginia were shipped out on train cars.

Coal companies paid miners in round, metal script that could only be used to pay rent and company doctors, or purchase goods in company stores. (West Virginia Coal Miners Museum)

Those who sold their land also sold their freedom. By the late 1800s, the coal companies not only owned the mineral rights, they owned the towns, houses, stores, politicians and most of the law. They paid coal miners in round, metal script that could only be used to pay rent and company doctors, or purchase goods in company stores. It was there miners bought equipment to work in the mines where the conditions ranged from dangerous to deadly. The poem “Company Town” by Carl Sandberg is on the wall of the museum.

You live in a company house

You go to a company school

You work for this company

According to company rules


You all drink company water

And all use company lights

The company preacher teaches us

What the company thinks is right

Forced to sign “yellow dog contracts” pledging not to join a union, the men who worked underground signed away their rights. To coal companies, all miners — black and white — were easily replaceable. As immigrants came out of quarantine at Ellis Island, coal companies met Italians, Poles, Austrians, Germans, Scottish, Irish and Hungarians with offers of a house and a job: the American dream. They also recruited African Americans from the south.

Photo of miners in the West Virginia Mine Wars Musem

Soon they realized the American Dream was not found digging coal. In 1920, miners went on strike not for a raise or better hours, but for recognition of UMWA. They wanted their right to free speech and peaceable assembly. Coal operators responded by hiring mine guards and evicting strikers from their homes.

On May 12, 1920, Baldwin-Felts Agency guards, brutal enforcers of coal companies, arrived in Matewan to evict the striking miners from company housing, but Matewan Mayor Cabell Testerman and Police Chief Sid Hatfield stood up to them. The shootout that resulted in the death of two coal miners, several agents and the mayor is now known as the “Matewan Massacre.” Violence continued and Sheriff Hatfield was murdered by a Felts detective on the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse, igniting a march of 10,000 miners across the state for what was to become the Battle of Blair Mountain.

As the miners approached Blair Mountain in Logan County, Sheriff Don Chaffin set up a line of defense along the ridgeline, dropping tear gas and bombs from planes. The battle ended after President Harding sent in federal troops. The coal companies won the Battle of Blair Mountain, and it would be 15 years before the UMWA organized under Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal.

Unions improved working conditions, giving miners stability, better wages and a voice. But the golden age of coal is over. Cheaper, cleaner energy sources are replacing coal and many coal companies have filed bankruptcy and reorganized, but the debate continues over saving coal minings jobs or protecting the mountains. Environmentalist say the good coal has already been mined and mountaintop removal is scraping out the last bit. Miners say there are still good years left.

“I worked on a coal mine all of my life and liked being a miner,” says Terry. “People don’t realize there is blood and sweat that goes through the power line. It would be good for the country if we shut down the mines and helped miners find new jobs. The more jobs we lose, the more fear, and the more we are controlled. We have to stop telling kids we are nothing without coal.”

“People don’t realize there is blood and sweat that goes through the power line,” says Terry Steele, a retired miner.

To prove that some things haven’t changed in West Virginia, Terry told us to look up Don Blankenship, a former schoolmate who was once CEO of Massey Energy, one of the largest coal companies in the U.S. Blankenship is now running for the U.S. Senate with campaign signs in yards around town. After placing third in the Republican primary in May, Blankenship is running as a third party candidate, but it is surprising that he is running at all.

On April 5, 2010, 29 miners were killed in an explosion in one of Blankenship’s mines, the worst mining accident in the United States since 1970. News stories say he put profit over people and treated fines for safety violations as the cost of doing business. The explosion occurred because of inadequate ventilation but Blankenship was found guilty of one misdemeanor charge of conspiring to willfully violate mine safety and health standards. He was sentenced to one year in prison and fined $250,000.  The stories say miners and supervisors knew of the safety issues but kept quiet to keep their jobs.

This accident shows that power still belongs to the coal companies, and mining is still the best  way to feed a family in West Virginia. They don’t appreciate outside environmental groups interfering with business, taking away their jobs or changing their lifestyle.

“We don’t go to New York and tell them to take the their skyscrapers down. They tore up the environment to build those,” says Simon. “I understand both sides and have friends who go both ways. I started out in my dad’s Hungarian bakery and then went into the coal mine in 1984. If you wanted to have anything decent, that is where you went to work. My daddy taught me to work for what I get and if I can’t get it, I will starve. I am a tough one and love competition because it makes me work harder.

“We are different here. We are Scotch-Irish living in the dead center of Appalachia,” he says. “Our people descend from more patriots that fought in the American Revolution than anywhere else in this country. On my mom’s side alone, I have six who fought in it. Our ancestors helped create this country and hold the Constitution dear to our hearts.

“We are freedom,” says Simon. “Our culture comes from our fifth great grandparents and we are close to our archaic roots. If the toilet breaks, we don’t panic, we go outside. If history is not rooted deeply, you can’t respect where you are from. We are close to being the Americans of 200 years ago and were settled by people who came here before the Revolution. My fifth great grandfather was killed by Indians in the Revolution. Our ancestors fought to create this country.”

West Virginians are proud of who they are, where they are from and the fighting spirit that is passed down. At the museum, Wilma hands us red bandanas, symbols of the miners who came together to fight for their rights. They were called “rednecks” because they wore the bandanas during the march to identify the men on their side. Wilma says she gives them out as a reminder that we can still stand up for our rights today.

Wilma Steele helped found the West Virginia Mine Wars museum and hands out bandanas as a reminder that we can still stand up for our rights today.

“If they could get past all of their differences and come together, then I think the Republicans and Democrats can do the same,” she says. “Blair Mountain shows you can overcome language, color and nationality to work together. It is time for this story to be told.”

We compared the fights for civil rights in Alabama and West Virginia. The right to assemble and vote and the right to assemble and organize. What would we stand up for today? Is there any right that we would fight and die for together?

“Alabama or West Virginia, how can people be treated less than someone else for the color of their skin or what they do?” asks Wilma.

She says that as divided as we are, we still have the same wants and needs, “we just complicate it with bullshit. We let things distract us and make us feel like aliens.:”

Wilma loves the stories of immigrants because they were just workers trying to have a better life.  

“We can still unite together and make a difference,” she says. “We are all immigrants and aliens.”

Blair Mountain proves we can still unite and make a difference and that civil rights are always worth fighting for.

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