A history of Black coal miners in W.Va. is worth digging into, museum says

In West Virginia, where the Appalachian storytelling tradition still hangs in the hollows and along the ridgetops like a whisper of morning fog, it’s not just the tale.

It’s the person who delivers it.

That’s the aim of a new effort announced this past Wednesday — Juneteenth — by the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, located in Matewan, Mingo County.

The heart of the state’s southern coal fields.

Historians call that period of Mountain State history in the early 1920s the “mine wars,” because that’s what literally happened.

Matewan was especially bloody. More on that.

Conditions in West Virginia’s coal mines, meanwhile, were deplorable.

Explosions and cave-ins were regular occurrences.

So were the skirmishes between miners trying to organize the then-fledgling United Mine Workers of America and the goons hired by the coal companies who wanted no such thing.

The miners were shot at — and they shot back.

Mining, as dangerous as it was, though, still held promise.

Italians over from Calabria, farm boys across Appalachia and Blacks up from Alabama all came here to carve their purchase of the American dream in coal, which ran, lattice-like, in the subterranean strata.  

History, in layers of heart and geography

African-American sojourners, especially, gravitated to the southern coal fields here.

In the Mine Wars era, more than 60,000 Blacks lived in the Mountain State, with 20% or so of the population toiling underground in the mines.

Over the years, that population has dwindled — especially in Mingo County.

The Mingo County Black History Project fronted by the museum wants to give voice to a population that shouldered the weight of a double sociological slight, due to pigment and place.

It’s about mining, said Lloyd Tomlinson, a history professor who also serves as the museum’s education coordinator, but it will also center on those pioneering Black families who chose to make their stand in Mingo.

“We want to talk to the families who have been here for generations.”

The descendants of slaves. The great-great grandchildren of those early Alabama miners.

Oral histories will be recorded, compiled and housed in the museum and at the West Virginia and Regional History Center at WVU.

“A lot of the people we want to interview are in their 80s and 90s,” Tomlinson said.

“It’s especially important that we gather their stories while we can.”

Francene Jones agrees.

Jones, who is Black, grew up in Matewan and still lives there.

Her father was the first Black mayor in town history.

Other relatives owned businesses that managed to generate profits and cultivate customers — despite Jim Crow.

She is also on the museum’s board of directors.

West Virginia history, for her, is as faceted and textured as a grandma’s quilt.

It’s the encompassing of Black history and coal mining history, she said — and it’s all interwoven, like that quilt, with tales of tenacity and bravery, in the face of corporate cruelty.

Courage, for the cause

Tales of those aforementioned working conditions from the Mine Wars period alone could fill whole volumes in single-subject libraries.

Safety watchers and labor analysts had formulated a grim analogy by the early 1920s.

If you had a choice, they said then, of spending a day on a World War I battlefield or in the maw of a West Virginia coal mine — you would have been statistically safer taking your chances up top.

Even with the bullets, bombs and mustard gas.

Progressivism in Mingo County, however, shone through.

Frank Ingham, a Black miner who lived in Williamson, was elected by his co-workers to serve as a delegate at the upstart UMWA national convention — which almost killed him.

Ingham was beaten and left for dead by a handful of sheriff’s deputies in neighboring McDowell County for refusing to renounce the union.

He would later testify before U.S. senators on Capitol Hill about the working conditions in and around the mines.

In Kanawha County, a miner reportedly died trying to shield his wife from bullets as company guards strafed a tent city occupied by miners striking over the same.

Once, during a memorable rally in that same county, Mother Jones, the fiery union organizer from Ireland, held up a certain article of clothing.

It was blood-soaked, with a bullet hole.

“This is first time I ever saw a goddamned mine guard’s coat decorated to suit me,” she hissed in her brogue.

The war to end all wars?

In Matewan, in 1920, simmering anger between labor and management of the Stone Mountain Coal Co., blew — like a spark in a methane-choked mine shaft.

Seven detectives hired by the company were killed in the shootout, along with two miners and Cabell Testerman, Matewan’s mayor.

Then came Blair Mountain, a year later, in Logan County, in the aftermath of that same lethal dispute.

Bullets snapped the air, breaking branches and kicking dirt.

Biplanes droned overhead, dropping pipe bombs.

Many of the miners on the ground had fought on those battlefields in World War I, upon which they were statistically safer.

For them, it was the Argonne Forest, all over again.

President Warren G. Harding would eventually summon 2,100 U.S. Army troops and a squadron of U.S. Army Service planes to quell it.

The miners who were combat veterans couldn’t stomach the thought of firing on active-duty soldiers.

From Mother Jones to Francene Jones, a battle was lost, but the United Mine Workers of America won the war.

“Many died in the mines and in the efforts to unionize,” the daughter of Matewan’s mayor said.

“Only through the unity of all miners and their families were they victorious.”

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