Mining History Museum Preserves the Labor History That Led to Coal Baron Don Blankenship

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The following is an excerpt of Carolyne Whelan’s essay “King Coal and the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum,” from the new book Voices from the Rust Belt, edited by Anne Trubek (Picador, April 2018), available for purchase from Picador, Amazon and IndieBound. Copyright © 2018 by Anne Trubek. All rights reserved.

Wilma Steele sits on her screened porch and watches the last of the apples fall from her tree. It’s a beautiful, crisp day in Mingo County, West Virginia. Inside, there is still a faint dampness from when the house flooded as the result of nearby mountaintop removal, but on the porch, the dry air has that warm autumn smell of leaves and soil. Steele has lived in this region all her life, and her lineage traces back deep into the earth of Mingo County as far as she can follow it, like light in the abandoned mine shaft down the street. She is one of the founders of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, located in Matewan, Mingo County, and on October 1, as she accepted a Coal Heritage Award from the Coal Heritage Highway Authority on behalf of the museum, Don Blankenship wrapped up the first day of his closed trial.

Don Blankenship was also born and raised in Mingo County—his mother was a McCoy, a descendant of the infamous enemies of the Hatfields. He and Steele went to school together, but after that, their paths diverged: while Steele became a high school art teacher—and a member of her teachers’ union—Blankenship climbed the ladder of corporate coal, ultimately becoming the chairman and CEO of Massey Energy Company and, according to the New York Times, “one of West Virginia’s most feared and powerful figures,” the kind of man who pumps toxic slurry back into the ground to save his company money and throws his breakfast if it’s not to his liking.

In April 2010, 29 miners died as the result of an explosion at one of Massey’s mines, Upper Big Branch; Blankenship subsequently was accused of scheming with others at the company to violate safety rules and deceive regulators. The trial holding a CEO responsible for the deaths of his company’s workers was the first of its kind, and the results could set a precedent for future corporate leaders. [Blankenship was found guilty in 2015 of conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards, and in 2016 was sentenced to a year in prison and assessed a $250,000 fine.] Although the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum focuses on the history of the region, Steele believes that in light of the Upper Big Branch explosion and the trial, the historical narrative is applicable today.

“The mines used to own people by owning their homes, their stores, their churches, their schools,” Steele says. “Now, they don’t need to, because they own people’s minds. It’s much more psychological.” The coal companies donate money to the local schools, she says, so the teachers will endorse the industry. In response to reports of coal-based pollution and sick children, it was the teachers who wrote to the paper to discredit the accusations as liberal propaganda, Steele says, and it wasn’t until a reporter visited Marsh Fork Elementary School and with his finger wiped up a layer of coal dirt to show to the camera that the area finally started to take notice.

It wasn’t always this way. The region has a rich history of people banding together and pushing back against the industry, dating back to the West Virginia Mine Wars. The wars, which took place from 1910 to 1922—starting with the union aggregation that led to the first official strike in 1912—involved more than 10,000 miners who went on strike repeatedly over low wages and deadly working conditions. The West Virginia Mine Wars Museum chronicles it all, from the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike of 1912-’13 (one of the worst conflicts in American labor history, with deaths from both malnourishment and hired guards) to the 1920 Battle of Matewan (also known as the Matewan Massacre), in which miners surrounded and killed seven detectives from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency who had been hired by mine officials to issue eviction letters.

The exhibits culminate with information on the 1921 Miners’ March that led to the Battle of Blair Mountain: with 10,000 miners on strike, this was the largest armed uprising of U.S. citizens outside of wartime, and federal troops were called in to break it up. Also included in the museum’s collection are artifacts from coal camp life, including a replica of the tent colonies where miner families lived when they were kicked out of their company homes for striking. The display curves around in a horseshoe of narrative, starting and ending at the front of the museum, reflective (intended or not) of the cyclical nature of labor movements in general, and of the current chapter unfolding under the omnipresent “King Coal.” If the museum narrative were to continue into the present day, Don Blankenship might have his photo in the museum in association with his own wars against laborers: In 1984, a strike at Blackberry Creek against Massey turned bloody and lasted more than a year. Blankenship, for his part, was largely concerned about his television, which famously, was allegedly shot by pro-union forces.

The first displays upon entering the museum are bookshelves full of historic artifacts, presented without the austerity glass cases, which keep a barrier between article and viewer. During a tour, Steele takes great care to explain the personal history of an oil lantern used to light the way for the miners. “My dad, he worked in the mine with all different people, and it didn’t matter where you were from and what you looked like—if you were union brothers, you were union brothers,” she says. “A couple years ago, he went to visit with an old friend from the mine, an African American man, and the friend showed him this old lantern. My dad told him his daughter collected old stuff like this to help preserve it, and the man said, ‘Then you give this to your daughter to look after and keep safe.’ So it’s here now, and to me its presence here in the museum is a tribute not only to my father and to that man, but to the friendship between them, that saw each other as brothers. Funny, isn’t it,” she muses as she puts the lantern back down, “this article that was created for safety was really just another thing that could have blown up in their faces.”

There is a lot of love in the museum that has gone toward making that part of history clear: the role all people had in the labor strikes and mine wars. A picture of a white woman and an African American woman sitting in the kitchen of a factory house is on proud display, and indeed, many of the group photos of union members and of families—including the ones that show people peeping out of the holes slit in tents by the Baldwin-Felts agents hired to destroy the shelters—show people of all backgrounds.

The building where the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum is located was rented for a year and a half prior to the museum’s opening. As in much of Matewan, the building is one of the original structures of the town, and still contains bullet holes from the shoot-out between Sid Hatfield, a union sympathizer and the police chief of Matewan during the Battle of Matewan, and the mine’s hired guards. Most of the museum’s founders had been working together on the project for two years, with creative director and exhibition designer Shaun Slifer joining the team when the space was rented about six months later. Slifer has been installing exhibits for a decade in museums, including the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Frick Art & Historical Center, and others; he also has worked on projects from a people’s history perspective in the past, including Pittsburgh’s Howling Mob Society signs, which were featured in the 2012 Venice Biennale of Architecture. Additionally, he presented on the National Conference for Historic Preservation, and co-edited the Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative’s Firebrands: Portraits from the Americas, published by Microcosm.

“It is a bit strange to think about a museum coming together so quickly, especially when in Pittsburgh the museums are these official and long-standing establishments,” Slifer says. “But there was a lot of work behind the scenes before we got to the place we are now.” While the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum may have opened its doors relatively quickly, the same techniques and attention to detail went into the design of this small storefront museum as in those larger-budget spaces. Everything is archival and, once a visitor has entered into the horseshoe past the initial open shelves, the displays all have Plexiglas cases. There are videos of historic newsreels as well as oral histories playing from a parabolic speaker. There is also much to read at each display, and large quotes in vinyl dance along the walls to help guide the narrative.

Prior to the creation of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, co-founders Kenny King and Wilma Steele had been a part of the modest Blair Mountain Museum, which has since closed. Both have impressive personal collections of artifacts collected over the years, often handed down from their parents and grandparents, and these treasures, among many others, can be seen now at the tiny museum. King, in fact, may have the world’s largest collection of such artifacts, many of which are quite rare; in addition to familial treasures, he actively hunts down items of this era using a metal detector. Among his collection at the museum are bullet casings and clips from a number of guns, including .45 ACP shells for a Thompson submachine gun (also known as a Tommy gun), which would have been brand-new at the time and owned by law enforcement; he also has scrip that reads, “Good for one loaf of bread,” which is paired in the museum display with a rare milk bottle (fresh milk would have been inaccessible to most mine workers).

While there is something about the artifacts that feels profoundly American, many items sing of the rich cultural heritage brought overseas by immigrants seeking a better life and finding themselves in the hollow of Matewan. One display at the museum specifically showcases such multicultural relics, though the nods to the miners’ homelands can be seen in so many of the photos: kilts and embroidered vests with paisley designs, the clothing of people holding on to their past while working to create a brighter future. That these cultures persevered is ironically the work of the mine owners themselves, who, according to historians of the museum, purposefully kept each culture apart. As immigrants came off the boats in New York, they were offered jobs at the mine, given places to live in their own area of Matewan, and assigned to a shift where they worked according to ethnicity of origin. Cultures were not shared and other languages were not learned, all of which was a tool of the mine owners to avoid unionization—when the miners didn’t know each other, they could resent each other and animosity could grow, which kept them from finding common ground for demanding fair wages and safe conditions.

Ultimately, the groups did meet, talk and unionize. The red bandannas they wore, originally produced in Scotland with designs taken from Hungarian and Persian traditional patterns, are a tribute to that blending. They were worn like a uniform, a simple way to tell who was on their side. One origin of the word “redneck” derives from these bandannas: the term, which is now used with some amount of xenophobia to refer to small-minded people who typically live in rural Southern areas, in this sense is actually a nod to diversity and working together for a common good. In a photo of the burial of Sid Hatfield, funeral attendees can be seen wearing patterns found in the bandannas, as well as Scottish kilts, lace, and other formal attire brought along during long boat rides to America.

“Today,” Steele sighs, her gaze extending into the rich green forest just beyond her porch, “without the unions bringing people together, there is more bigotry. Just how they’ve always wanted it, keeping workers apart instead of fighting together.” Steele’s husband, Terry, a retired mine worker and member of the United Mine Workers Association (UMWA) union, agrees. The way he sees it, today’s workers are paid good wages and when they are let go, it’s blamed on the increasing government regulations that cost King Coal money in upkeep. But the regulations are necessary for the people to live, because they affect their own drinking water and air quality, their own children’s welfare.

Unions are a contentious topic in Mingo County, with no active miners among the 850 members of the UMWA; many miners blame the union and the government for the hard times miners are facing as interest in coal diminishes. From the union perspective, the main reason people are losing their jobs is because the mine owners—including Blankenship—didn’t want to lose money by keeping up with regulations when they could afford it. Meanwhile, some people hate the unions because the unions are getting paid through tax dollars. “But that’s only because the mine company didn’t pay into the pensions when they had the money and now that they aren’t doing as well, they certainly don’t want to pay,” Terry says.

Indeed, some in King Coal country are doing worse than others. Although Blankenship now lives in Tennessee, he maintained his home in Mingo County until retirement (though once his actions at Massey polluted the water, he did have special plumbing installed to source clean water from outside the county, a luxury not available to his workers and neighbors). Since the Upper Big Branch disaster, critics of Blankenship seem to have no difficulty seeing evil in his beady eyes and villainous mustache. Certainly, they’ve been given little reason to see anything else. Maybe it’s her art-teacher openheartedness or her love for her fellow West Virginians, but Steele is the first to comment on the complexity of Blankenship: He’s not quite evil, and that’s perhaps even more dangerous.

“He’s the kind of person who really listens to people, really tries to figure out who they are,” she says. “When we were in school, he was a nice guy, I mean a really nice person. Everyone liked him. And if somebody didn’t, well, they were the jerk, and that was generally known.” When asked what happened to make Blankenship grow up to be the type of person who would care so little for his fellows, she could only shrug: “Coal got him.” When he originally came to Massey as an office manager, she says, he could have cleaned up a lot of King Coal’s practices. Instead, he became known as the leading force against the UMWA.

When the victims from the Upper Big Branch explosion were autopsied, it was revealed that 71 percent of them suffered from black lung, the deadly coal dust disease. The industry average is 3.2 percent.

Blankenship has visited the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, presumably curious as to what version of history the museum might tell, and how far back and forward along Mingo County’s coal lineage it dared tread. Elijah Hooker, now a board member who was stationed at the museum’s front desk during two of Blankenship’s visits and who spoke with him at length, dismisses any notion of malicious intent. “The mere fact that a young man was working for a museum that is essentially the antithesis to everything in which Blankenship’s creed, or system of beliefs, has stood in opposition towards, most likely left him in a state of curiosity,” says Hooker via email, in explanation of what interest Blankenship may have had in talking with him. “[He] came to the museum out of genuine motives. After all, Matewan is his home; this museum does impart the history of [his community]. While it may take a particular stance, nevertheless, our attempt is to reconstruct the history of an area deemed to be a forgotten land of no significance to the greater development of America’s past; thus, I feel that there was genuine intrigue involved with Don’s visit to our museum, one in which no ulterior motives were attached—simply curiosity as to what was going on in the area he considers to be home.”

Hooker, for his part, does not believe Blankenship is necessarily the monster he’s portrayed to be, one who had specific intentions of killing 29 workers, but rather is someone who made some gross errors in judgment during his time as CEO. Perhaps he just saw the dollars and cents of business much more clearly than the people who were hidden in the mines, the ones who put that money in the Massey account.

Still, the tension between King Coal and those preserving its true history is palpable. “He went through the museum and spent over an hour there [during one visit], and spent over an hour there [during one visit], and it’s a very small place. He took pictures, read all the texts,” says Dr. Chuck Keeney, museum board member and history professor at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College. “Then after, he and I spoke for a bit. He and I of course have a different heritage, his background being a union-buster, and I have union leaders in my heritage. So we’re on opposite sides.” This opposition is a point of conflict for the museum, daring to tell the history of unions in an area whose union members currently are largely retired miners.

“The conflict over coal has become over the years to be a conflict of memory. King Coal is not going to disappear. It’s still a powerful force, and a powerful social force,” Keeney says, and in this memory and storytelling lies the burden and joy of opening up an independent museum. “We were able to include quotes and facts that a state-sponsored museum wouldn’t be able to do. It’s quite enjoyable, to not have to be politically correct, to not have to pander to donors who have their own agendas or are concerned about image.”

Ultimately, the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum tells the story of a time when coal was everything, and of a future when it might not be. That’s certainly the case for Blankenship. Sid Hatfield probably never dreamed of the day when something like a mine explosion would put the company boss on trial, and maybe there is a future for citizens of West Virginia in which mine explosions themselves are an archaic story relegated to Plexiglas displays. In the meantime, we can study our past, celebrate it and learn from it.

“King Coal and the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum” by Carolyne Whelan, excerpted from Voices from the Rust Belt edited by Anne Trubek. Copyright © 2018 by Anne Trubek. Published by Picador. All rights reserved. 

(Credit for the story image of glove and helmet on coal: Adam J/Shutterstock)



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USA News

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