West Virginia is a state that’s often the butt of many people’s jokes for being the home of backwoods, toothless, inbred, hicks. Some might even know West Virginia for its country roads that will take you home whether you want to go there or not. I suppose according to John Denver, all country roads lead to Charleston or Beckley instead of Rome! But everything about West Virginia as we know it as been co-opted by corporate propaganda to push this narrative of ignorance, divide and backwoods unimportance.
The origins of West Virginia has been romanticized as this abolitionist dreamscape. The story that’s told to us about WV is that they annexed from Regular Virginia because they did not want slavery! But in reality it had nothing to do with abolition but rather the supply lines to win the Civil War. West Virginia had plenty of people who were fine and dandy with owning slaves.
[Image 1] Famed 5 dollar bill, Abraham Lincoln went to the Northern Industrialists who owned all the railroads, timber and coal yards and offered the land of West Virginia as compensation for helping out the Union army. Lincoln sold out the state to profiteers as the state’s inception. Really West Virginia was the first state to become a corporation and therefore is the first state to get personhood. Which was a real bummer because in for a long time Black People only got 3/5th of personhood, but West Virginia just got all of the fifths of personhood pretty immediately.
After the Civil War, West Virginia became THE spot the coal industry to get cheap labor. This is where the real history buried history of West Virginia begins. Between 1880 and 1919 the state’s population went from 93k to 446k. This is because the Coal Companies built little towns around the coal mines and needed people to occupy them to work the mines.
By the time Ellis Island opened up in the 1890s, the Coal Bosses sent out recruiters to bring immigrants to work the mines. The recruiters promised these new immigrants a new life to help take care of their families! By this point there were some large Strikes that had taken center stage and the working class were becoming more empowered. So in order to circumvent things like paying fair wages and giving people human dignity, the coal bosses hired immigrants that didn’t have an opportunity to be a part of the Labor Movement and could easily be exploited for their work. You know how business is done! This is what MBA’s teach you. Step 1: Hire Immigrants. Step 2: Exploit Immigrants. Step 3: Purchase Respect! Master’s degree acquired!
Just this notion alone debunks the “THEY TOOK OUR JOBS” argument! Nobody took anyone’s jobs. The bosses handed them to immigrants under the guise of a better life for their families. The jobs were there for taking, but the working at that time didn’t really want to those jobs. The people weren’t into the coal industry and in a jealous rage the industry decided to use immigrants against the working class. And the sad part is it worked. These corporations created and benefited from anti-immigrant xenophobia.
Once these immigrants and also former slaves were in these coal towns, they were paid for the coal they extracted by the ton, not by the hours they worked in the mines. But they weren’t paid in real dollars, but something called Scrip, which was money made up the coal bosses. This is where the game of Monopoly originated, because Scrip is basically play money, disguising a new era of wage slavery! This kept the miners subservient and dependent on the coal companies but also ensured that these coal bosses in West Virginia were going to be richer than god.
In the company towns the fake money was used to pay for lodging, supplies and utilities. These towns were also primarily non-union areas in Southern West Virginia. These towns also had mercenaries hired by the coal bosses to ensure the miners would stay in line and not unionize. The coal bosses called them company towns but they were basically forced labor camps. Eventually the Nazis would look at this and say “Hey that’s not a bad idea!”
[SC 2] Up north, the United Mine Workers of America, or the UMWA or the Miner’s Unions, had partnered with the International Worker Of the World to engage in strikes. Mother Jones, the octogenarian activist, joined the UMWA & Eugene Debs in Pittsburgh to lead a strike in 1897. This was the first major win for the Miner’s Union.
[SC 3] Following this Mother Jones led strikes and demonstrations all across Pennsylvania. Mother Jones was a major advocate for getting rid of child labor. She led a protest of young kids that worked factory & mine jobs on a march to Teddy Roosevelt’s summer home in 1903. I’m sure all the rich folks in sippin’ tea in their estates were shocked and said “well why do you have to make child labor so political!”
Eventually she went down to West Virginia to survey the mines. When she saw the condition of the workers down there, she said this was “worse than those in Czarist Russia!” That’s right folks, the authoritarian Russians drew a line at slave labor camps and American industrialists said “What if we sold the idea to the German Nationalists?”
Now think about whether work conditions are any different today. Amazon Warehouses have reported stories of people passing out of dehydration. Meat packing plants have unsanitary conditions for their workers cramped in one space for hours on end. Walmart employees are paid so little that customers have to help them buy food! There’s an intern that has to pretend that Joe Biden isn’t a war mongering, sociopathic, rapist on twitter everyday! And there are people who are paid to be Mitch McConnell’s “friend”! I’m pretty sure that last one is a violation of the Geneva Convention!
[SC 4] In order to prevent the UMWA from gaining a foothold in West Virginia, the coal bosses came up with “Yellow Dog Contracts” in 1907. These contracts basically said the miners were sole “employees” – a term used very loosely – of the Coal Company and couldn’t join a Union by law. These laws specifically called out the United Mine Workers of America & The International Workers Of The World! And if they did join a Union, they would be terminated and evicted from the their homes by the Coal Companies.
In 1917 the Supreme Court had made them legally binding and ensured that the Unions couldn’t gain traction in states that were using Yellow Dog Contracts. The provision was the Coal Companies had to walk the miners once a day, make sure they fed them and cleaned up after their poopies. They really show that they were going to be responsible for the miners. And the end of the day, the Supreme Court of 1917 asked, who’s walking who… After a series of General Strikes and mass organizing, in 1933 Yellow Dog contracts were put down like that feral, rabies ridden canine at the end of that movie…Marni & Me.
These contracts, much like Scrip, were meant to keep employees in fear and subservient to the whims of the Coal Bosses, especially since the Labor Movement was getting wind of their tyranny. It made sure that these workers wouldn’t resist or strike and would be loyal…like a yellow dog or a Lab. Today we don’t need Yellow Dog contracts because we have the burden of healthcare. With the power of healthcare connected to work, it’s easy to see how employees can be kept subservient under the threat of loosing access to a doctor.
Coal Miners all around were treated as less valuable than the coal they were extracting from the Mountains. So in 1913 in Paint & Cabin Creek, WV, the miners went on Strike backed by the Miner’s Union and Mother Jones! The miners were asking for Union legitimacy and better wages. By better wages they meant real money. The coal company freaked out and said the Union was working for a competitor, out to ruin their business! Doesn’t this make the coal bosses sound like crazy prospectors. “They comin’ for mah gold! Mah black gold!”
So as retaliation for asking for real money and human rights, the Coal Bosses hired the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency. They weren’t as much detectives as they were mercenaries. I mean if they went by the Baldwin-Felts Union Hunters it would have been more accurate but also would’ve made them look bad. Now before the SS was invented the Nazis looked at these so called Detective Agencies and were like “That’s not a bad idea! But we’ll give cool lighting bolts on their uniform! Really brand our fascism!” No one can say the coal companies weren’t inspirational.
The Coal Companies gave the mercenaries machine guns and set up encampments to fire on the Striking Miners. So the miners fought back with guerrilla warfare. Martial Law was instated 3 times which was unprecedented during peace times. 200 strikers including 86-year old Mother Jones were arrested. You really gotta watch out for those octogenarians, with their frail backs, canes and hard candies, which is a dental nightmare. They could give a harsh talkin’ to if you ain’t careful! They could even shake a fist or two and then you’re really in for it!
Governor Hatfield, pardoned some of these strikers, but kept the main organizers of the strike in prison. Then the cherry on the authoritarian cake was when he closed down the town’s Socialist newspapers because…well lets just say liberty, freedoms and Russia.
The next major strike in West Virginia wouldn’t happen till 1920. The UMWA had launched a major campaign to unionize the coal mines in Southern West Virginia. As retaliation, with the now legally binding Yellow Dog Contracts, 3000 miners were fired and served eviction notices. When the miners didn’t leave the Baldwin-Felts thugs were called in to violently remove them from their homes.
In the town of Matewan in Mingo County, Al & Lee Felts, the lead mercenaries of the Baldwin-Felts, personally came down to evict miners. Matewan’s Strike Supporting Sheriff, Sid Hatfield, was backing up the miners. The Felts decided to push women and children out of their homes at gunpoint, because they respect the rule of women & children first. If this was the Titanic, they would’ve thrown the women & children overboard first! That’s called equality. The Felts’ with the Mayor of Matewan took these miners’ family to train station to evict them.
Sid Hatfield, with a group of miners, followed them down to the train station and said the Felts were under arrest for unlawful evictions. The Felts then Sid Hatfield was under arrest, because…they said so, no takesybacksies! Eventually shots were fired. Not in a verbal way. It was like someone came out said “Yo mama so fat her bathtub calls her Grover Cleveland!” No literal gunfire! There was an argument over who shot first. And the answer is Han…Han shot first!
The shootout lasted 10 minutes. 7 Detectives, 2 miners and the Mayor of Matewan were killed. 17 strikers and Sid Hatfield were tried for…I dunno heresy against Coal Worshipping and Russianism. I mean I think they meant to say Boleshevism, Russianism sounds scarier. Can’t you just see bearded men with hammers and sickles trying to hunt down a family of bald eagles when I say that? They were acquitted but in 1921, and Sid Hatfield was murdered by The Baldwin-Felts in front of the courthouse.
This sparked a 5000 miner march to Charleston. Backed by the UMWA, these miners with their red neckerchiefs tied on, were not going to back down till their demands were met. At this point they had been lied to by the Coal Bosses, the courts had let them down by legitimatizing the Yellow Dog Contracts & the government had let them by arresting strikers and the use of mercenaries. So they trusted the unions who were on the side of the working class miners.
President Harding sent down Brigadier General Henry Bandholtz to offer an ultimatum to the miners. But the miners rejected any compromises and kept marching to Logan County. The county sheriff, Dan Chafin, who was an Anti-Union employee of the coal companies was set to stop these miners. The Coal Companies sent him their private armed forces and he deputized citizens. They killed 5 strike supporters as a message to the unions.
By the time the miners go to the Logan County, Chafin’s men were armed with Gatling guns. The miners with their rifles and hand guns fought back against the private army of the Coal Companies. The military was ordered to use their bombers, but they declined to fire on civilians. [SC 13] So Chafin went to the coal companies and got 3 bi-planes and dropped homemade explosives on the miners. Once the federal troops were order get involved, the miners knew they were outgunned and outnumbered and surrendered.
This was the Battle of Blair Mountain. This is a major moment in American history where not only were federal troops called on striking citizens, but a private corporation paid for the bombing of said citizens! This is another example of how the strikers made the decision to call off the violence and NOT the corporatists. Violence is second nature for Capitalists.
This was a loss for the UMWA but it showed the coal companies that the workers won’t back down without a fight. This isn’t taught to most people because this history shows what we are capable of when stand together and push back against tyrannical power structures. It shows us how much strength the working class actually has!
Krish Mohan is a socially conscious, Indian standup comedian and writer who regularly tours the country. He performs at small theaters, bars, comedy clubs, colleges, DIY and house venues. With his quirky attitude, charming personality, and intelligent humor, Krish captivates and engages audiences of all backgrounds, tackling hot button topics like race, religion, war, immigration, while adding an optimistic, philosophical & sociological twist!