Wilma Steele on the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum

Wilma Steele and Don Blankenship went to high school together in Matewan, West Virginia.

Wilma Steele

Blankenship went on to become the CEO of Massey Energy. Blankenship spent a year in jail for conspiracy to violate the national mine safety laws in connection the deaths of 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in 2010.
Steele went on to be a school teacher and founder of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum in Matewan, West Virginia.

The museum includes exhibits about coal camp life, the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek Strike of 1912-1913, the Matewan Massacre, the Miners’ March, and the Battle of Blair Mountain.

Whose idea was it to start a West Virginia Mine Wars Museum?

“It was strange,” Steele told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “None of us I guess had the idea to start a museum. I always wanted to preserve things, protect things. I saw an awful lot of the coal mining history leaving the area. As people would move, these things would go with them. People would sell things on EBay. And I hated that. I started collecting coal mine things – everything from the canary cage, to the lanterns.”

“Around 1900, the miners would take the canaries into the mines with them because the canaries were susceptible to poisonings and gas in the mines. If they started having difficulty, the miners knew it was time to get out.”

“It was like a safety indicator that there was gas present in that mine.”

“I wasn’t interested in making money from these items. I had some shelves in the house and I kept them there.”

“There is a man in Logan – Kenny King. He lived at Blair. He was interested in that history of the battle at Blair Mountain. Two different sides of his family fought at that battle. The history was special to him. He started using a metal detector to find things all around his home. And he found a lot of different artifacts, things from the battle of Blair. And he preserved those. As a matter of fact, most of the things he collected, he did leave at museums — from the Cultural Center at Charleston to some of the more local museums.”

“He had a big collection. He probably always had a dream to have a museum at Blair. But there was never plan – we are going to build a museum. We organized a march in 2011 to be like the March from Marmet to Blair – to recreate that miner’s march.”

What happened at Blair Mountain?

“When the coal companies came in here originally, there were no houses or railroad tracks where the coal mines were. The coal companies would build groups of houses in the coal district on the land that they owned to get their workers to work in the mine. They would go to New York and tell people — we have a house for you and a job. And they would bring them down to Matewan and Red Jacket and these different places.”

“There were things the coal companies were doing against the Constitutional rights of Americans. They were not being paid in money, they were being paid in scrip. They could only spend that at the company store.”

“They had armed guards watching everything that was happening. And they came out with laws like – you couldn’t gather, you couldn’t come together and talk. They were making sure there was no union organizing going on. But under our Constitution, you have a right to come together and assemble. But even those rules were being broken. And it extended far beyond that. They would take prisoners to districts with judges who were with the coal companies, instead of being tried at home before a jury of their peers. And this happened after the battle of Matewan – in 1920. When that happened, the miners said they couldn’t take this any more. They would put the miner in a place where he would be found guilty and be hung. He could be hung whether he was guilty or not. The coal companies had that much power.”

“The coal companies would also pay money to the public officials in the area – the sheriff and those kinds of people to be on their side. They helped them with their job of controlling the miners.”

At Matewan, the coal company tried to get the police and mayor and those people who had power on their side, but those public officials refused to be bought.”

“Matewan wasn’t a coal made town. There was already a town there — it was an independent town. It wasn’t a coal company built town. There were some areas of the town that the coal company owned. They owned the mines. And that was power enough.”

“The police chief Sid Hatfield stood up against the coal companies. When they started throwing people out on the street. Hatfield told the coal companies that they did not have the power to come in and mistreat people like that in their town. There was a battle in Matewan. Nobody knows who shot the first shot. Sid Hatfield, his friend Ed Chambers and the mayor Ed Testerman stood up to the coal companies. And local miners throughout the town were shot. The coal company security from Baldwin Felts starting shooting up the place. And many of those coal company security guards were killed that day in the battle of Matewan. Testerman was killed that day.”

“They brought Sid Hatfield and Ed Chambers up on charges. Both were found innocent. That led to them changing the law so that the coal companies could take prisoners to anywhere they could have them tried. And they got the law passed.”

“Hatfield and Chambers were charged again. Most people thought it was a trumped up charge. And they took them to the courthouse in McDowell. They were there with their wives and unarmed on the courthouse steps. And they shot Hatfield and Chambers dead on the courthouse steps.”

The killing of Chambers and Hatfield triggered the mobilization of what was called the redneck army. Why was it called that?

“They put on their red bananas to identify themselves as union brothers. Everybody had red bananas. Wes Harris tells a story that some of the coal mine companies would issue red bandanas to the miners. It was one of the few things they actually bought for the miners. If they had white handkerchiefs and were wounded, their handkerchiefs would be soaked in blood and you would go in shock. If it was red, it would blend in and there wouldn’t be the same reaction.”

How many miners joined the redneck army?

“The numbers differed. I would say safely over 3,000.”

There was a battle at Blair Mountain between the coal company security guards and the redneck army. How many people were killed?

“There are so many different stories. The ones that were officially counted were much fewer than the total killed. There were some they didn’t count. People who nobody knew, immigrants with no family around.”

The US Army was called in and they crushed the resistance.

“As long as they were fighting the coal companies, they were all in. But they weren’t going to fight their own government Army. They had just finished fighting World War I not that long before that.”

“Hundreds of miners were charged with treason against West Virginia but most of those cases were eventually dropped.”

Don Blankenship is running for U.S. Senate. Do you know Blankenship?

“I went to school with Don at Matewan High School. I did not know him well. He was two grades above me. I knew who he was and knew of him. I have followed him. He plays such an important role in the politics here. He played a big role in weakening the union. I made it a habit of listening to what he had to say.”

“He would say – the union journal is nothing but a propaganda rag. And of course, we get the union journal here. My husband Terry is a member of the union. Yes, it was full of propaganda. Advertising for a wonderful event is propaganda. We are trying to persuade people – this is something that is good, something we need or is helpful. It depends on how honest it is. Is it based on facts, or did you make up all kinds of lies?”

“The UMWA Journal celebrated unions and their accomplishments. Yes, that is what it is written for. I was a teacher and I remember getting Blankenship’s calendars in a box. I would open it up. There would be a picture of Massey Energy and it would say – Massey is doing the right thing with energy. And here I was seeing my communities flooded and water polluted. And they tell me they are doing the right thing with energy? I don’t think so. And the difference between one kind of propaganda and another is — what kind of propaganda is it?”

“Is it public information? Or is it changing the narrative completely?”

He has advertising in his campaign saying that the 29 miner deaths at Upper Big Branch are not his fault.

“That’s ridiculous. My husband knows about mining. He tells me that there were lots of different things that led up to this explosion. There were mining bits that were too dull. Worn out bits will make sparks because they make more friction. Those mining bits were old. The curtains were not hung. The curtains keep dust and gas confined.”

If you were to poll Mingo County, does he win Mingo County?

“He wins Mingo County. In Mingo County they wanted Trump to win. Trump promised to bring back coal. They see Don as someone who fought the regulations, fought the environmentalist. He would tell the people that the regulations would put them out of business. Then 29 miners were dead and he blamed the regulators.”

State Senator Richard Ojeda comes from the same coal fields. And yet he has diametrically opposed politics. He’s running for Congress – for the House of Representatives. Both are popular in the coal fields. How do you explain the difference between Ojeda and Blankenship?

“I have followed Ojeda. He and Don start out exactly the same way. They start out with what they see and observe. They are both intelligent. They both know what they are talking about. They know the people. They start a narrative of what they see. And he says what’s wrong.”

“That’s how Don gets people to listen. He starts out with a narrative. He has a deep understanding of the people. Then it depends on the truth. Trump couldn’t deliver jobs to the coalfields. And now they see Don as their last hope. He’s going to save these towns like Matewan. And he’s going to bring back all the coal jobs.”

“Meanwhile, we are working to try and develop Matewan – why don’t we put our money and our time into that, instead of false promises?”

“Ojeda doesn’t make up these coal narratives. Ojeda cares for coal miners. He cares about their jobs too. But he also knows that we need to diversify – take steps to change. He also says one of the problems is the amount of money that is taken out of here with these gas pipelines. And the people are not getting any benefit. It’s an imbalance that needs to be corrected.”

“They are both doing well here. Ojeda focuses on the needs of the people. Don focuses on the dreams of people – the dreams of getting that big mine to come back. Both are powerful motivators.”

“With the museum, we have anchored our dreams in reality. We include our history but go forward with it to new possibilities. That way, we create more than who we are individually. Every new person I would meet, any new young people in the community, I would give them a bandana, I would give them the challenge. And we would talk.”

[For the complete q/a format  Interview with Wilma Steele, see 32 Corporate Crime Reporter 18(12), Monday April 30, 2018, print edition only.]

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