- Matewan Before the Massacre: Politics, Coal, and the Roots of Conflict in a West Virginia Mining Community
Rebecca J. Bailey's book, Matewan Before the Massacre, reexamines a familiar event in West Virginia history. Much has been written about what happened on May 19, 1920, in the Mingo County coal-mining community of Matewan when a violent confrontation resulted in the deaths of ten men. Yet Bailey makes a noteworthy contribution to that literature with her investigation into the reasons why the massacre occurred in Matewan rather than in another southern West Virginia community. Through her examination of the political, economic, and social landscapes of early Mingo County, Bailey counters simplistic portrayals of the massacre as merely a labor dispute between the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and coal operators over organizing southern West Virginia. The result is a compelling account that looks beyond these external influences and illustrates the personal and local forces also at play in Mingo County.
Bailey's argument is that the massacre occurred in Matewan because Mingo County differed politically and economically from other coal-producing counties in southern West Virginia. To get at the heart of Mingo's unique situation, Bailey has conducted meticulous research that benefits greatly from several new sources including numerous oral histories of Mingo County residents, many of which Bailey collected herself. She organizes the book chronologically, beginning with the county's formation in 1895. From the county's inception, rival factions within both the Republican and Democratic parties were commonplace, and political control of the county and of the town of Matewan was tenuous. The coal elite were involved in local politics but did not dominate as they did elsewhere in southern West Virginia. Moreover, Matewan was not a company-owned town. Thus, in some respects coal operators exerted less political power and consequently [End Page 99] less influence in Matewan than in company towns such as those in nearby Logan and McDowell Counties. Mingo's Williamson-Thacker coalfield lagged behind the region's more successful coalfields, and operators continually squelched union activity with replacement miners. The resulting economic hardship and lack of job security created "discontent among Mingo's miners," asserts Bailey, which made them particularly receptive to the union's call for action in early 1920 (139). Consequently, the UMWA selected Mingo County from which to launch a renewed effort to organize southern West Virginia in the spring of that year. By the time the union announced its intentions in January 1920, even several of Matewan's elected officials supported the union. Furthermore, a rise in class tensions brought on by World War I increased anxieties in the town. Hence, maintains Bailey, Matewan was a community rife with "long-brewing political, economic, and social resentments" that ignited with the arrival of several Baldwin-Felts agents (209).
There is much to recommend about Matewan Before the Massacre. Bailey shows us that all history is local, particularly through her use of oral histories which provide perspectives that have heretofore been missing from accounts of the massacre. She chooses to use few direct quotes from these interviews, but this does not detract from the book's effectiveness. Also, Bailey firmly situates her book alongside recent scholarship that challenges earlier portrayals of Appalachia as an isolated region full of violent people as she connects Mingo County and the massacre to larger national themes including the nation's pro-business political economy of the 1920s. Rebecca J. Bailey's book makes early twentieth-century Mingo County come alive and emphasizes the significance of local history. [End Page 100]