Coal Tattoo

UMWA blasts W.Va. state museum

Just in from the United Mine Workers of America, this three-page letter to W.Va. Culture and History Commissioner Randall Reid-Smith, in which UMWA President Cecil Roberts raises major questions about the state museum’s portrayal of coal history:

Over the past months, several members of the UMWA staff have visited the West Virginia State Museum on many separate occasions. I have been to the museum myself, and seen the displays there. I have a number of very serious concerns with what is an inaccurate portrayal of the UMWA and our history of oppression and struggle against the coal operators of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Among the examples:

— The ‘Company Store’ including the discussion of the system of using mine company scrip instead of U.S. legal tender to pay miners. Your presentation makes it seem as if the scrip system was little different from a credit card, where miners and their families could pay of expensive purchases over time.

Nowhere is it stated that miners had absolutely no choice as to whether they used scrip or not. Nowhere is it mentioned that going somewhere else instead of the company store to purchase goods and equipment was an offense frequently punishable by a beating from the company’s Baldwin-Felts thugs followed by dismissal from employment and eviction from the company house.

— ‘Coal Mining’ includes misleading statements regarding Island Creek Coal and the UMWA organizing, as well as a very small presentation regarding the worst industrial disaster in United States history — the explosion at the Monongah Mine — that includes language regarding the company’s Christmas ‘gift’ to the families of those killed that is offensive to the memories of the fallen miners.

— ‘The Battle of Blair Mountain,’ which blames Sid Hatfield for instigating the violence in the coalfields that led to that battle, instead of focusing on the daily violence inflicted on coal miners and their families in the coal camps of the day.

Roberts continues in his letter:

Indeed, in just about every instance where the UMWA is mentioned in the museum, we are linked with violence or some other unsavory activity. There is no mention of the millions of West Virginians who have, over the past 60 + years, received or continue to receive the benefits of UMWA pensions and retiree health care — considerably easing their senior years — which were negotiated by the UMWA.

There is no mention of the UMWA’s leading role in passing mine safety and health legislation which have saved countless lives in West Virginia and throughout the nation. There is no mention of the UMWA’s role in fighting to end black lung and to establish and then protect black lung compensation.

Roberts asks Randall Reid-Smith to respond, and explain how the state intends to “correct this false information” and “whether or not you intend to work with the UMWA on correcting the biases imparted by so many of the museum’s displays.”



“I appreciate Cecil Roberts and the UMWA for bringing their concerns to light,” Gov. Tomblin said. “And the impact labor organizations like the UMWA has had on our state and nation in shaping today’s workplace. As such, I have instructed the Division of Culture and History to review the information provided and act accordingly to ensure our state’s history is portrayed accurately.”