Ratified in 1865, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime.
An argument can be made that virtual slavery continued in America for decades after that ... and maybe persists even to this day.
If you were a coal miner in the early 20th century, you might as well have been a slave.
A century ago this week, 10 people died in Matewan, West Virginia, because the coal mine operators hired private security guards to evict miners and their families from their company town homes because they had joined a union — and the miners fought back.
Today, it’s known as the Matewan Massacre.
For many years, every youngster in every West Virginia school knew the names “Matewan” and “Blair Mountain,” and what they meant. Mother Jones was one of the state’s heroes.
What was begun at Matewan in May 1920 culminated a little more than a year later in the Battle of Blair Mountain, when U.S. Army troops were prepared to use machine guns and warplanes against armed coal miners.
American coal miners were truly second-class citizens. Theirs was one of the filthiest and most dangerous jobs a person could have in the early 20th century, although working in steel mills or some other factories came close. Industrialists didn’t care about the well-being of such people, nor did most politicians or much of the press.
Miners lived in towns owned and constructed by the coal operators, were paid in company scrip and did their shopping in company stores that charged the miners far more for what they bought than what they earned. Some places were worse than others.
They could have walked away from it but had families to support — even their young sons worked with them — but where could they have gone?
When they tried to organize and join the United Mine Workers union, they were met with violence and oppression that most of us today could not conceive of happening in America.
They persevered and, with the help of organizers like Mary “Mother” Jones, helped to bring about a revolution in the relationship between America’s industry and its labor force and helped initiate changes in the laws that govern safety, collective bargaining and just about anything that has to do with the workplace. If anyone deserves to be considered American heroes, they do.
In her autobiography, Jones said she had witnessed the struggles between “the industrial slaves and their masters” during her visits with West Virginia’s coal miners.
The mine at Matewan was owned by Stone Mountain Coal Co., and when its miners voted to join the United Mine Workers, the mine operators brought in two dozen Baldwin-Felts Agency detectives to evict the miners and their families from their homes, which were owned by the coal company.
Matewan Police Chief William Sidney “Sid” Hatfield (a member of the Hatfield family that was part of the notorious feud with the McCoy family) and a group of men confronted the detectives on their way out of town, and a gunfight ensued in which 10 men were killed. Albert and Lee Felts and five of their detectives, Matewan Mayor Cabel Testerman and two bystanders died.
Accounts vary as to who was responsible for starting the gunfight, but they were the first shots fired in what has become known as the “Coal Wars.”
Hatfield was charged with murder but was acquitted. He and another man were shot and killed in August 1921 by Baldwin-Felts detectives on the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse in Welch, where they were about to stand trial in connection with an incident at a nearby coal camp.
That month, thousands of miners armed themselves and marched to Logan County, determined to organize.
U.S. Army bombers were used for surveillance, but private planes were hired to drop bombs on the miners, who eventually surrendered. One estimate is that about 1 million shots were fired.
As many as 100 people were killed and nearly 1,000 more were arrested — mostly for murder, conspiracy to commit murder or being an accessory to murder, and some of them for treason against the state of West Virginia.
Introduction of an unexploded bomb at a trial led to one man’s acquittal. Some were found not guilty, but others were jailed for more than 20 years.
Although the unionization of miners suffered, the public became more aware of the conditions miners faced. Mine workers eventually were guaranteed the right to collective bargaining as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
The United Mine Workers union changed its tactics and worked through political circles to get the law on their side.
Eventually it helped to organize other unions — particularly the United Steelworkers — and was responsible for improving health and safety regulations and pension systems across the country.