On Wednesday evening at the NEH Summer Institute “Appalachia Up-Close,” we watched John Sayles’ movie Matewan (which most of us had seen, though none objected to viewing it again) in anticipation of Rebecca Bailey’s talk on her study of the West Virginia town.
Dr. Bailey, who teaches at Northern Kentucky University, placed the movie within its historical and social contexts through a discussion of her own research and her personal family relationship to the events at Matewan and, a year later, in the nearby town of Welsh.
Two points in Bailey’s presentation stood out. First, she made clear that the standard view of the Matewan conflict–that it was simply a battle between union and industry, and that these are the fruitful objects of historical research–is not only simplistic but actually wrong. What happened in Mingo County had more to do with the people of Matewan and the vicinity than with institutions that had both come in from the outside. Second, she stressed the importance of the connection between the personal and the historical, explaining that her interest in Matewan comes from her grandfather’s experience in Welsh the day of the assassination of Sid Hatfield, who (as chief of police) had been involved in the earlier battle at Matewan. What she learned from her grandfather made her realize that the accepted story was neither accurate nor complete.
Bailey’s book, Matewan Before the Massacre: Politics, Coal and the Roots of Conflict in Mingo County 1793-1920 will be out in September. I, for one, will read it–and not just to learn more about the subject, but to begin to further explore Bailey’s approach to history, one that I find extremely important.
For the afternoon session, Ferrum College professor Dan Woods provided the broader context of industrialization in Appalachia after the Civil War, the change that led to situations like that of Mingo County. I was reminded of my grandfather’s friend Charlie Cannon, whose father had founded Cannon Mills and established Kannapolis, NC–in Rowan County, home to many of my grandmother’s ancestors. As a company town, Kannapolis was one of the best, a place where people did not experience the kind of life Tennessee Ernie Ford sang about (in a coal town, and not a textile town, but the impact was often the same):
You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store.