In May, Matewan will be joined by communities throughout the region as well as by visitors from all across the country to commemorate an infamous event that occurred in that historic Mingo County town 100 years before.
The event was a shootout that occurred on the streets of Matewan on May 19, 1920 between local Stone Mountain Coal Company miners and company-employed Baldwin-Felts Agency detectives that, in the years to follow, became known as the Matewan Massacre.
The gun battle not only left several combatants on both sides of the conflict lying dead in the street — including the town’s mayor — historians say it also ultimately ignited a labor firestorm between miners and mine owners everywhere that in many respects still resonates today.
The historical footnote has been officially commemorated in Matewan each year since 2000 with a festival that has included a reenactment of the shootout performed two times during the day by the Matewan Drama Group.
The group of organizers for this year’s commemoration said although May’s event will be familiar to those in town that day, because 2020 marks the 100th anniversary, visitors are going to be met with a festival that they’ve not attended and experienced before.
Mackenzie New is with Coalfield Development and is one of the lead planners and organizers of this year’s centennial commemoration.
Besides bringing an array of varying viewpoints and ideas to the table, New said, the organizing conglomerate also has symbolic meaning.
“We feel all these groups coming together to plan an event with so much historical importance represents the unity that the miners themselves had during the early labor struggles,” she said. “The miners came together then with one purpose in mind and I think symbolically we’re doing that in much the same way, which I think is really fitting.”
The organizers are made up of members of local agencies and/or groups. Individuals representing his/her respective agency or group have been meeting each month since October of last year to brainstorm ideas as well as to plan numerous special events for the weekend of May 16.
Along with Coalfield Development, some of the other groups/agencies include the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, Matewan Town Council, the Hatfield McCoy Arts Council at McCarr, Kentucky, the Matewan Drama Group, UMWA Local 1440, Matewan CVB, and the Old Jail and Lockup Restoration Group.
Several of the events already planned and confirmed include the “Unveiling of Smilin’ Sid Signage” ( historical marker placement at the Depot Replica), the two usual performances of the Matewan Massacre Drama Play, and the grand reopening the WV Mine Wars Museum in the former Matewan National/BB&T bank building recently purchased by Local 1440.
Other events currently in the planning stages include the dedication and naming of the former bank building in honor of UMWA President Cecil Roberts, a Matewan High School all-class reunion, Student Day with students coming on May 15 to visit museums as well as interact with Matewan Drama Group actors, individuals in period costume meeting and greeting the crowds, and an additional car show featuring circa 1920 automobiles.
“We’ll also have free space for all our vendors as usual, as well as planning for fundraisers for things like shuttle service to and from various locations around Matewan,” New said.
“We still have many other events being discussed and planned and those will be announced as soon as all the details for each are worked out.”
New said the organizing group meets the first Monday of each month at the Depot Replica. Anyone interested in participating in the planning is encouraged to attend the next meeting on Feb. 3 at 6 p.m.