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Tomblin orders review of State Museum's coal displays

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, acting as governor, has ordered a review of the West Virginia State Museum's coal displays, following complaints from the United Mine Workers union that the facility downplays the UMW's struggle for fair treatment of miners by coal operators.

Earlier this week, UMW President Cecil Roberts sent a detailed letter to state Culture and History Commissioner Randall Reid-Smith, outlining instances where the museum "inaccurately portrays" the union and its "history of oppression and struggle against the coal operators" in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Tomblin press secretary Kimberly Osborne said Friday the Division of Culture and History has been instructed to examine the union's concerns and "act accordingly to ensure our state's history is portrayed accurately."

"I appreciate Cecil Roberts and the UMWA for bringing their concerns to light, and the impact labor organizations like the UMWA have had on our state and nation in shaping today's workplace," Tomblin said in a statement issued by Osborne in response to questions from the Gazette-Mail.

Osborne did not indicate how the review would be conducted or what the timeline would be for completing it.

In the letter he sent Tuesday to Reid-Smith, Roberts said the museum displays too often link the UMW "with violence or some other unsavory activity" and don't mention the union's efforts to improve working conditions and safety practices in the mines.

"The impression a visitor with little or no knowledge of the history of the coal industry and the UMWA would take away from the museum is that the union is made up of people who, while perhaps willing to work hard, are just as willing to be prone to armed violence to settle our problems, be they internal or external," Roberts wrote.

Roberts continued, "It is said that the 'victors write history.' I would point out that the fight between coal miners, our families and our communities against those who would exploit us is far from over. We have no intention of allowing a twisted version of what life was really like for our ancestors and ourselves to be foisted on an unsuspecting public."

Roberts outlined a number of specific objections to museum displays:

  • The "Company Store" discusses the use of 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 off expensive purchases over time," Roberts wrote. "Nowhere is it mentioned 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."

  • The display "Coal Mining" includes a "misleading statement regarding Island Creek Coal and 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" blames Matewan Police Chief Sid Hatfield, whose assassination led to the 1921 miners' march, 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."
  • The state spent five years and nearly $18 million to design and build the 24,000-square-foot museum, located in the basement of the Capitol Complex's Culture Center.

    Wess Harris, a local labor historian, has complained for more than two years about inaccuracies in the coal exhibits in the museum and has helped coordinate an examination of those exhibits by a variety of Appalachian historians.

    More than a year ago, when The Associated Press did a story about Harris and his concerns, a top aide for Tomblin who was then spokeswoman for the Culture and History division, defended the museum.

    "I cannot answer you why Mr. Harris still does not think that the facts as we have presented them are correct. We continue to believe they are," said Jacqueline Proctor, who was then the agency's deputy commissioner and is now Tomblin's communications director.

    "There are positions that historians take and museum developers take regarding presentation of the facts," Proctor told the AP at the time. "We do not believe that the information needs to be changed."

    Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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