On a hot summer day in 1921 Clyde Herbert Eastham kissed his young wife and children goodbye and marched out the door of his cramped coal camp cabin to join thousands of other West Virginia miners in a strike that had the attention of the entire country. All day the men walked, bound together by a common cause. “Every drop of blood and every dollar of the union will be spent in the attempt to lift martial law in Mingo County”, swore Frank Keeney, district president of United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).1 The rag-tag miners’ army swelled to as many as 15,000 men as they marched on, spread eight miles along Lens Creek, ready to march through Logan to Mingo County and avenge the death of Sid Hatfield.2
In earlier generations, those “majestic and grand” West Virginia hills had been ravished by robber barons clearing the virgin forests.3 When the trees were gone, the rights to the minerals under those same hills was given away, or stolen, and the quest for coal to power the nation’s surging industrialization began in earnest. This generation, these men, were not going to stand by this time. They were not going to watch outsiders steal their birthright and rob them of their civil rights. They had been controlled by wealthy coal operators all their lives. They worked on their knees and on their backs in wet dark tunnels deep under the ground, unable to breathe, covered in coal dust, alone, breaking the black gold out of the rocks, waiting for the explosions and cave-ins to kill or cripple them. They lived in company houses in company towns; were paid in company scrip to be used at the company store and were buried in company cemeteries. Even the tools they used in the mines were owned by the coal companies who deducted rental fees from the miners’ pay. They were forced to watch as the families of dead and injured miners were evicted from their homes, with no money and no place to go. And they died choking on coal dust, of black lung.4
Clyde Eastham fathered sixteen children in those coal camp houses.5 His leg was crushed in one mine accident; he had a limp for the rest of his life. In the 1930s his children remember the shriek of the siren announcing another accident in the mines at Fort Branch. He had a badly broken arm when they brought him up out of the mine that time. His back was broken in a cave-in and he spent a year in bed in a body cast, unable to work and support his family. All that year, in the evenings after the chores were done, his wife Mary would read the Zane Grey stories he loved, to take his mind off the pain. This tall, gaunt, quiet miner passed his love of reading on to all of his children.6
Clyde was a proud man whose ancestors had settled in Virginia. They helped found this country; an Eastham signed the Stamp Act protest in Virginia on October 21, 1765.12 Clyde had an ancestor at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse and another fought alongside Daniel Boone at the Battle of Blue Licks.13 Now it was his time to fight for what he believed in.
In the first two decades of the twentieth century, West Virginia coal miners made several attempts to unionize the mines. They were fired from their jobs, put in jail, and thrown out of their homes by armed thugs on the payroll of mining companies.14 Since the early 1900s, when miners struck the mines around Charleston, the state capitol, they had to sign “yaller dog” contracts, swearing that they would not join the union or associate with anyone even thought to be a union member or representative. The penalty for breaking the contract was losing their jobs, their homes, and sometime their lives.
In some areas, union miners and their families were forced to live in tent cities under the most primitive of conditions. Verna Justice, Clyde's second wife and mother of his two youngest sons lived in one of those tent communities in Mingo County, near Matewan, where the residents lived in constant fear for their lives. Mine operators sent bands of thugs to harass the miners and their families day and night. They never knew when armed men would show up, firing guns all around them, even shooting into the tents.15
Neill Burkshaw, an attorney for the union, giving testimony before a Senate Investigating Committee, described the fate of union miners this way. “These people were driven like cattle from their homes, and their goods were thrown out into the roads. … I was down there last November and saw barefoot children, women with a single garment, and men barefooted with nothing but overalls living in the cold. … They suffered tortures that I have never seen before in this or any country.”16
See the "Do you Love the Mountains" page for information about the status of Blair Mountain today.
17. Robert Shogan, The Battle of Blair Mountain The Story of America’s Largest Labor Uprising (Boulder, Colorado; Westview Press, 2004), 190.
24. Robert Shogun, The Battle Of Blair Mountain, 177.
25. Letter from Velma Eastham McClung and Thelma Eastham Corley, Cleveland Ohio. January 2007. Letter in possession of Judith Scott, Portland OR as of March, 2007.
26. The UMWA says there are no existing records on individuals involved with the union, so there is no way we know of to confirm this.
27. Letter from Velma Eastham McClung & Thelma Eastham Corley.
28. Letter from Velma Eastham McClung & Thelma Eastham Corley.
29. Register of Deaths Raleigh County, 1965, p 66, line 41, Clyde Herbert Eastham; digital image, West Virginia Division of Culture & History (http://www.wvculture.org/vrr/ : accessed 2009).