Remembering Bloody Harlan

War Labor Board anthracite hearing. John L. Le...

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which side are you on?

In the 1920s miners were joining unions in increasing numbers– for the most part they joined the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) led by John L. Lewis at the time. In most places as soon as miners joined they were blacklisted by mine operators and evicted from their company homes. That is what happened in eastern Kentucky in 1931 when mine operators locked out workers for voting to unionize. Locked out and evicted miners were not making money to feed their families and there was no one to provide aid to them. There were no state or federal safety nets back then.

On May 5, 1931 the pot boiled over; in Harlan County Kentucky, heavily armed deputies and company men, called “gun thugs” by miners, confronted disgruntled union men on a road near Evarts. The coal miners, lean and tough from Kentucky mountain life, knew how to fight back. No one knows who fired the first shot but when it was over four were dead—three deputies and one miner– with several more wounded. The next day soldiers entered Harlan to end the violence. The troops quickly joined forces with local rulers and commenced strikebreaking activities. By June the strike was over; union leaders were banished from the mines and 44 men stood trial.

Public out-cry when events became known nationally led a group of authors, including Theodore Dreiser and John Dos Passos, to visit the area to report on conditions. Under pressure the Governor later admitted:

“there exists a virtual reign of terror (in Harlan County), financed in general by a group of coal mine operators in collusion with certain public officials: the victims of this reign of terror are the coal miners and their families… a monster-like reign of oppression whose tentacles reached into the very foundation of the social structure and even into the Church of god… the homes of union miners and organizers were dynamited and fired into… It appears that the principal cause of existing conditions is the desire of the mine owners to amass for themselves fortunes through the oppression of their laborers, which they do through the sheriff’s office.”

Sadly, Harlan County’s troubles persisted through most of the 1930s, still known throughout the region as the “Bloody Harlan” years. In fact Harlan’s Depression-era struggle turned out to be one of the most bitter and protracted labor disputes in American history. The decade-long conflict between miners and the coal operators who adamantly resisted unionization was violent– miners (13) and gun thugs lost their lives.

The Harlan County class war provided the inspiration for Florence Reece‘s “Which Side Are You On?” In it she captured the spirit of her times with blunt eloquence:

Come all you good workers, Good news to you I’ll tell Of how the good old union Has come in here to dwell.

CHORUS: Which side are you on? Which side are you on? Which side are you on? Which side are you on?

My dady was a miner, And I’m a miner’s son, And I’ll stick with the union ‘Til every battle’s won.

They say in Harlan County There are no neutrals there. You’ll either be a union man Or a thug for J. H. Blair.

Oh workers can you stand it? Oh tell me how you can? Will you be a lousy scab Or will you be a man?

Don’t scab for the bosses, Don’t listen to their lies. Us poor folks haven’t got a chance Unless we organize.

As long as a single ton of recoverable coal remains underneath the surface of eastern Kentucky men and their families will likely be exploited to mine it.

Note: in 1973-74 another long bitter strike transpired at Harlan’s Brookside mine when the Duke Power Company refused to sign a UMWA contract. The strike, which is documented in the award winning movie “Harlan County USA“, also led to bloodshed. The documentary is excellent.

Click here For More on Harlan’s labor struggles

Works Cited

Day, John. Bloody Ground. Lexington, KY, 1981.

Edith Fowke and Joe Glazer. Songs of Work and Protest. New York, NY, 1973.

Filippelli, Ronald, ed. Labor Conflict in the USA: an Encyclopedia. New York, NY, 1990

25 responses to “Remembering Bloody Harlan

  1. Pingback: Remembering Bloody Harlan County | The Offbeat Archive

  2. Bloody Harlan Coal Miners Son

    My dad and his family lived and fought for the UMW in the 1920’s and 1930’s. I grew up hearing these stories. It made them strong. They left their memories of what will happen without organized labor in the hearts and minds of their legacies.

    We must not be lulled into false security ever again.

    • I’m proud to say that I am a second generation miner. I was at the Labor rally in 1974 in Harlen County with Local 7455 to show are support for our brother miners. We met at a drive in theater and marched thru down town Harlen and somehow I ended up being in the documentary Harlen County USA. I’m marching to the left of the guy on crutches. I was 20 years old and I retired from mining last year.

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  5. Karen A. Castevens

    I’m so proud of the miners. I don’t know anyone connected with this story but they are the hardest workers I know. They definitely stand tall.

  6. Rachel Garrett

    My dad worked at the Three Point mines in the 1930’s

  7. I have a chrome 45 revolver that was supposedly ordered by the sheriff during this period. I was told there were 4 revolvers special ordered. It has the barrel cut down with a rifle sight, cut away trigger guard so you can get the trigger easier. It has pearl handles. It is a custom made 45 on the old 45 DA frame. I need more information on this pistol.

  8. My grandfather, Henry Madison Wilson, was a miner, , Harlan County, killed in a cave-in and was listed on his death certificate “blunt force trauma to the head”. How’s that for liars? My grandmother, Claudia, and 6 children were forced out by the company store with NOTHING. Moved to California and overcame injustice.

  9. joanne thompson skidmore

    I married into the Blair family (Sheriff J.H. Blair’s son was my ex-husband’s grandfather). One of my darker moments in life.

    • My great grandfather was married to Eliza Skidmore and I have stayed at the log hotel there on Skidmore drive when I went with my father to see Harlan County

  10. I married into the Blair family (Sheriff J.H. Blair’s son was my ex-husband’s grandfather). One of my darker moments in life.

  11. I was born at pine mt. my dad,Arthur Smith was a miner and my grandfather Pearl Cornett was a miner,we lived in Everts for a while.

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  13. My dad, Bert Boggs was with the union miners. He left Harlan in the late 1930,s. Rumors got out that the company had a contract out on him. My brother is named John Lewis Boggs after the late labor leader John L Lewis.

  14. My dad tom irvin from totz ky. Was a coal miner also.that was hard work.

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  16. My great grandfather, Will R. Hamlin, was said to have died in Harlan, KY in 1938. Supposedly a hit and run accident as he walked alongside the road. Anyone have any info, obit, newspaper article on this event? Thank you.

  17. My grandp, Joe Nantz worked for a coal mine and lived in Harlan in Harlan County. He lost part of his sight after a mine explosion and died of heart disease and Black Lung disease in the early 1960’s. I wish I’d had a chance to know him and ask him about those times. I’m sure it must have been terrifying.

    Sue Nantz Grace
    Phoenix, AZ

  18. Don McGlamery

    My family is from Harlan. My uncle Minner Turner was shot in the 70s coal strikes. My dad would tell us story’s of bloody Harlan. My great grandpa died in the mines. Loved going there as a child.

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  20. Joe DeFilippo

    Tribute to Florence and the Harlan County miners

  21. My mom’s grandparents ran a boarding house in Evarts for the miners, and I understand many worked for the White Star mining company in the 1920s. The family name was Cole, and I grew up hearing many stories about that area, as well as stories about the Hensleys in Wallins Creek. I love learning more about these dear people, and the communities they lived in.

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