The "Bloody Harlan" Years in Kentucky
and Their Historical Context
By Jennifer Peters

      In 1750, a man named Christopher Gist, a guide for George Washington, noticed Kentucky had an abundance of coal that could easily be taken out of the hills. Fifty years later, farmers began to dig and send this coal downstream on barges to add to their income. By 1840 a more extensive river traffic had developed and the real development of the region's coal fields slowly began. mining camps began to spring up, By the late nineteenth century railroads began to creep into the eastern Kentucky hills and in the state's mountainous region (Day 290-291).

      In 1911, Harlan County, Kentucky, changed drastically. A railroad came through the town and soon after, primitive roads that originally followed waterways and stream beds branched out through the hillsides. Power lines were run through, mountaineers moved in from their subsistence farms to make big money in the emerging coal mines, and blacks and foreign immigrants of an foreign immigrants of  an astonishing variety arrived to provide their labor as well (Day 291).

     In 1915 World War 1 sent coal prices skyward and the market boomed. Everyone who had even a little money bought stock in coal companies. Banks were happily loaning money on coal land, and every poor man went to work in a mine. Coal boomed in Harlan from 1915 to 1918, dropped
in 1919, and rose again drastically in 1920 (because of a shortage in Europe). Because of this increase in demand, the prices skyrocketed again and miners were making as much as $500 a month. They started buying everything they could, using up saving accounts, and spending money like it would always be there, which is what they believed (Day 292)

     A significant problem, though, was that when the price  of coal was high it attracted capital and labor to the eastern Kentucky fields, but when it dropped production didn't slow down with it although employment levels often did. There were four reasons for this: mines deteriorate if they are not in use; machinery was in the mines, increasing their output and decreasing the need for human labor; the  coal market is less flexible than other markets; and the miners were reluctant to leave because they remembered when things were better (Day 294).

     Soon newly unemployed miners were joining unions such as the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and then the National Miners Union (the NMU, a Communist Party-backed organization). However, as soon as miners joined unions of any kind they were blacklisted (that is, put on a list of unemployable miners), cut off at company commissaries, and evicted from their company homes. They felt helpless because they were not making enough money to feed their families and there was no one to provide aid to them (Day 295).

     A major breaking point came on May 5, 1931, in Harlan County. Carloads of heavily armed deputies and other company men drove down the road from Black Mountain to Evarts (a small community 5 or 8 miles from Harlan). Along the roadside were many disgruntled miners who were also armed. No one knows who fired the first shot but when it was over two deputies, a commissary clerk, and one miner were dead, and many who were involved had been hit. The next day troops rode into Harlan and Governor Flem Sampson made a speech saying that the Communists from outside of Kentucky, men who did not belong in Kentucky, were at the root of this disorder. However, a few days later a National Guard Commandant reported that there was "no trace of Communist workers" in the eastern Kentucky coal fields (Day295-296).

     "Aunt" Molly Jackson, Sherwood Anderson  Evarts soon became a rallying ground for the unemployed and blacklisted miners. The population in the town grew from 1,800 to 5,000 in just a month, but everyone was poor and hungry. In addition, six months after the Battle of Evarts, the "National Committee In Defense of Political Prisoners" (NCDPP) came to investigate the "reign of terror" in Harlan and Bell Counties. The group was headed by a prominent American fiction writer
named Theodore Dreiser and also included other well known American authors such as Sherwood
Anderson and John Dos Passos. The committee inspected conditions in the coalfields and found them worse than they had expected,but there was nothing they could do. As the investigation went on, though, the operators and their supporters turned hostile towards the NCDPP. They framed
Dreiser on a morals charge, but he left the state before the warrant was served so as to avoid
negative publicity that would hurt the miners' cause.He was also indicted for criminal syndicalism, which is a legal term used to describe an individual or group's use of violence or terrorism, or their
advocacy of, as a means of bringing about economic or political change (Day 297-298).

    By January 1, 1932, the NMU called a general strike in the Harlan-Bell field.A week later 1,500 miners marched in the streets of Pineville in Bell County protesting the arrest of six women and three men for "strike activities." In actuality, these men and women had just been making speeches. The Union then organized a meeting for January 16th at Harlan. Sheriff J.H. Blair (later made infamous in Florence Reece's labor song "Which Side Are You On?") and Mayor L.O. Smith swore the meeting wouldn't be held. The meeting was not held. The Sheriff said happily, "The Red revolt in Harlan County has been crushed!" (Day 298-299).

     A man named Ruby Laffoon took over as governor of Kentucky soon after Dreiser left and the miners made eleven requests to him. They asked that unemployed workers receive ten dollars a week and three for each dependent; that unemployment insurance be equal to the average wage;
that all imprisoned miners and strike leaders be immediately released; that no striking or blacklisted miners be evicted; that Laffoon withdraw all armed forces from the coal fields; that he abolish all existing injunctions; that he give miners the unrestricted right to organize, picket mines, and hold meetings; that there be no discrimination against black miners; that no foreign born workers or organizers be deported; that he repeal the criminal syndicalism law; and lastly they asked for free luncheons, clothing, and medical care for unemployed miners' children. Sadly, Governor Laffoon
never did any of this
(Day 299-300).

     To make the situation worse, the trials of 44 men indicted in the Battle of Evarts were going on at the same time. The NMU tried again to hold a meeting and Alan Taub, a highly respected lawyer for the NMU, was coming to speak. However, deputies, police, and 100 special officers blocked his way into town and told him to get out. Two weeks later he came back with help and three truckloads of supplies for the miners. This time he was met at the courthouse with warrants for "disorderly conduct." Taub and one of his men were then escorted to the state line and told to get out and stay
out. They were also beaten; two days later they asked for a congressional investigation of conditions in the eastern Kentucky coalfields (Day300-302).

     However, not until three years later did Governor Laffon finally admit that: there exists a virtual reign of terror, 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….We found a monsterlike reign of oppression whose tentacles reached into the very foundation of the social structure and even into the Church of god… There is no doubt that Theodore Middleton, [new] Sheriff of Harlan County, is in league with the operators. The proof shows that the homes of union miners and organizers were dynamited and fired into, that the United States flag was defiled in the presence of and with the consent of peace officers who were sworn to uphold the principles for which it stands…. It appears that the principal cause of existing conditions….is the desire of
the mine operators to amass for themselves fortunes through the oppression of their laborers,
which they do through the sheriff's office. (Day303-304)

     Sadly, Harlan County's troubles never ceased through most of the 1930s, still known throughout the region as the "Bloody Harlan" years, but lessened a little in the late part of the decade after the operators and miners agreed to a contract mandated by the Roosevelt administration's National Industrial Recovery Act. But unfortunately the contract expired two years later and the fight came back in full. By 1941 there was still no peace in Harlan. Many would say there still is no peace in Harlan County and never will be as long as a single ton of recoverable coal remains underneath
the surface of this eastern Kentucky homeland.

Works Cited
Day, John. Bloody Ground. University Press of Kentucky,
Lexington, KY, 1981.
Excellent Reading Elva Nolan Morgan