Submitted by BonesOfTheWaywardSon t3_zeeppp in history

Hello folks. I'm an avid history buff, and I love to write. So I decided to pen an essay on one of the most interesting labor-related pieces of US history, Bloody Harlan: AKA The Harlan County War, an important part of a much larger, countrywide series of conflicts known as The Coal Wars which took place largely from 1890 to 1930. This series of skirmishes and strikes, lasting from early 1931 into 1939 and taking place in Harlan County, Kentucky, began because of the Harlan County Coal Operators' Association’s (HCCOA) decision to cut miners' wages by 10%. The miners, impoverished due to their already low pay (this coming in the form of company scrip, room, and board), decided enough was enough, and some of them began to join with the United Mine Workers of America, in an attempt to unionize. The company took issue with the unionizing of its workers and began firing any known members of the union and evicting them from their company-owned homes. Not long after the company began firing union members, miners began to go on strike in droves.

At the height of the first strike, over 5,800 miners were on strike, with only about 900 strikebreakers, also known as Scabs, working the mines. During this period, the strikebreakers were under protection by “mine guards”, deputized private guards working under Sheriff John Henry Blair, an arguably corrupt, inarguably nasty man whose allegiance lay with the company. Minor skirmishes, in which striking workers and law enforcement officers exchanged shots, were a regular occurrence. The bloodiest of these conflicts by far was The Battle of Evarts. On the morning of May 5th, 1931, striking miners lay in wait near the Evarts railroad, ready to ambush the motorcade that was carrying goods to the strikebreakers working the mines. The motorcade was made up of three cars, with a sheriff's deputy in each. As the motorcade approached the concealed strikers, a single shot rang out. As with many of these types of conflicts, both sides blamed the other for firing first. What followed was pure chaos. Approximately 1,000 shots were fired, and the three deputies were killed along with a single striker. This incident caused strikes to become larger and more common in the Harlan County area. After The Battle of Evarts, the Kentucky National Guard was called in. The strikers thought they had come to protect them, but instead, they had come to replace the deputized guards and protect the strikebreakers and break the pickets.

On May 24th, the KNG tear-gassed a large union rally, and Sheriff J. H. Blair rescinded the constitutional right to assemble in Harlan County. The strikes in Harlan County lasted about a month and a half after the battle, with the majority of workers back to the mines on June 17th and union membership dropped significantly, due to the Coal Companies refusing to offer concessions and the Red Cross offering no aid to the starving strikers on the grounds of neutrality. Eight of the strikers were found guilty of conspiracy to murder due to the action on May 5th, and all eight received life sentences.

A few organizations made a play for Harlan County, including the openly communist National Miners’ Union. The NMU was a small success, opening soup kitchens around the county and convincing some of the miners to join up, but the majority were disillusioned with workers' unions by that point. The NMU organized strikes and pickets in multiple counties throughout Kentucky, and while some were minor successes, their attempts in Harlan County were utter failures. The final straw was when some labor organizers, most being clergy members, learned of the NMU’s leaders' animosity towards religion, and denounced the organization. In the wake of this, the organizer of the Young Communist League, Harry Sims, was killed in Harlan County. Due to the clergymen's denouncement of the NMU, already dwindling membership became near nonexistent which forced them to close their soup kitchens due to lack of funding, and the Red Cross stepped in to feed and assist the miners that had been blacklisted from working the mines due to previous or current union membership.

On June 16th, 1933, the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) came into effect, which, among other things, outlawed workplace discrimination based on union membership. After this, over half of Harlan County’s coal mines (the ones owned by the HCCOA) were operated as “open shops” (a place of work that allows union membership but does not require it) from October 27th, 1933 to March 31st, 1935. Despite headway by the unions, the battle for Harlan County between labor and capital continued in earnest. Sheriff Blair was voted out of office in 1933 and died in 1934, replaced by T. R. Middleton, a candidate who ran on a pro-union platform. The Kentucky National Guard was once again called in on December 8, 1934, requested by UMW organizers who had been threatened by bosses and deputies. The troops promptly escorted the union men to the county line. As national political support for the NIRA dwindled, capital gained the upper hand, and when the United States Supreme Court struck down the legislation's pro-union National Recovery Administration portion, shops with union presence in Harlan dwindled from eighteen to one.

The NIRA was not very effective in Harlan County, whereas the Wagner Act of 1935 was very effective in terms of hindering the operations of the county's mine operators. The new law outlawed several tactics used by coal companies, including yellow-dog contracts, company unions, and discrimination based on union activity. While coal companies across the nation responded positively to the legislation in 1935, Harlan remained resistant to federal involvement. On July 7, a group of deputies became angry at a public celebration of the Wagner Act and began beating several miners.

1935 was a turbulent year even for Harlan; troops were deployed three times to maintain order in the county. On September 29, troops were dispatched to the Harlan County War for the first time. The governor referred to the beatings and harassment of the miners at the hands of the mine guards as "the worst reign of terror in the history of the county" was made. He stood up for and protected the miners despite the fact that a bomb had killed Harlan County Attorney Elmon Middleton several weeks earlier.

This formative, tumultuous period of our history, colloquially known as the Coal Wars, lasted from 1890 well into the 1930s, officially coming to an end in Harlan County in 1939. This long, bloody series of strikes and conflicts helped to show the importance of workers’ unions, labor laws, and fair treatment in the workplace. Thank y'all for reading and I hope you enjoyed!!


Bloody Harlan, Paul F. Taylor

They Say In Harlan County, Alessandro Portelli

Which Side Are You On?: The Harlan County Coal Miners, 1931-39, John W. Hevener

Harlan County War, Wikipedia

Remembering Bloody Harlan, Parallel Narratives

A Brief History of Harlan County, USA, Cal Winslow



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Troll_For_Truth t1_iz61udx wrote

I grew up in harlan. My grandfathers worked those mines in the early 1900s from seven years old. It was not a happy time. My parents were born in the coal camps in the 40s. Further, the strikes in the 70s, shown in the movie harlan county usa, have people in it who remember the war. Excellent topic to research, write an essay, and bring again to the forefront. Bloody Harlan should never be forgotten. Harlan always had rebels. Courthouse was burned down around seven times.


honeyintherock t1_iz6qi9e wrote

My family is from Harlan, too! A few relatives still live there. It's wild to me that an area dotted with such very small towns has such a very rich and intense history!

The oral history OP referenced is absolutely, overwhelmingly fascinating, if you've not read it I highly recommend it! I don't know what drew that Italian man to compile such a thing, but it's a good thing he did.


informativebitching t1_iz70b9m wrote

My dad was born there too in the 40’s. Around 49 my grandfather moved the family to quiet valley near Abington while he stayed behind to work. Coal is all he knew. He was a mean mf. I always suspected he moved them out of there to stay clear of the danger.


Troll_For_Truth t1_iz70qd8 wrote

Chevrolet coal camp for us. Do you know which was for him?


informativebitching t1_iz73urz wrote

My feeling was granddad moved camps a lot from fighting so much but I’m not 100% sure. We do have a photo from Black Wolf WV when my dad was about 1 year old. I only have one living uncle who could answer this stuff so I better get to asking.


Troll_For_Truth t1_iz742bd wrote

Before it is lost yeah. Ive been doing the same. Talking to my dad a lot and recording it. He doesnt have much time left.


Hammer_of_Light t1_iz7rta9 wrote

My family's from Harlan, founded one of the towns there. From the Civil War until about the '80s, most males on the family tree spent time as an outlaw.

The James Gang used to stay at my grandma's farm after they moved to Missouri, and at her house in Texas after they moved.

Two of my distant Confederate cousins murdered another cousin when he came home because he had served as a recruiter for the Union.

I'm not from there (visited once), but I've always gotten the feeling that the men from that time and place were men of action.


theta_d t1_iz7na4s wrote

My mom is from Harlan. Spent about a month each year of my childhood there visiting all her family.


AmcillaSB t1_iz8f17c wrote

This is wild. I wonder how many of us posting here might be related, or at the least, had ancestors who knew each other.

My family surnames from that area are Bryant, Bird, Baute, and Alred. I know several were coal miners and lived in both Evarts and Red Ash (75 miles away.)

My 2nd Great Grandfather Baute was the manager for a railroad, but also liked his alcohol a bit too much. They told him he needed to choose between drinking and his job. He chose the booze. After that, he worked in the coal mines. He'd bring his children with him to work, as their eyes were better at seeing in the dark. He became a widower in 1906 with 12 children to take care of. I can't imagine how hard that must have been.

None of what happened in this essay got passed down to me -- I need to speak to my mom and aunts and uncles about it -- maybe they're aware of some family stories.


sd51223 t1_izd30tc wrote

One of the coolest moments in Harlan County USA is the original creator of Which Side Are You On from the Harlan County War (Florence Reece) singing it in support of the 70s strike.


Troll_For_Truth t1_izgi68j wrote

Yessir. Another cool moment for me at least is "hey theres my cousin!" :)


SpottedSharks2022 t1_iz6fp3x wrote

The TV series Justified is set in Harlan County and has many references to those violent times.


ftbc t1_iz99d7c wrote

Well now I know what I'm rewatching next. Such a great show.


ihavewaytoomanyminis t1_iz6m323 wrote

There's history of the Coal Wars in Virginia and West Virginia. In Virginia, the Coal Wars are not covered in the standard public school curriculum, but it is covered in West Virginia. This is because of the Unions in West Virginia.


ety3rd t1_iz6g3lu wrote

A great read, thank you. It's sad to know this wasn't the end of such strife there, as noted in the 1976 documentary film Harlan County USA. (Plus, modern Harlan often served as the backdrop in the great TV series Justified.)


_Harlan_ t1_iz6qyl6 wrote

Most people make a comment on the uniqueness of my name when I introduce myself. I am not from Kentucky but I've visited Harlan. Thanks for this, I enjoyed learning some history


Machiavelli_Nicky t1_iz6vvhw wrote

There’s a book that recently came out called Blood Runs Coal that’s about the coal miner strikes and violence that occurred in the late 60’s and 70’s that you might be interested in!


Ranger176 t1_iz780v2 wrote

Excellent essay, with particular praise on how you explained why socialism never took hold in Harlan. I often wondered why international socialism never made more of a splash in America.


cynzthin t1_iz7gfnw wrote

In the mid-80s, I visited my former roommate and her husband in Harlan. I was wearing a Union windbreaker (my mom was a union organizer). We got out of their truck downtown and her husband finally noticed and pushed me against the truck until he could cover my jacket with another. “Someone will shoot you.” Never forgotten it. He was genuinely terrified


BrotherM t1_iz8f5zq wrote

"Which side are you on, Boys?" is one of the best Labour songs ever.


hteultaimte69 t1_iz6x4ze wrote

I’ve got family from Harlan. It really is as bad as the songs make it out to be.


Troll_For_Truth t1_iz6yvzq wrote

Once the mines closing and the rerouting if the river were done, there wasnt much left, and it descended into what it is today. It needs a renaissance


vorschact t1_iz8183p wrote

Mr. Peabody's Coal Company hauled it away.


Madame_Kitsune98 t1_iz8hab2 wrote

That’s closer to where I’m from. Paradise is Muhlenberg County, next door to me in Hopkins County.

My people came to Western Kentucky by way of North Carolina, East Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Eastern Kentucky. I reckon I have family who mined coal around Harlan.

Hell, my great-granddad mined for gold in the Yukon, and when my granny was born, they were living in Bisbee, Arizona, because he was mining copper.


The_Observatory_ t1_iz9scip wrote

And speaking of mining and labor wars, Bisbee is famous for the 1917 Bisbee Deportation, where the Phelps Dodge mining company, in collusion with the Cochise County (AZ) sheriff, sent a posse to round up 1,300 striking mine workers, stick them on rail cars, and send them to a tiny, remote area in New Mexico called Tres Hermanas. Bisbee is also famous for the Warren Ballpark, one of the oldest surviving baseball stadiums in the country.


Madame_Kitsune98 t1_iza5f8c wrote

I would think they were there in 1917, Granny was born in May of 1918.

I had no idea. That’s something I need to read more about. Thank you!


The_Observatory_ t1_iza74xn wrote

You're welcome! I used to live in Arizona (I'm in East Tennessee now), and when my wife and I visited Bisbee we learned about the deportation. Apparently, when the posse rounded up the striking mine workers, they were held on the baseball field at Warren Ballpark until they were railroaded out of the state. I need to go back and read about where they all went after they were dumped off in rural New Mexico. I wonder how many went back to Arizona, and how many said "forget it" and went somewhere else.


SergIsCynical t1_iza1rhs wrote

There’s not a whole lot you can do with a town like Harlan, factories don’t want to come because it’s secluded and businesses don’t want to open there because any business there that isn’t Walmart, a fast food place, or a grocery store is already failing because of the impoverished residents and dwindling population.


Troll_For_Truth t1_iza9azi wrote

Spot on. I always thought if I ever won the big lottery like that big 1 billion one id build something there. A start. Wouldnt fix anything, but a start. There was once talk of a textile (sock) factory, a few other smaller ones since, but nothing came of it. I always shouted about tourism but that didnt go anywhere either. Lots of rugged wilderness, trails, even kingdom come park nearby. Hell the AT isnt too terribly far. Probably too far but still. Place needs a refocus and advertising. Its hard to see my old neighborhood gone on google earth. Our house is still there but isnt in the best shape. Im never going to be gone because practically an entire side of resthaven is family. Always going back.


caesar15 t1_iz8ia0j wrote

The coal mines had done so much bad for the place (and the earth), and yet they depended on them. Ironic.


Troll_For_Truth t1_iz9md4u wrote

Funny how that works isnt it. Same said for oil.


caesar15 t1_izcfhyd wrote

Indeed. The world will be better with it gone, but that doesn't mean everybody wins.


clarkss12 t1_iz6t1j7 wrote

Just to add to this fascinating topic, Lynch Ky, was created by the coal companies.


Troll_For_Truth t1_iz6yq2b wrote

Almost all the towns were. Benham, lynch, evarts, brookside, eac of those hollers had a coal tipple in it when I was a kid


2kidzandadog t1_iz7nv9a wrote

My family is from Harlan! My grandfather and some of my uncles worked in the mines there. My dad joined the navy to keep from going the same route. Thanks for this history!


nedusmustafus t1_iz7f2b3 wrote

Bravo on this fantastic post! I'm from that region and descended from multiple generations of coal miners.


depotboy t1_iz73nhy wrote

Where is this Harlan County?


princessParking t1_iz7ipar wrote

In the deep, dark hills of eastern Kentucky.


togoburrows t1_iz8197h wrote

That's the place where I trace my bloodline


SineLinguist t1_iz8a1wq wrote

It was there I read on a hillside gravestone,

"You'll never leave Harlan alive."


vorschact t1_iz81gt0 wrote

Thats the place where I trace my bloodline!


chrism254 t1_iz8lfyi wrote

There’s a really great show called Justified that takes place there


[deleted] t1_iz7jhf9 wrote



BonesOfTheWaywardSon OP t1_iz7jq3c wrote

I didn't even realize I never mentioned it was in Kentucky! Just updated it to say Harlan County Kentucky in the first paragraph. Thanks for pointing that out


MsEscapist t1_iz86y8w wrote

So you mention that the workers became disillusioned with the Unions and they lost support and membership, but a pro-labor governor was elected and the Wagner act was both passed and enforced effectively. How did this happen? Was it because of broader public sympathy for the plight of the workers or did they push for political and legal intervention effectively in mass even without the Union organization? Or were there underground unions so to speak?


Realistic-Narwhal645 t1_iz96cb8 wrote

You should check out coal wars in cabin creek and paint creek WV


atomickarp t1_iz9pbum wrote

Daryl Cooper from Martyrmade podcast is doing an excellent series on this subject


Indotex t1_iza76tn wrote

Just an FYI, I’m sharing this on the r/justified page.


isthisonetaken13 t1_iz8zlbz wrote

Can you (OP or anyone else with the answer) shed some light on why the Coal Wars ended in 1939?


beartrapper25 t1_iz9ja54 wrote

if you haven't already this would be a good read for r/union