The Battle of Evarts
“The trucks are on the back road,
In the dark the headlights shine
’Cause there’s one man dead
On that Harlan County line.”
– Si Kahn, “Lawrence Jones”
May 5, 1931: The tiny motorcade slowly wound its way through the hills and hollers of Harlan County, toward the coal mining town of Evarts. It consisted of three cars with deputies in each and a truck containing the household goods of a “scab”—a non-union miner hired by the mine owners to replace a local who had been fired for his union affiliation. County law enforcement had been alerted to expect trouble from the region’s miners, and the special squad of deputies—hired guns with badges—had been dispatched to protect the truck.
In the early morning light, dozens of union miners had gathered near the Evarts railroad yard. As the column snaked through a gap below the town, a single shot rang out. Each faction later would claim the other had fired first, but the ensuing fusillade took deadly effect on both sides.
According to prosecution witnesses in the murder trials that followed, a union leader had called a meeting the night before, and—aware that the deputies would be wearing bulletproof vests—had urged a gathering of some 300 union men to aim high. “Shoot to get meat,” he purportedly said. “Shoot their goddamn heads off.”
At the first shot, the column jerked to a stop. One of the first men to leap out of the cars was Jim Daniels, chief mine guard, special deputy and one of the most hated anti-union officers in Harlan County. He immediately took cover behind an earthen mound, but when he peered over the top, a miner shot him in the head.
Reportedly, more than 1,000 shots were fired. When the guns finally stilled, three deputies and one miner lay lifeless and several others wounded. The so-called Battle of Evarts lasted only 15 minutes, but it had far-reaching ramifications. There had been violence in Harlan before, but that day, the starting guns were fired in a war that would last throughout the rest of the decade. On one side were the miners and union organizers; on the other, the coal operators, the local and state forces of law they controlled, their hired guns—“gun thugs,” as they were commonly called—and the troops of the National Guard. It was a lopsided fight, waged—in the words of one chronicler—against “unemployment, plummeting wages, short-weight … arbitrary work rules, and coal-company domination of [the miners’] economic, social, and political destiny …” More blood would be spilled on both sides, and the federal government would finally take a hand before conditions would begin to improve for Harlan County miners.
The Road to Conflict
“No one ever knew there was coal in them mountains,
Till a man from the Northeast arrived,
Wavin’ hundred-dollar bills,
said I’ll pay ya for your minerals –
But he never left Harlan alive.”
– Darrell Scott, “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”
Harlan County folk had been mining coal on a small scale since long before the Civil War. But it was only after 1911, when a dedicated coal train hauled its first load from what had always been a sparsely populated, subsistence-level farming region, that its extraction began in earnest.
Kentucky entrepreneurs, along with out-of-state industrialists and investors, bought up vast sections of the county for a song, as they targeted Harlan’s rich coal seams as a potential source of fast and steady wealth. Almost overnight, the sleepy, hardscrabble county was transformed into an industrial hive, as the 1910 population of around 10,000 tripled by 1920, and doubled again by 1930. Harlan County became the new frontier, with coal production rocketing from a mere 26,000 tons in 1910 to more than 15 million tons by the late ’20s.
The owners built company towns to house the former farmers, Southern blacks and newly arrived Eastern European immigrants who flocked to the mines. While some of the dwellings were adequate, many were nothing more than thin-walled, unheated shacks without indoor plumbing. For many, the only source of water, as one former miner noted, “comes out of the hillside where they’ve been mining, and somehow it’s all poisoned.”
Life in the company towns and camps was harsh and controlled by the operators. Miners were paid with “scrip”—paper credits that were redeemable at the company-owned store, where merchandise was sold at usurious prices. With the cost of living often exceeding the miner’s weekly wage, the concept of “owing one’s soul to the company store” represented considerably more than just a line in a popular Tennessee Ernie Ford song.
Families that for generations had lived in solitude were virtually stacked atop one another, and with the easy availability of guns and liquor, violence soared. Throughout the 1920s, Harlan had a higher homicide rate than any other county in the United States—seven times higher than that of Chicago during the heyday of Al Capone.
Harsher than the living conditions was the mining process itself. With no safety checks or regulations, miners died by the hundreds in cave-ins and explosions, suffocated in the closed seams, or simply choked slowly to death from the coal dust that caused silicosis or “black lung.” And although the work was steady—at least at first—the pay was low and dependent on the whim of the mine owners.
In the late 1920s, the coal industry suffered a slump due to overproduction, availability of alternative heating sources, and a lack of mechanization. The situation only worsened with the coming of the Great Depression. In 1931, the coal operators—subsidiaries of such megacorporations as United States Steel, International Harvester and the Ford Motor Company—radically cut their prices in an effort to stay competitive in the face of northern competition and a rapidly deteriorating economy. Labor costs constituted around 70 percent of production costs, and to make up the shortfall, the operators slashed the miners’ already-shrunken wages.
Two years earlier, miners in non-union Harlan County had earned $1,235 annually, a considerably lower wage than miners earned in the unionized states to the north. In 1931, the operators dropped it to $749. From this wage were deducted arbitrary cuts for everything from mandatory doctor’s services (even if no doctor was available) to burial costs and “mine expenses”—dynamite, fuel and tool repair. And this applied only to those miners fortunate enough to still have jobs. Due to the depressed state of production, according to coal historian John Hennen, “By late 1931, four thousand Harlan County miners, more than one in three, were out of work. Working miners made as little as eighty cents a day …”
Standing for the Union
“I stood for the Union, walked in the line,
Fought against the company.
Stood for the UMW of A,
Now who’s gonna stand for me?”
– Billy Edd Wheeler, “Coal Tattoo”
The more untenable the situation became, the greater grew the opportunity for a miner’s union to gain a foothold. The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) had already established itself in the coalfields of central Appalachia, and the Harlan County miners—with the encouragement of union organizers—began to join as well. As they would shortly learn, membership came at a bitter price.
The mine owners of eastern Kentucky had long gone to great lengths to keep any hint of a union presence from their labor force. When they discovered that the Knoxville News-Sentinel carried articles on unionism, several companies banned its distribution in their towns. And because the post offices were located inside the company stores, company employees illegally accessed the miners’ mail, destroying letters that mentioned unions or smacked of dissatisfaction. With the UMWA creating a presence in Harlan County, company policy was to immediately fire, blacklist and evict from company housing all miners who joined the union.
The miners had no recourse; the owners controlled virtually every aspect of their lives. Enforcing the operators’ political will, both within and outside the law, was the Harlan County Coal Operators Association. Established in 1916, its membership consisted of nearly all the large mining companies, and it represented the major political force in the county. In the words of historian John Hevener, “[T]he coal barons and their allies corrupted the political process” by buying votes in state and local elections, stealing or stuffing ballot boxes, and falsifying the election returns. They ensured that only those aligned with their own objectives would hold public office. Gubernatorial elections were purchased, and judges—men with such unlikely patriotic names as Davy Crockett Jones and Daniel Boone Smith—were personally “subsidized” by the coal companies. Since nearly two-thirds of the county’s residents—mostly miners and their families—lived in rented company houses and, therefore, paid no property tax, miners were ineligible to serve on juries. Not surprisingly, verdicts consistently went the way the coal companies directed.
The operators also controlled the police. The Harlan County Sheriff’s Department was the region’s most powerful law enforcement arm, and the man most feared by the miners, their families and supporters was Harlan County Sheriff John Henry Blair. Far from fairly enforcing the law, Blair hired his own squad of “special deputies”—gun thugs who doubled as armed security guards at the mines. Their appointments were approved by corrupt judges, and their salaries were paid with operator money. At one point, out of 169 deputies, 64 previously had been indicted and 27 convicted of felonies—eight for manslaughter, three for murder. Recalled miner and union organizer Tillman Cadle, “I’ve known [the operators] to have criminals pardoned out of … prisons and pin a badge on ’em to be the law. Wasn’t nothing but killers.”
Theirs was the only police presence in the company towns, and their mandate did not include fair play for the residents. To one Harlan miner’s wife, “The law is a gun thug in a big automobile.” Florence Reece, a union organizer’s wife and mother of seven children, later recalled, “They was just like Hitler’s men; that’s all it was … They said they was deputy sheriffs; they wasn’t …They was thugs, because they’d kill the men any time they wanted to.”
On the night the deputies ransacked her house looking for union material, Reece tore a page from her wall calendar and, borrowing the tune from an old folk and gospel song, penned a ballad on the back that became the anthem of the beleaguered miners: “Which Side Are You On?”
“They say in Harlan County,
There are no neutrals there.
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair.”
Blair, who made no secret of his allegiance to the owners, was later quoted as saying, “I did all in my power to aid the coal operators.” His legalized goon squad waylaid miners; fired blindly into their homes and union meetings; whipped, beat and shot out-of-state reporters; and committed outright murder.
When word of the conditions in Harlan leaked out, newspaper editors throughout the country expressed outrage. The New York Times fumed, “Harlan resembles a scene of war. Fleets of automobiles parade the community, filled with guards and deputies armed with shotguns, machine guns and tear-gas bombs. Civil Rights have been trampled on, arrests made on the flimsiest grounds and houses broken into without warrant.” Union official Philip Murray testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee that the mine owners “exact a tax from every ton of coal … to buy guns and munitions, tear-gas bombs, and put those instruments of warfare into the hands of irresponsible men, who float around the country killing and maiming people.”
Nor were men of the cloth spared. When Methodist minister William Clontz preached that God sided with the miners, sheriff’s deputies fired into his house, narrowly missing his young son’s head. It was just one of several instances in which preachers, their homes and their families were targeted.
With nowhere to turn for work and with no recourse for appeal to the law, the miners watched helplessly as their families starved. And when the owners cut wages by another 10 percent in February 1931, even those miners still employed found that their diminished pay couldn’t feed their families. Said one miner’s wife, “We live on beans and bread. We don’t get no dinner.” Other families, reduced to mixing flour and water for their meals, would have been grateful for the beans.
With malnutrition rampant in the coalfields, the miners’ children perished in increasing numbers—from 56 in 1929 to 175 over the next two years. Only the presence of the recently formed American Friends Service Committee’s child-feeding program prevented the number from soaring even higher. Recalled Reece, “The little children, they’d have little legs and a big stomach.” When a representative of the President’s Emergency Employment Commission visited Harlan in 1931, he reported that “conditions were deplorable.”
Mobs of hungry men and women broke into company stores and stole food, as isolated instances of violence erupted at the coal operations, or collieries. In February 1931, desperate Bell and Harlan county miners reasoned that they “might as well die fighting as die of starvation.” They organized a wildcat strike.
Meanwhile, the UMWA’s national president, John L. Lewis, had adopted a conciliatory policy toward management, and, while encouraging the miners to solicit members for the union, refused to support the strike. The avowed limit of the union’s involvement would be to negotiate for the miners, and to provide relief for their families. They would fail at both.
“Stand up, boys, let the bosses know!
Turn your buckets over, turn your lanterns low!
There’s fire in our hearts, and fire in our souls,
But there ain’t gonna be no fire in the hole!”
– Hazel Dickens, “Fire in the Hole”
The outbreak of violence at Evarts during the first week of May galvanized the miners. On the morning of the gunfight, some 1,800 miners were out on strike; within the week, the number had escalated, as another 4,000 miners walked off the job. By then, fewer than 1,000 Bell and Harlan county miners remained on the job.
In the wake of the Evarts fight, 370 National Guardsmen arrived in full combat gear to restore order, at the behest of Gov. Ruby Laffoon. The miners assumed that the military presence would bring respite, and 200 of them met the troops, waving the American flag. The soldiers, however, were there to support the policies of the owners, and they broke up the picket lines. “These damned miners,” proclaimed one bemused officer, “thought we came here to help them.”
Meanwhile, the governor met with union representatives and agreed to a list of terms, including barring strikebreakers, feeding and housing evicted miners and their families, and requiring that mine owners fire private guards and disarm those they kept on. He reneged on every item. Private guards were neither disarmed nor removed; in some instances, the owners assigned soldiers to oversee the work at their mines. When strikers begged the commander of the guardsmen in Harlan to request relief for their families, he replied that there were jobs for 500 miners at the Harlan and Black Mountain collieries, and “if the miners badly need food, they should work for it.”
The UMWA reps presented a reasonable and mutually beneficial plan to the operators, pledging cooperation with management and an end to its organizing campaign in exchange for reasonable concessions; the Harlan County Coal Operators Association flatly refused to negotiate. The union had shown itself to be powerless; and as the Harlan County sheriff, his “special deputies,” the local courts and the company strikebreakers combined to rain chaos upon the striking miners, things would only get worse.
Part II of “The Price of Coal: Bloody Harlan and the Coal War of the 1930s” will appear in the November issue of Kentucky Monthly.