Hell in Harlan
Today’s entry is written by David Olson, an archives assistant at the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. He is currently a graduate student in NYU’s Archives and Public History Program and at the Palmer School of Library and Information Science.
On May 5, 1931, months of deteriorating relations led to the Battle of Evarts, a brief armed confrontation between striking coal miners and a convoy of company guards transporting the effects of a nonunion miner. The ensuing violence left three company guards and one miner dead.
The preceding months in the region had been marked by turmoil. Miners had been laid off for attending United Mine Workers meeting. Because company towns were prevalent in the region, many had also been evicted from their homes and forced to settle in the independent jurisdiction of Evarts. Hunger, desperation, and intrigue caused a strike over wages to escalate into a tense standoff. Both sides were heavily armed and unwilling to back down. The degree to which outside radicals were involved in Harlan before the violence of 1931 has been debated, but the allegation of Communist and IWW agitation was used by company and county officials to justify heavy-handed tactics. The Battle of Evarts lasted less than an hour, but it would be a defining episode for the parties involved for years to come.
The aftermath of the battle led to a wider strike and occupation by the National Guard. Ultimately the coal companies refused to back down, and governor-brokered negotiations saw the United Mine Workers caving. The Red Cross refused to give aid, due to a policy of remaining neutral in labor disputes. Facing starvation and unresponsive negotiation-partners, miners eventually returned to work.
The Tamiment Library is a rich source of information regarding the labor situation in Harlan County, the violence of May 5, and the Left’s response in the aftermath. Tamiment’s archives hold the records of the Kentucky Miners Defense, which was formed to support the miners charged with the incident, including union leaders W.B. Jones and William Hightower. Ultimately, despite the group’s effort, eight miners were given life sentences for conspiracy to murder. Herbert Mahler, formerly of the IWW, led this organization, and the collection includes transcripts, pleadings, and news releases. Visual records of the defendants and conditions in Harlan County can be found in the accompanying photographs collection.
The library also holds a number of books on the strike and living and working conditions for miners. These materials document the recollections of individuals involved in the conflict and provide scholarly analysis of the still-controversial events that May morning.