The Appalachian Tragedy

Harlan Miners Speak National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners

Report on Terrorism in the Kentucky Coal Fields by Members of the
Reprinted by da Capo Press, 348 pp., $12.50

Coal Mining Health and Safety in West Virginia

by J. Davitt McAteer
West Virginia University Press, 689 pp., $20.00

Harlan Miners Speak, first published in the hunger-ridden November of 1931, is important for two reasons. It reminds a now affluent middle age of the horror of the Great Depression and preaches to the rebels of the Wood-stock generation a powerful sermon on this country’s capacity to punish and repress dissent. An American saga emerges from its pages.

Harlan County, Kentucky, is the geographical heart of troubled Appalachia. Its name has passed into legend for the cruelties of its overlords and the bloody and protracted struggle of its underclass to free themselves and to secure at least a tolerable standard of living. To this day newspaper references to the county generally designate it as “bloody Harlan.” Harlan Miners Speak tells us how it acquired that somber sobriquet.

There is probably no lovelier place than the Appalachian heartland, a wrinkled maze of steep, rock-capped, timbered hills. Harlan is different from the huge territory north of it because an unusual terrain feature, the Big Black Mountain, shoulders boldly across it. The Big Black, like the lesser Smokies, rises to 4,400 feet and looms in dark majesty above the hills nearby.

The Big Black is significant for more than its beauty. Three thick veins of superb metallurgical coal run through it and with the beginning of the twentieth century the hill beckoned to industrialists and their hungry furnaces and power plants.

The county—and the region around it—stumbled into tragedy by processes conventional American history has all but glorified. The territory was the home of scattered bands of Cherokees, Shawnees, and Choctaws who warred against ever-encroaching white settlers from the East. The first cabin builder was Elisha Wallins, and he and those who followed him brought the simplistic, Calvinistic, and ferocious backwoods mores and culture into the shadows of the Big Black. They cleared patches for corn, tobacco, beans, and squash, set up their whiskey stills, and preached the old-time fundamentalist religion.

The hill people saw little need for schools and built practically none. When land agents from Philadelphia and New York began buying Appalachian minerals in the late 1800s they dealt with an illiterate people who virtually gave away the riches of the Big Black and its foothills. On Jone’s Fork some tracts were “sold” for ten cents per acre. A mountaineer thought he had driven a shrewd bargain when he deeded 1,000 acres of Black Mountain land to a Mellon for $500.

There was little for the mountaineer to buy with his little hoard, but this soon changed as railroads were driven up the valleys early in the twentieth century. Half a hundred “coal camps” sprang up in Harlan alone and in each of them the company store occupied the most prominent place. Its displays of enticing wares soon separated the mountaineers from their “coal money.” When the money was gone, men and boys signed up as miners. From scores of counties in Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, Alabama, and West Virginia came thousands of other highlanders to join them, and Harlan’s mining…

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