Quakers and Bloody Harlan

Posted by | April 4, 2016

guy aiken headshotPlease welcome guest author Guy Aiken. Aiken is a PhD Candidate in American Religions at the University of Virginia. He is writing a dissertation on a Quaker humanitarian group, the American Friends Service Committee, that fed millions of children in Germany (among other countries) after the Great War, and tens of thousands of children in Appalachia during the Great Depression. He presented a version of this post as a paper at the recent Appalachian Studies Association Conference at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.


Late one summer night in 1931, Florence Reece, songwriter and wife of a Harlan County coal miner, watched in terror as mine-guard deputies ransacked her home looking for radical labor literature they believed her husband was harboring. The deputies might have intended to kill her husband that night, but he had been tipped off and wasn’t home when the deputies showed up. After the men left, Mrs. Reece tore a page off her kitchen calendar and wrote a song. One of verses goes like this:

If you go to Harlan County
There is no neutral there.
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J. H. Blair.

Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

—Florence Reece, “Which Side Are You On?”

Well, the Quakers of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) put Reece’s thesis to the test, feeding Harlan County’s most desperately hungry children over three years between fall 1931 and spring 1934. The AFSC workers believed in a divine unity above all conflict—the unity of the Holy Spirit as experienced in the Quaker “sense of the meeting,” a near-unanimity by which the local body of Quakers makes all of its corporate decisions.

All people, whether strikers or operators, women or children, bore the light of Christ within and were therefore spiritually one. Industrial warfare, like the military variety, violated this sacred unity. The practical antidote to conflict of any kind, the AFSC believed, was absolute neutrality. The AFSC’s carefully cultivated and protected neutrality won it the trust of Harlan’s coal operators and elected officials.

President Herbert Hoover, a Quaker himself, asked the AFSC in May 1931 to feed the children of striking and unemployed or underemployed miners in Appalachia. The AFSC had already proposed by the end of the month that “a few most difficult points be picked out first to begin and the work be extended from those points as funds and personnel permit.” It wanted to fly the banner of industrial peace by feeding hungry miners’ children on the front lines of the coal wars just as it had flown the flag of world peace by feeding five million German children after the Great War. AFSC districts 5 through 7 covered five counties in Kentucky, where the epicenter of the AFSC’s work was “Bloody Harlan.”

Photo from AFSC bulletin “Coal’s Children,” published in 1933.

Photo from AFSC bulletin “Coal’s Children,” published in 1933.

The AFSC’s Coal Committee laid out the “principles” of the work at its first meeting in early June. One principle was neutrality: “We shall attempt to be unbiased in the treatment of local unions in their relations with each other, in the relations between organized labor and the operators, and in the relations of organized labor to the forces of the State.”

Another was the right, if not the duty, to be prophetic: “If in the course of our work we discover situations which we feel need publicity and which indicate weak spots in our social order, we reserve the right to speak out concerning them.”

Harlan County was to bring these two principles into stark relief. Wage cuts, United Mine Workers organizing, and mine-operators’ firing, evicting, and blacklisting of union and suspected-union workers culminated in the Battle of Evarts on May 5, 1931, in which three mine guards and one miner were killed. The UMW general strike that followed fizzled out over the summer, and the communist National Miners Union entered the county and set up soup kitchens.

Soon, however, local law enforcement—or “gun thugs,” as the miners called the deputized mine guards, led by the notorious County Sheriff J. H. Blair—terrorized the kitchens. They dynamited one, closed down another by arresting and allegedly beating the man who ran it, forcing him to flee the county, and killed two kitchen workers at a third.

Unlike the NMU, the AFSC was not communist, atheistic, or partisan. The AFSC was progressive, yes, but Christian and neutral. It was also determined to enter the county. Two of its workers, Homer Morris and Anna Haines, met with the president of Berea College in early October ’31. He gave them a letter of introduction to Judge D. C. Jones. Morris and Haines crossed into Harlan on October 14th and went straight to the county seat.

Collection of  American Friends Service Committee.

Collection of American Friends Service Committee.


“Having arrived at this center of civil warfare,” Morris wrote AFSC headquarters in Philadelphia, “we presented ourselves at the office of the Judge about ten o’clock.” The judge gave them a cold reception. But after he read the Berea president’s letter and was convinced that Morris and Haines were neither communists nor agitators, “his whole attitude changed….He promised his complete cooperation and said we could depend upon his support in every way possible.”

Morris and Haines spent the next week convincing the rest of the county that they were neither communists nor agitators. In early November they started feeding children one supplementary meal every day at school.

The AFSC fed almost 1500 children in Harlan by the end of the 1931-2 schoolyear, as well as about a hundred nursing and expectant mothers. As in Germany, the AFSC used need alone to determine who got fed. They fed strikers’ children as well as the employed, blacks as well as whites.

Theoretically, even operators’ and owners’ children were eligible: all a child had to do to qualify for the feeding was weigh in at 10% under “normal” weight. AFSC workers weighed Harlan children in the spring and found that most had gained weight, none had lost, and those who hadn’t gained had grown. And the children were better students.

The two AFSC volunteers who took over for Haines and Morris in Harlan in January, Paul Hund and Mary Cook, visited the school in the company town of Draper on Good Friday, March 25, 1932, and distributed clothes to the children. “But we had forgotten,” Cook wrote, “that Friday was Good Friday and so a holiday [Quakers traditionally do not observe holidays].

Photo from AFSC bulletin “Coal’s Children,” published in 1933.

Photo from AFSC bulletin “Coal’s Children,” published in 1933.

The children had had an Easter egg hunt and had gone home. But when they saw us come into camp, some straggled into school. The principal was quite anxious for the clothing distribution so she rang the school bell. Children came from all directions. We had broken up school, but never called it before. While we were in the midst of the distribution one little girl piped up ‘This is a nice Easter, isn’t it Mrs. Roberts?’ We outfitted about 100 children that day.”

The Tuesday after Easter the school principal, Mrs. Roberts, sat her children down and had them write individual thank-you letters to “Mr. Hund” and “Miss Cook.” All of the children thanked them for bringing clothes—shirts, skirts, dresses, stockings, bloomers, coats—and said that they had worn their new clothes on Easter.

The children offhandedly mixed the tragic with the everyday. Reba Baker “was certainly glad to get those nice new clothes. My mother and father is dead and I sure did appreciate them.” George Edd Kelly thanked Mr. Hund for the clothes—”My father is dead and will appreciate them.”

“Yours friend, Cleda Johnson” wrote Miss Cook precisely as follows: “My mother is dead and I sure was glad to get those new clothes….I am in the fourth grade and I am eleven year old. My sweater and skirt just fit me. My dady and grandma said it was make just for me it fited me so good. I wish you would come back in again. I thank you and Mr. Hund very much for you sure have ben very good to the Draper Children.” And Irene Mullins wrote simply, “I sure appreciate all you gave me.” The gratitude was palpable.

But what about peace, justice, and reconciliation? These were the AFSC’s ultimate purposes, after all. Well, the AFSC intentionally put men and women in Harlan who would not “speak out.” Any such outspoken bias would have scuttled the AFSC’s relief work in Harlan. Anna Haines commended Philadelphia on its selection of Hund and Cook for Harlan: their very “unawareness” of the industrial conflict simmering around them made them ideal for Bloody Harlan.

Collection Appalachian Archives/Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College.

Collection Appalachian Archives/Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College.


As the AFSC’s Coal Section chief wrote in early 1932 to a Quaker supporter of radical leftist groups in Harlan, “The reason we were asked to go into Germany and to Marion, N. C. and the bituminous coal regions was because the authorities had confidence in our tact, discretion and ability to heal some of the wounds of military and industrial conflict. Our method has been to go quietly into a community, tactfully get the cooperation of everybody concerned, quietly go about our own work, talking but little, avoid complicating relations with other organizations and by Quaker methods try to bring the spirit of reconciliation into the situation.”

The next two years there was no talk of reconciliation, but only feeding hungry children. The AFSC might have proven Florence Reece wrong, that there were neutrals in Harlan County, helping the children of the combatants stay alive, but the price of neutrality was silence—not the silence of a Quaker meeting feeling its way toward peaceable unity, but the silence of humanitarians pure and simple, who can’t afford to risk even trying to reconcile a warring diversity.

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