John & Viola Smith
Bloody Harlan County
In 1980 the immaculate old woman told me, “We sneaked out in the middle of the night. Just took the children and fled. Left everything and everyone I knowed.”
Earlier Joanne, an activist nun, told me about the woman and the woman’s husband. I had been visiting the wives of striking coal miners in Stearns, Kentucky when the nun took me on a tour of the coal fields and showed me gun shot holes in a building. “You really must visit this wonderful old couple way up in the mountains,” Joanne said. “They escaped from Bloody Harlan County with their kids in the 1930s. They know all about the coal wars back then.” She drew me a map of how to find the couple.
As soon as she said, “Harlan County,” I thought of the labor organizing song written in 1931 by Florence Reese for the Harlan County coal union campaign”
“They say in Harlan County there are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a union man or a thug for J.H. Blair (the sheriff)
Which side are you on?”
Rein of Terror
It referred to the coal-mining strikes, battles, executions, and bombings that took place there in the decade long conflict between 1931 and 1939 after the miners tried to unionize.
Backed by violent government forces, coal owners and bosses fought the striking miners, burning them out of their houses, cutting off food, and executing organizers, resulting in a “reign of terror.” The union struck back, and the number of miners murdered remains unknown.
Waterfalls and Strip Mines
I was anxious to meet the couple who escaped such violence, and I followed the map up the mountains past creeks, waterfalls, and strip mines. Finally, I passed an old bridge and other landmarks and I saw a small brown and white trailer behind a run-down house and nearby tar paper shack.
Sitting next to the trailer was an old white man in an railroad cap, ragged undershirt, pants, and suspenders, and next to him sat a thin and angular elderly white woman wearing a print dress. A dog tied to a rope around a tree howled mournfully, chickens clucked, and three small children hurried inside the tar paper dwelling. A red truck with no wheels and containing wood was parked outside the trailer, and from the corners of the bed of the truck, wooden figures pumped up and down in the wind.
I pulled into their road, and the old woman, Viola Smith, stood up to greet me and started to talk. She explained that the nun had told her I would be coming and that she and John had both grown up in a company town in the coal fields of Harlan County.
Her mother raised four girls, she explained, and sent six sons to work in the mines along with their father. They all eventually died of black lung. Viola continued her early history, telling me that when she was fifteen an at a county fair, she met John. They were married at sixteen.
Sweet at Sixteen
John spoke up, “Well, I’ll tell you. She was just as sweet at sixteen as she is today,” then he spat a large chunk of chewing tobacco onto the ground.
Viola went on, “John went into the mines and I started a having babies. Didn’t expect anything else out of life.”
John spoke again. “I’ve been working ever since I can remember. Finally, I started in the coal mines. When we had three or four children I was working in the mines from daylight to dark for fifty cents a day. You worked ten hours. I lifted coal for twenty cents a ton. I never did like the mine, but it was where there’s money.
Almost Couldn’t Breathe
“The first time or two when I went in the mines very far underground, it seemed like I was lost. I didn’t know where I was at or anything. Imagine yourself a sitting in a tunnel, and it’s real dark and you can’t see a wink and you don’t even know which way the door or window is. But after a day or two that feeling didn’t matter so much. The way I look at life is that work is a gambling that you have to do everyday. And the men in the mines get so they almost can not breathe.”
I noticed while John was talking that Viola was also chewing tobacco and carefully patted her mouth with the hem of her dress. John continued to whittle.
If the House was Afire
Viola spoke again, “It was back in twenties and thirties when the unions started. The company got violent. It burned houses with people in them; it was a nightmare. You don’t know how hard it was. People was killed in the county all around. I was almost afraid to go to sleep at night ‘cause I was afraid I might not be able to get the children out of the house if it was set afire.”
“The majority of the people consented to go along with the union,” John continued.
Viola interrupted him and said, “The union leaders sent back to Virginia to get truckloads of food for the people, and when the food got to us it was rationed out, just a little bit to each family. That first winter was really bad. But I had spent my whole life in the company towns, and I was so used to having all sorts of people all around.
“Then we heard about a little bit of land that could be homesteaded up on top of a mountain in Virginia, and we decided to take the children and flee. We left in the middle of the night, but it was so hard to leave everybody we loved. To move up there alone without family or friends. We tried to sneak away.
“Still, the land up there was beautiful, with all kinds of trees, especially the chestnuts and wild cherries. And there was creeks and mountain springs. And there was a fog lots in the early morning and at night. Some mornings, everything was like in shadows. And beautiful wild flowers bloomed, Johnny-jump-ups, wild violets, buttercups, and farewell-to-summers. In the wintertime fog would freeze ice and icicles would be on the timber, and then the fog would lift, but the ice would stay on the trees and the sky would be so blue. At night I remember a big moon lighting up the snow and ice. I don’t know whether an artist could have painted it so pretty.
“But still life was hard. It was hard getting used to being so alone; it was so different than the mining camps where I had grown. But you couldn’t get work, you just had to dig it out of the ground. Honey, there was a few years there when it was really hard. The hardest time we had.”
After twenty years of building their farm, their house burned down, and they had to start again. Then, suddenly, a few years later, John and Viola were told that old legal documents proved the land belonged to someone else, and they were evicted.
They moved back to town, and John went back to the mines, although he could never accept it. Some of the mines were unionized now, but still people died from their work. The children were grown by then, and Viola also went out to work. for a motel and cleaning.
I visited with them many times over two years. Our relationship was always warm and loving. One of the last times we met, they invited me in their tiny trailer for supper, and we ate biscuits, potatoes, beans, and eggs.
John chuckled and said, “Her biscuits are the best they can be. I oughta know. Been eating them for 59 years.”
Seeking to Decay
After we finished our food, John walked down to his daughter’s house. Viola looked me in the eyes and said conspiratorially, “I’ve only had one problem with John, and I’ve had it all our days. I’m so neat and tidy, and John seems just to want to decay. First is mother kept him from it, then we got married and I started in.”
I wrote to them for years, and Viola wrote short letters back with her shaky handwriting. I always thought of them when I heard of violence aimed at unions. Finally, I received a letter on lined paper from Viola.
She said, “I don’t know if you’ll hear from us again. Me and John are pretty old. Knowing you meant so much to us.”
I never heard from them again. I think of their warmth and love for each other, and I especially remember their hard work. They never knew what was going to happen one day to another, but they persevered. May we do the same.