This week the IFC is playing Barbara Kopple’s Oscar winning film Harlan County USA, so we thought it would be a good time to share an interview with Alessandro Portelli, the oral historian who spent 25 years gathering the stories of the Appalachian community subject in Kopple’s film. The people of Harlan are mostly known for their history of intense labor battles (and thanks to Malcolm Gladwell, short temperament), but Portelli says they are most remarkable for their incredible will to survive.
Featured in this podcast:
Leading oral historian Alessandro Portelli is Professor of American Literature at the University of Rome-La Sapienza. In 1973 he recorded the first of over 150 interviews with the men and women of Harlan County, which are now available in the volume, They Say in Harlan County: An Oral History.
To accompany this podcast, we also present the following excerpt from the book, as it appeared in the Dec 2010 issue of Harper’s Magazine.
THE BATTLE OF CRUMMIES CREEK
From interviews included in They Say in Harlan County: An Oral History, by Alessandro Portelli, published last month by Oxford University Press. On April 15, 1941, during a national coal miners’ strike, four striking miners entered the company store at the Crummies Creek Coal Co., in Harlan County, Kentucky, and were killed by a mine employee with a machine gun. Locals have long claimed, though it has never been confirmed, that an ensuing gunfight resulted in additional deaths on both sides.
Granny Hager: Crummies Creek. Now, there was killing there and I can’t tell you just how many were killed. You see, I used to have all of that down, but it got washed away so many times, and burned out. I don’t know all that did happen, but they really had a battle up there. I think there was five killed. They wanted the scabs to go on to work, and they wanted to run the union men away, you see. And that is what started the battle. Now that was the roughest place we had in Harlan County.
Plennie Hall: The day before the battle, I went into the office and I told Mr. Johnson, “Mr.Johnson,” I says, “won’t you sign the union? It would be good for everybody, to be satisfied with everything.” And he said, “Hell no”; he wouldn’t under no circumstances. And the next day, the union come up there to stop them from working.
Becky Simpson: Six years old. Me and my mother always walked from Cranks Creek to Crummies to the commissary with my dad’s paycheck. They had a bunch of pickets up at the commissary. This big bald-headed guy, they called him Big Jim Black Hair, he was a big-league ballplayer, he told my mother, “What’re you doing here with this child today? Get what little you’re going to and get this child back out, there’s gon’ be trouble today.” As we was leaving the commissary, they was rolling up these big machine guns, that they could open up the double doors and shoot out. So me and Mommy is walking back up the mountain, we heared the shooting start. And they just mowed the men down.
Ben Campagnari: Now, we were running, and we had a pegleg man. You wouldn’t believe it. Going down that railroad track, and he’s hitting about four ties at a time; and he outrun half of the people that had good legs, and we was all a-running because they was cutting down with the machine gun, or trying to. And I said: “If I ever go on a picket line again, I’ll go with protection.” We died
just like ducks.
Hazel Leonard: And that night, the thugs that lived, they carried all their dead men out of there and hauled them to the top of Crummies mountain, and burned them up. There was a place there, that they called the Halfway House, it was just a dive, you know, just for men to drink and hang out at. And they sold booze and everything, you know what I mean. So they hauled all these people out there, that had got killed that night—the thugs. They hauled them up that mountain to that place and then they burned it. They burned them up.
Plennie Hall: Three weeks later I was over there getting a payday, and there was a drainpipe runs down there, and somebody that crawled in that drainpipe and died, the dogs
pulled out some of his bones. There never was no more said about it. I wondered about who that could have been, or where they were from.