Black Life in Appalachian Coal Towns


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We were excited to be joined by Dr. William (Bill) Turner, where we talked about his new book, and the expansive history of Black people in Appalachia.

From his website:

“Dr. Turner has spent his professional career studying and working on behalf of marginalized communities, helping them create opportunities in the larger world while not abandoning their important cultural ties. He is best known for his ground-breaking research on African-American communities in Appalachia, but Bill’s work is universal. As an academic and a consultant, he has studied economic systems and social structures in the urban South and burgeoning Latino communities in the Southwest. What he strives for on behalf of his clients and their communities is what we all want: prosperity, understanding, and respect.


You can get a copy of Dr. Turner’s newest Book “Harlan Renaissance: Stories of Black Life in Appalachian Coal Towns” from WVU Press here.

Interview transcript

Chuck Corra: I’d love to just jump right in. You’re obviously aware of this, but Appalachia is often stereotyped as being just about white people. You spent a large part of your career researching and writing about how it isn’t. About the history of Black people in Appalachia. I was wondering how you got started doing this and why you continued doing it throughout your career.

Dr. Bill Turner: My sense of identity and being linked to the region is in my very DNA. My great grandmother was born in Southwest Virginia, far Southwest Virginia in Pennington gap is far west Southwest and Lee county. My grandmother on my father’s side was born in Virginia. Which is in wise county, Virginia, my father, who would be a hundred years old this year was born in, he’d be 105 of my father and his 11 siblings were born in Coeburn Virginia in wise county.

 My grandfather was a coal mountain. I’ve told many people, especially some of these newcomers who act like they invented the whole notion of black people in Appalachia. They come up with all these new names that that’s all I ever knew. I I have cousins who were born and raised in Beckley.

One of them after 30 years in the Marine Corps and another 10 years driving a truck in New York City moved back to Beckley about 10, 12 years ago. He’s 90 years old. I never really paid people much attention. When I first went to college…at the University of Kentucky, and people would say to me, “I didn’t know, there were any black people in, in, in that park in Harlan county.”

That’s where I grew up. Me and my eight siblings are born and raised in Harlan county. My mom was born and raised in Harlan county. My grandmother on momma’s side migrated there from Georgia in 1980. The town I grew up in Lynch, Kentucky was a property owned by United States Steel. They owned a company town in West Virginia called Gary and Gary and Lynch were sister cities.

And both of them were highly diverse spaces as was a Keystone. Very so I used to laugh at people when I would say, man, I never really saw a lot of just white people, excuse the verb I’m using. Until I went to the Lexington, Kentucky, I called my mama and me to say, mom, there are no black people around here at this place.

Where I grew up when I was born in the mid-forties, there were 12,000 people in the heart in Lynch, Kentucky alone. About a fourth of them were black people. I could go around the mountains, Lilly 90 miles in a circle to Southwest Virginia places like Appalachia, Big Stone Gap, Norton, Coburn, stone, Nagel, all those coal camps.

Then you could go into Southern West Virginia, as I mentioned, early Bluefield Keystone Beckley, where my cousins were, and into Kentucky. Around Lynch and Behnam and Jenkins and Harlan and hazard and Pikeville and Pam bull and Wheelwright and Whitesburg, or as my buddy Herbie at the episode because of Watts Berg.

There were Black people all over those places. In the 1900s, they first started importing Black people literally from Alabama. They primarily came into West Virginia. 90% of the Black people in West Virginia, who came there between 1919-1940 came out of central Alabama.

They came from Birmingham. Joan charter has written about that and all that great work he’s done over the years. I never knew what the word minority meant until I moved out of Lynch. 

Chuck Corra: That’s super interesting. Why do you think that people weren’t aware of that? I think it still exists today that people aren’t aware of such significant Black history and Appalachia.

Dr. Bill Turner: The unawareness about the presence of blacks in Appalachia. You guys know, for example, as far back as the John Henry legend around the big Ben tunnel, 800 black people, that they could count that building the big being tunnel. That was a hell of a long, a heck of a long time ago.

So a lot of those people were in a migration pattern at the end, I would say at the end of reconstruction, we still trying to reconstruct that as in the 1880s, thousands and thousands. In fact, millions of black people moved along the Eastern seaboard. What we’ll call the I-95 corridor.

They moved from Florida, the Carolinas, Georgia and Virginia. They went into Washington, DC, Baltimore, the 30th street station in Philadelphia and into New York City and what we came to know as hard. This was done at the same time that black people were moving from the rural south where my grandparents on my mom’s side had been sharecroppers in Alabama and Georgia.

They heard about the jobs. They didn’t hear about them. Us steel went to Alabama to recruit them because you are still, already had a major presence in some of its first coal riches by hiring convict laborers in Alabama, in Jefferson county, specifically, Birmingham we still went and recruited them and they bought them to Gary and to Welch and the Keystone and to my hometown, that’s where I call mine the Harlan Renaissance.

After the iconic name of my hometown Harlan county. Everybody knows about butcher holler, but everything that’s ever been put in the media until recently tended to show Appalachia as. A white spaces were. And we all know that even in terms of the music that is considered white music and Appalachia dish, traditional Appalachian music there’s always been this black presence of black people in with the banjo man.

They taught the Carter family how to sing. So it’s only been recently that we’ve seen people like Don Fleming and the Carolina chocolate jobs, and folks know that they’re black country music people, and they’ve been there since the 17 hundreds, 18 hundreds easily. And it’s just a matter of the way the media put us all in little checkboxes and the presence of blacks even early on in the 15 hundreds before.

People were enslaved at port O’Connor where the first slaves came in 16, 19. There have been black people who traveled into the Appalachian region with the Spanish can kiss the doors into what we call the Appalachia portion of North Carolina. There were blacks on the Cherokee reservation before it was a reservation.

And in fact, several hundred black people moved out to Oklahoma on the trailer. Tears. So we’re just talking about history. We don’t study and that’s so terrible because now we have some politicians who are calling for the total eradication of studying about race in America. Yeah 

Chuck Corra: We had a state senator in West Virginia. Just the other week say that racism was largely eradicated at the end of the civil war. And this was a sitting state senator in the state of West Virginia.

Dr. Bill Turner: Add that to sitting state Senator is in about 38 states right now.

Chuck Corra: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Big John Isner: Do you think, what do you kinda hinted at this? It sounds like part of the blame should be placed on the media for making us think this way. When I grew up I feel like I knew two things. One, there were no black people in Appalachia. And if I went to any urban area, that was where I was going to. Black people only, like I was never going to, I was not going to fit in there.

Those were the two things I was taught. Why do you think everything is whitewashed in Appalachia when it comes to the media and even local politics? 

Dr. Bill Turner: That’s odd in West Virginia. It was the one state starting in the 1900s that has something called the Bureau of Negro Affairs. It was part of the state government in West Virginia, they counted Black people.

And one of the reason why is that two of the most well-known African-Americans who ever lived perhaps the most powerful African-American including people like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King and Barack Obama was a West Virginia named Booker T Washington. Washington was a heck of a statesman.

And then there was Carnagey Woodson out, a Huntington who came up with black history month. In 1926 and he had come out of Catlin, Virginia moved up to Huntington with his father who was a coal miner up around in central West Virginia. And then cottagey Woodson went to Berea college. The only interracial college in the south in 1855 was the real college where I worked at for many years.

Woodson graduated from Berea in 1903 then he founded the association for the study of African American life and history. He was the one who coined the phrase and the movement called African-American history. He said, I wanted to be a space in February between the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas, so that we can begin to take notice of the contributions of African-Americans to American civilization.

So we all know that of all the studies that we can do in our curriculum from first grade to graduate school, the most important one is history because a doctor has to study the history of medicine. A physicist has to study the history of the study of physics, but we don’t do our children a great service in studying the history of history.

If you will. Now in my life I went for my first 11 years of school to a place called a Lynch colored school. Those words are etched into the concrete on the building. That’s still standing. Walking distance from my house, the Lynch colored school, are colored schools throughout West Virginia. They were called Rosenwald schools.

And we didn’t have to worry about February for black history month. Cause we would talk that on a daily basis, here’s where you come from. Here’s what you do. You walk through the hallways and you saw these photographs of black historical figures all the way back to Africa saw every day of my life.

And then they integrated the schools and they threw out all of the black stuff as it were. That’s a chapter I have in my book called black folk done lost their stuff. Sometimes man assimilation, accommodation integration you name it adapt adaptation how many white folks on the mountains of the south intentionally lost their dialect and the way they talked, because the way Appalachia talk was associated with ignorance.

 The stereotypes of white folks in the mountains of the south, or second, only to the stereotypes of black people in the south. I have a chapter called between Sambo and Jefferson. 

Chuck Corra: I’m stealing phrasing from Berea, a magazine where I read part of a review of your book – which I’ve been reading, and it’s fantastic. It highly recommended. They were talking about how you describe the culture is uniquely Appalachian, but with a sense of double marginalization – that the people reside within subcategories and subgroups. So there’s both black and Appalachian, separate and isolated from local whites who themselves are separated and isolated from mainstream America.

Can you break that down for us?


Dr. Bill Turner: precisely about 35 years ago. I helped to edit with a West Virginia and from Edwin, his name is ed capital. And I put a book out in 1985 called blacks in Appalachia. It was an amphibian. And it wrote many years ago in AKA called black and visibility in Appalachia. And so we took off from there now to the specifics of the marginalization Debbie Dubois more than a hundred years ago in 1903, I think it was.

Or at least maybe it was 1905. He wrote a book called the souls of black folk. And in that book, he talked about the dual consciousness of the American Negro. I’m a Negro, I’m an African, but I’m also an American. These two warring souls are in one body. And you got a coping mechanism to let you know, I am an American, but there are some differences in my status as an American citizen that are based solely on my race.

I think that you just said it yourself, Chuck, that white Appalachians have always been beset with being America’s other white people. You remember book in 1965, by a guy named Michael Harrington, called the other America. He wrote it right after Harry called published night comes to the Cumberland’s lb when Lyndon Baines Johnson, when it sat on a porch in ideas, Kentucky, or maybe it was in Martin, Kentucky, Martin county.

But anyway, that’s how the Appalachian regional commission got its start because they essentially said there are some white people in America living in the most horrendous conditions. They are economically quite behind the rest of the mainstream. They have pipes that run out of their houses into the. You can’t get from Ashland, Kentucky to Washington, DC, except to go through West Virginia back and forth.

There was an interstate 64, it would take you 10 hours to get to DC. You guys grew up there that, so that the AARC came along and did a lot for the infrastructure. But for some reason, white Appalachians are still fighting through the stereotypes of their marginalization. Which JD vast blamed on them. Did he not. 

Chuck Corra: 100%. 

Dr. Bill Turner: So that’s that dual marginalization. So we say, even though I don’t do demographic analysis anymore, I don’t spend my time anymore. Sociologists with a doctor from Notre Dame. I don’t spending my time anymore doing work on Appalachia and black people with statistical analysis and correlational analysis and statistical packages for the social sciences, so that you can see the facts I’ve been with people for 40 years, listening to their stories, and they can tell you in downtown Keystone, what deal is much better than as Muriel.

Rukeyser wrote a poem once that said life is made up of stories and not molecules, right? So I tried to get into the molecular social structure of Appalachia through the eyes of the folk that I grew up with. And I did a lot of old histories. It took me 30 years to write that book you have in your hand, 30 years, because I kept saying.

How do I write this? I know how to write articles to get tenure at a college. I know what these guys want to see because they want you to be objective, right? And they don’t particularly care for what they call want to take live analysis. They like qual, I’m sorry. They like quantitative analysis, numbers and statistics rather than stories.

And obviously what you guys do at your show is a, let people tell stories. And that’s what I tried to do with my book, 

Big John Isner: Dr. Turner, you brought up something that Chuck and I have posted to a lot of our listeners. And I don’t know if you know this, you probably do. There is a huge debate on the arc in terms of the map itself.

So you studying the region. Okay. W how do you see the, so obviously arc defines it now as 423 counties, 13 states. For you, do you identify as Appalachia as the AARC definition? Do you identify it as something else based on culture? How do you look at it? 

Dr. Bill Turner: Yeah, as the arc is a political entity and the arc came about when JFK, I’m sorry.

 JFK started the war on poverty and then he was killed and Lyndon Baines Johnson picked it up, but when they have the base on the house floor and then a sin on who’s going to get this money to improve infrastructure in because at the time that it started, it was central Appalachia. What I call West Vertucky: West Virginia, Southwest Virginia, and Eastern Kentucky, the coalfields.

That’s what people saw, the Beverly hillbillies, deliverance. That’s where people saw justified. And that’s when people saw hillbilly Elegy for that matter. Situ you know, Southern West Virginia, Southwest Virginia, Eastern Kentucky. I can imagine that the man sitting in the house of representatives who had the vote on this new agency said I’ll vote on that.

If you’ll give me some of that money. And then a man from New York said, Hey, I got eight states, eight counties up here in Southern New York. And the other day I noticed a couple of years ago. I noticed rather that there is an Appalachian county. I think it’s 44, but there’s an Appalachian county on lake Erie is in Youngstown, Ohio.

Okay. So cut us in and we’ll vote for it. I’m been working on an article called the Appalachia furcation of Mississippi. Because the boys in Mississippi, they got some of the money. There are places in Kentucky that are closer to Louisville and Nashville than they are to hazard. And they’re also, I been around Berea college, a long time.

 Most of its African-American students over the last 50 years have come from Jefferson County, Alabama. Birmingham, those kids get up to Berea and they take them up on the mountain and bake bread banjos on Appalachian day. And those inner-city kids from Birmingham or the black gold, what the world is talking about.

Seriously, man, I don’t think he convinced very many people from Pittsburgh that they are from Appalachia is hard enough to convince them on some Morgan pounded it. So I understand the arc, like I said, I’m going to do their staff for the third black history month. And the last 20 years, I think it was, I’ll speak to them tomorrow.

And I’ve had some good conversations with Gail match and Mrs. Gail mansion, who is the ahead of it. And I’m saying to them some of the counties that are in Appalachia, we all know it’s a political map. It’s almost like if you guys know if you’re going to look at a map of Africa, the continent of Africa, 54 different countries, what are some of those countries like Nigeria and year that are right next door to each other, just as our pictures are on these screens.

And we’re John is his New Jersey and where I am is upper Volta. They’re the same people. They’re the same tribal people. But if you cross the boxes, you’re in another. Thus it is in Appalachia. Some of the places I think Roanoke never decided to be in it because they said we don’t want that stigma.

 We get nothing. Asheville, North Carolina is a beautiful Appalachian city but it has some of the most expensive real estate in the United States. And yeah and as I guess that’s what I would say about those political lines that they draw. And y’all know right now just last week, the the Supreme court affirmed the rejoining of district maps in Alabama that took all the black people out and put them in one blue spot.

That’s the same way they drew out for life.

Chuck Corra: No, I’m just, it reminds me of a lot of other congressional maps that I’ve seen where it was very deliberate, how they drew Black people out…in particular, the congressional map for Tennessee, where if you take a look at Shelby county where Memphis is and how those districts are drawn, it’s very deliberate to pack all the Black people into one district and not have any diversity, 

Dr. Bill Turner: It’s all about political power.

I tell people all the time that I grew up in Kentucky, I always knew that it was a conservative red state. But then I moved to Texas 10 years ago. And man, Texas is Kentucky on steroids. 

Chuck Corra: Yeah. You said you’re near Houston, which is like the fourth largest city in America. But I, is it Harris county I think is Harris county is not exactly.

Ruby blue or anything. It’s a, it’s still a pretty like purple-ish county, even though it’s one of the largest in the 

Dr. Bill Turner: country. That’s right. In fact we saw it changing because what they call the inner circle of Houston. I actually live 52 miles from downtown, but it’s still Harris county.

 My son lives in the city. But when you see the voting outcomes that in the city itself is pretty blue, but all around it, it’s red just a few weeks ago, this is quite off the subject. But three weeks ago former president Trump came to Harris county and held a fundraiser about five miles from my house in a place called the Woodlands, which is one of the most Tony suburbs around Houston on the south side of town was a place called sure.

So super land and Woodland were developed by the same company, 56 years ago. But the PR from president Trump was able to have a fundraiser and governor Abbott and they all got there and people paid. I read a hundred thousand dollars a piece to take pictures with president Trump and they had 14,000 people out at night.


Chuck Corra: I can think of a lot better things to do with a hundred thousand dollars. I’ll just say that. But 

Dr. Bill Turner: When the election was over back in 2016, I guess it was most of the pundits and people like JD Vance made it seem as though the massive conservative voting out of Westwood West Virginia. Yeah. That turned the tables for president Trump.

When in fact it was wealthy white college-educated females in Palo Alto and suburban Boston and suburban Washington who, who voted him in. And they wanted to say it was a Yahoo’s in West Virginia. And I’m saying, we don’t we can’t get a break. 

Big John Isner: Nope. , this is a scapegoat, even though we have very little electoral power compared to all of the places that you’ve mentioned.

Chuck Corra: So just to close this out, you have a lot of really like compelling stories in your book and I’ve really enjoyed reading it. In fact, I wish that I had a book of my family and the history where I’m from to read which would be really incredible. But I’m wondering like when Alitalia 

Dr. Bill Turner: tells me nobody could write a book about your family and your region except.

Chuck Corra: That’s a good point. When you took those words to heart, what do you hope that other people who read this book, what do you hope they get out of this? 

Dr. Bill Turner: I hope immediately they’ll see the universality of this story and I also hope that they will see that the conditions of black people in coal towns in Appalachia and the conditions of white people in coal towns in Appalachia were matching.

They were parallel stories. And I hope that they will we’ll notice that I did make a big point about racism except certain things that were just so glaring, but that I hope I was able to point out that folks in my hometown, I think folks in Keystone and Welsh and parkers.

You name it even those out there in that big town, that’s where that mansion is in West Virginia. What’s the name of that place that everybody used to go to visit? I think the governor lives there, Greenbriar, Greenberg black folks have to build that place. There’s still a whole bunch of their families still around there.

I think that they would as I tried to say Appalachia has been globalized to the extent that everybody is Appalachian when you consider the factors and the elements about culture and society that I tried to write about. And that we are no two places in somebody’s mind that we’re breathing, living human beings and they don’t want to leave home and go to Detroit no more.

Because there was no Detroit to go to. So west Virginians and everybody in Westford, Tucky is going to have to figure out how do we stay here at home? Because that’s what big John did I’m sure he could have moved as we did, but the fact of the matter is I’m so glad that smart, assertive, intelligent, young people are staying home and staking their ground and saying, this is the new Appalachia.

And that’s why I hope there will be another Renaissance. I don’t know what the economy will undertake. Ecotourism is nice. But we got to get a little bit more than owning a kayaking outfit. We got to find ways for people to make the kind of money or at least equivalent living wages that they became so accustomed to people like my brother who went to high school and went in the coal mine.

There are no black coal miners, all-white coal miners in my town anymore. In my hometown, we got to see where Harlan county will emerge in the new economy. Absolutely. 

Chuck Corra: I completely agree. Dr. Turner, thank you so much for joining us.

This has been a really fascinating, exciting conversation. I’ve really loved talking to you today and appreciate you coming on the show. 

Dr. Bill Turner: Thank you guys so much for having me, John. Thank 

Big John Isner: you. Of course. We’re welcome back. Anytime you write another book or even if you want to continue the story on this one, you come on back.

Dr. Bill Turner: No problem. Just invite me back and we’ll be right on the spot here anytime. 

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