William H. Turner’s The Harlan Renaissance: A Memoir of Black Life in Appalachian Coal Towns is coming from West Virginia University Press in fall 2021. In this preview, from the manuscript, Turner—a sociologist and recipient of the lifetime of service award from the Appalachian Studies Association—reflects on Black life in his hometown of Lynch, Kentucky. This excerpt is republished with permission from “Booktimist,” the blog of West Virginia University Press.
Lynch was a model company town, among the first planned communities in the mountains of the South. The engineers estimated that there was enough coal to stay in business for a century, so they, by design, constructed the business, mining, recreational, health care, and residential structures of the most durable materials. All municipal services were first-rate. By mid-September 1917, the year of my father’s birth, 300 cars of materials had been unloaded and the building of the town began. A mine was opened, and rail tracks were extended from Benham, which was owned by International Harvester, another of J. P. Morgan’s companies. The new town was named after Thomas Lynch, the president of US Steel, who had passed on three years earlier.
Within the blink of an industrial eye, between 1917 and 1920, the population of Lynch increased dramatically, to 7,200. The first nonnative residents in Lynch were Italian and Hungarian stonemasons brought directly from Ellis Island by the company; these robust souls were the first line of laborers who carved out what became a colossal coal camp, carved into the wilderness. By 1940, Harlan County’s population (75,275) was exceeded in Kentucky only by the counties of Jefferson (Louisville) and Fayette (Lexington).
Lynch and towns like Harlan, Hazard, Jenkins, and Wheelwright (in eastern Kentucky); Big Stone Gap, Grundy, and Stonega (in southwest Virginia); and Gary, Keystone, and Beckley (in southern West Virginia) were as racially and ethnically diverse—each group living in their neighborhoods and with traditions openly displayed—and as booming and blooming as New York City. Harlan County was to Kentucky Black coal mining families in the 1920s through the 1940s what Harlem was to Black New Yorkers in the same period. It was the cultural and social epicenter of the region for Blacks; and, as “the blackest town for mountains around,” Lynch was equivalent to 125th Street in Harlem—the school was our Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the Pool Room was our Apollo Theater.
The influx of Blacks—primarily from central Alabama—into the coalfields of central Appalachia reached its peak in the 1920s, the exact same time during which the “Great Migration” of Black Americans took place from the Black Belt South to the urban North. The section of New York City known as Harlem became ground zero for an African American cultural rebirth and resurgence that was labeled as the New Negro Movement or the Harlem Renaissance. America’s cultural gatekeepers—the mainstream journalists, critics, and publishing houses—had not, until the influx of Blacks to New York City in the 1920s, paid any attention to African Americans as far as literature, music, art, and politics were concerned. At this point, still, a critical mass of entertainers, such as Appalachian (Chattanooga) blues vocalist Bessie Smith, writers, and musicians exploded onto Harlem’s performance spaces, and in newspaper and magazine pages around the world. Not only did some of the top artists, like Duke Ellington, make highly publicized forays during this period into coal camps such as Lynch and Bluefield, West Virginia, but Maceo Pinkard, a Bluefield native, although not well known, also composed “Them There Eyes.”
When I went away to college in Lexington to the University of Kentucky at the age of twenty in 1966, my initial observation, my version of cultural shock, was made by phone to my parents: “I’ve never understood why they say there are no Black people in our neck of the woods. I have never seen this high a concentration of White people in my whole life!”
Fact is the counties in Kentucky’s coal producing regions—Bell, Floyd, Harlan, Knox, Laurel, Letcher, Perry, and Pike—were among the state’s most populous counties at the onset of WWII, and the percentage of Blacks in those counties was uniformly higher than in other parts of the state. Coal was king, and throngs of people moved into the region during the first four decades of the twentieth century to make their living serving the emperor. In 1940, Lynch’s population hovered around 11,000—about 14 percent of the county—and with some 4,500 employees working its mines, the US Steel plant there was one of the state’s largest employers.
Our family was among the nearly 4,000 Black people living in Lynch at the time. Life in Lynch in the middle of the twentieth century moved with a great display of energy, and it teemed with “something”; what the French called je ne sais quoi, an undefinable, elusive, and rather pleasing quality. It bustled with lots of people, many unforgettable characters, and all sorts of activities, both the sacred and the profane.
The mythical reputation of Harlan County, especially the “Bloody Harlan” tag, is linked to several major events in the struggle to unionize coal miners, which took place in the mid-1930s. The “Boom Times” of the forties faded into what became the “Awful Fifties,” when major changes hit Lynch like the caving in of the roof of a mine, wrought on by the weight of the ever-increasing mechanization of coal mining. Machines marginalized and then replaced men, and migration out of the area cleared people out of it just as the in-migration a half century earlier had filled it. US Steel sold its Lynch works to Arch Minerals of St. Louis in 1963, the same year the Lynch Colored School was closed. In 1960, there were 900 coal mining and related workers in Lynch. The losses and the proof of displacements were intense and evident. Yet by 1982, the Lynch mines, moving toward their lowest employment numbers, set another record for production of coal in one year—2,000,000 tons. A decade later, the last coal was removed from a seam in Lynch; it wasn’t done by coal miners, but through strip-mining, which requires very few laborers. On the north face of Black Mountain, the vegetation was cleared, the soil was removed, holes were drilled and blasted with dynamite, and the coal was “stripped” from the naked and exposed mountainside. The area has not yet been reclaimed. When the last Lynch mine was closed and sealed—literally—it invoked the feeling one gets at a burial site when the preacher says, “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” The mine opening was like a source of life, like a dear brother or sister, now departed, recommitted unto itself—the mountain.