Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
This year, William H. Turner was inducted into the College of Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame at the University of Kentucky, honored with the Mountain Heritage Award from Western Carolina University, and nominated for the Weatherford Award for his recent release The Harlan Renaissance: Stories of Black Life in Appalachian Coal Towns.
Enjoy our conversation about his book, which seeks to shed light on the lives of Black Appalachians like the author himself, below.
Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: Can you tell me a little bit about your life in the years after you decided to leave your hometown of Lynch, Kentucky? Where’d you go from there?
William H. Turner: I left my hometown a bit more than a half century ago (1966). From there I got an Associates of Arts degree from Southeast Community College in Cumberland, KY and a Bachelors in Sociology at the University of Kentucky.
In college I was deeply and steadily involved in the transformative dynamics of the civil rights and anti-war moments and movements that swept the UK campus and our country in the mid-1960s. I was also a founding member of the UK Black Students Union and the (interracial) Campus Committee on Human Rights. In fact, the UK Student Government Association asked me to step in the place of Muhammad Ali who cancelled his appearance when Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered on April 4. On April 9, 1968, I spoke to a crowd numbering 11,000 people at Memorial Coliseum at UK. The speech was titled “I too am willing to die.” Fifty years later, the Lexington Herald-Leader ran a retrospective of that speech, headlined “The speech that changed Lexington.”
I had led pickets in front of Memorial Coliseum at each home basketball game for the previous two years because we – the Black Student Union – protested UK’s famed coach Adolph Rupp for his choice to have an all-white basketball team. During this time, I was involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) appointed me as a “Marshal” at Dr. King’s funeral – crowd control and cleaning up after the mules that pulled Dr. King’s body in the wagon.
I worked as Field Representative for Kentucky Commission on Human Rights between summer of graduating from UK (1968) and beginning graduate studies at Notre Dame University. I served as Interim Director of Black Studies (1970) at Notre Dame, where I received Masters and Doctoral degrees in Sociology and Anthropology. I spent the rest of my career as a university teacher and administrator.
DY: Was there a moment when you realized that most people didn’t know Black Appalachians like you existed? If so, did that moment intersect at all with your decision to get serious about writing The Harlan Renaissance?
WT: That most people didn’t know Black Appalachians like me existed occurred to me long before I started thinking about writing The Harlan Renaissance. Going back to the first week I stepped onto the UK campus as a student (in 1966), I heard over-and-over again some phrasing of the expression “I didn’t know there were any Black people in that neck of the woods.”
Most writers and journalists – including the most widely-known books about the region, such as Harry Caudill’s Night comes to the Cumberlands – did not bother to give so much as a footnote about Black Appalachians in their works. The anthology Blacks in Appalachia, which I co-edited with the late Edward J. Cabbell in 1985, with the help of John Stephenson and Loyal Jones of Berea College, was the first book, literally, to take up the subject — the presence — of Blacks in Appalachia.
I (also) was motivated to get the Harlan Renaissance into the public domain after watching, for almost thirty years, as the positioning and imaging — “the branding” — of Blacks in Appalachia had come into the hands of some creative writers, most of whom had never set foot in Appalachia.
I carried the Harlan Renaissance around in my head and made diary notes and index card entries since the publication of Blacks in Appalachia. Starting in 1979, I published a newsletter titled: Sojourner: Newsletter of the Eastern Kentucky Social Club. In cooperation with Herb Smith and Liz Barrett of Appalshop, I co-produced several videos focused on Blacks in Appalachia, and I have published dozens of articles in refereed academic journals and newspapers about Blacks in Appalachia, specifically in Central Appalachia, which I call Westvatucky. It could be said that I got “really serious” about what came to be titled The Harlan Renaissance in 2019, when I penned a piece titled “Black Hillbillies have no time for elegies” in Appalachian Reckoning: A region responds to JD Vance, co-edited by Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll, which not insignificantly was published by WVU Press. My Harlan Renaissance was also published by WVU in 2021.
DY: There’s some ambivalence in the book about the orderliness of your hometown, and the way that Black families and institutions managed to thrive under the oppressive paternalism of U.S. Steel. You write about how your generation was given a strong foundation with which to succeed in the world outside the coal camp of your youth. How do you square the overwhelming control of your community by the coal company with your semi-idyllic childhood?
WT: From the time I was ten (1956), I not only watched, on a daily basis, as my friends left town when their fathers were “cut off” from their mining jobs. “They’ve gone to Detroit,” was an almost mantra-like and spiritual incantation, as though these migrants were going to a Promised Land. But, as I visited with some of our cousins who moved from McDowell County, WV to Brooklyn, NY. I realized that where they had moved was not at all any “better” than where we lived in Central Appalachia.
Our company town lay in contrast to the places our people migrated to – those endpoints of the Hillbilly Highway – that were, relatively, extremely disruptive to families and a person’s own psyche. Our cousins who moved to Chicago and Detroit lived in a tall building (I didn’t know at the time it was public housing) and they would say to me when we went to see them, “Billy, don’t walk around here smiling at and speaking to everybody you see!” Imagine that – living amidst perpetual strangers! I had never met “strangers” back in Harlan County. Everybody knew our Mama.
Harlan County’s black communities – certainly our highly capitalized U.S. Steel-owned town – were quite tranquil, serene, and peaceful compared to where my cousins had to grow up when they left Coeburn, in Wise County, Virginia and moved to Baltimore in 1960. They seemed terrified and I know they were very homesick for the country.
DY: You write about many of the all-black institutions of your youth being destroyed by integration, and about the struggles faced by Black people in trying to rebuild. Is that more or less difficult in the vacuum left by the coal industry? On one hand, there are far fewer resources in the current Black enclaves of Appalachia, on the other, there might be a unique freedom that comes with the dearth of standing institutions. Are there examples of leaders in Black Appalachian communities filling that space?
WT: “This integration thing is gonna knock black people ‘round here down like a kick in the ass by an Alabama mule,” said the janitor of the Lynch Colored School, Mr. Charles “Chief” Cross, who worked at the colored school from 1930 to 1963, to me (I was his assistant) when the decision was made in 1963 for us, the Blacks, to go to what our elders called “the white school.”
There is a chapter in my book titled “Black folk done lost their stuff,” in which I point to the moments in my life when, clearly, the loss of Blacks’ cultural and social capital (the school and certain traditions, such as our equivalent to Juneteenth – which we celebrated on August the 8th in particular) was most acute. Our elders had very beneficial self-help organizations, they ran Boy and Girl Scout troops, and all manner of civic and social webs existed that tied and supported Black communities together for miles around: into Southwest Virginia, Southern West Virginia, and even into East Tennessee.
Not so much in the present times. But, despite the massive out-migration of Blacks from throughout the coal fields of Eastern Kentucky, Southwest Virginia, and Southern West Virginia, like the Phoenix rising from the ashes, there are individuals and organizations springing up to visibility in the region. These include Black Appalachian Youth Rising – an affiliate group of the Stay Appalachian Project out of the Highlander Center; The Appalachian African American Cultural Center of Pennington Gap, Virginia; The Eastern Kentucky Social Club; and The Southeastern Kentucky African American Museum and Community Center in Hazard, Kentucky.
DY: Lastly, what do you do in moments of nostalgia? Are there songs or books that make you feel closer to your childhood in eastern Kentucky?
WT: Memories about growing up in Appalachia are never more than a quick phone away. I have at least two dozen friends with whom I grew up, all of us over 60, living in Metro Houston. I see one of them at least once a week.
Our home is well-appointed with Appalachian art and framed photos of family and coal-camp scenes. My banjo is kept in the living room along with a dulcimer, and I have an assortment of harmonicas, and a photo of Ed Cabbell merged into a 25” x 35” glass-enclosed reproduction of the cover of our book, Blacks in Appalachia, which hangs in my study, across from my desktop.
Throughout my book are references that highlight how important music was to my upbringing. Such musical memories are to the confirmation of my past as my faith is to the affirmation of the future of Blacks in Appalachia. I am still favored to listen to music banged out by our mother – Naomi “Punkin” Turner, who was born in Harlan County (Benham) in 1924, and who played piano like Eubie Blake or Fats Domino, tunes such as “The Rough Side of the Mountain,” “Precious Lord Take My Hand,” and “We’ve Come this far by Faith.”
I am a jazz and R&B aficionado because our mother also played jazz and what she called “boogie-woogie” music. It was nothing to hear her switch from gospel and spiritual standards to arrangements as varied as Thelonious Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser,” or Ruth Brown’s “You Got a Fine Brown Frame.” It was from my mother’s fingers that I first listened to Bessie Smith’s 1933 hit, “Black Mountain Blues.”
Bill Withers’ music – such as “Grandma’s Hands” and “Lean on Me” – are on my smart phone, as are any number of hit tunes from my youth in the 1950s and 1960s, so-called “black music,” which could only be accessed in Harlan County at that time via the 50,000-watt clear channel radio station – WLAC – out of Nashville. Not insignificantly, our maternal grandfather – Rev. OL Miller – worked as a janitor in the Life and Casualty Tower (in Nashville) for 40 years.
Presently, I am favored to do some work with the Great Smoky Mountains Association, co-hosting a podcast (with Dr. Ted Olson of East Tennessee State University) titled Sepia Tones. The show focuses on the role and contributions of Blacks to traditional Appalachian music and is available on all the standard podcast outlets.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.