By Ashley Benkarski
NASHVILLE, TN — Much of Black history has been left out of American History courses, which has fooled the public into assuming the historic coal mining strikes in the Appalachian region—truly a workers’ movement against the oppression of the state-backed power structure—were an achievement of white men.
Regardless of skin color, Appalachians are not the stereotype of poverty-stricken, uneducated, bigoted ne’er-do-wells that other Americans so falsely cling to.
The region was critical to the labor movement and securing workers’ rights, but more than that, it is and has been a microcosm of the wage-earning class’s way of life that transcends racial lines.
America in 2022 is a time and place where history is censored in schools against the backdrop of a culture war propagated mostly by pundits and politicians decrying it, and the intersection of race and class is weaponized by a power structure seeking to divide and conquer workers.
Black in Appalachia, a “community service for Appalachian residents and families with roots in the region,” exists to honor, preserve, and add to the rich history of the region and recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary.
Focusing on research, education and support the organization partners with “public media, residents, university departments, libraries, archives and community organizations to highlight the history and contributions of African-Americans in the development of the Mountain South and its culture,” its website explains.
The organization’s director, William Isom II, started the work in 2012 as he was researching his own family’s history into and out of enslavement in the Appalachian region.
It wasn’t an easy task.
The search for Black history in this nation is uniquely and notoriously difficult, as slaves were often “nameless pieces of property … You can’t find them past the brick wall of chattel enslavement,” Isom said. But he didn’t give up, instead creating Black in Appalachia to piece together a broader, fuller life of the Black community in the mountains and preserve a history so intentionally ignored.
An East Tennessee native, Isom related his organization’s work to the Appalachian tradition of quiltmaking, “using scraps pieced together to create something utilitarian,” he said.
Recently, BIA undertook the immense task of compiling Black census records pre-emancipation and post-emancipation (1860 and 1870), county by county for a commission of the 400 Years of African American History Commission, scanning Black school records such as enrollment cards. “That project is very valuable because the Census hits every decade. These records fill in the gaps between those ten years,” Isom said.
Those records give a snapshot of the lives of the Black community: Not just who the students were, but where they moved from, and the economies their communities engaged in.
“The most important components of historical Black life were the school teachers,” Isom continued, noting a smattering of Black high schools and four historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) within a 200-mile stretch across the mountain region that included Knoxville College, Morristown College, Swift Memorial in Rogersville, and Bluefield State in Bluefield, West Virginia.
Out of those four, Isom said, only Bluefield is in operation, though it’s now predominantly white, and Knoxville College is operating at some capacity. “[Bluefield] is still there, and in alot of cases, that’s more than we can hope for,” he lamented.
He said he sees some hope in the diversification of nearby institutions like West Virginia State, but for the most part it’s an era gone in Appalachia.
BIA is engaged in a mentorship program with two students of color from West Virginia State in partnership with West Virginia Public Radio. The program will guide the students in the production of several folkway stories about Black life in the area.
Black by God, a Black publication in W. Va., documents Black life in the region.
The first project BIA worked on concerned the history of the Swift Memorial Institute, producing a short documentary covering the HBCU which no longer exists (nearly a year after desegregation, the county tore down the building).
“It’s usually the women caretaking these stories,” Isom relayed.
His cousin, Stella Gugder, spent two decades preserving Price Public School which adjoined Swift. Eventually the two buildings were merged, becoming Price Public Community Center & Swift Museum.
“The impact [teachers] had in these schools, they were the glue for the school, the church, the family during Jim Crow,” Isom relayed. BIA has gathered information from schools in Knox and Greene Counties, with the largest amount of records obtained from the Cumberland Gap; specifically Middlesboro, Kentucky, at the invitation of Middlesboro Independent Schools.
Through the discovery of thousands of records with photos, such as with the Lincoln School, “you could see those children grow through the years,” he said.
“Black people were working and living and building relationships in different economies, attending HBCUs in West Virginia and in Tennessee … The state, county, and economic borders didn’t mean much as far as Black relationships were concerned,” he continued. These interactions made clear the fluidity of socioeconomic boundaries through solidarity: Their sports teams played each other, Black churches networked with each other, and community members moved in and with each other, becoming their own support network.
There were several all-Black coal-mining communities in the mountains–Southwest Virginia, Eastern Kentucky, and even Southeastern Ohio.
As time went on, Isom said racial violence and pressure caused Blacks to leave not only Appalachia but the South, and economic opportunities happened parallel. In the coal fields the increased mechanization of the coal process saw people competing for jobs and Blacks were the first to lose. Automation is now causing a similar effect across industries nationwide.
“These coal companies went down to Alabama . . . and recruited Black coal miners from Birmingham . . . You have this whole population of Black folks who had experience in coal-mining . . . and oftentimes these were sharecroppers,” he said. “So you’re leaving sharecropping to go into the bowels of the earth to mine coal but you also now have the opportunity to unionize. And a lot of these Black coal miners … were the ones that helped create the United Mineworkers of America. Their influence on the union and its development was instrumental.”
He also said there’s hope in the recent spate of successful efforts to unionize, even in nonprofits. “I think that the unionization happening across the country will spill over into the mountain regions . . . We’re not separate or special,” he continued. But those efforts are often met with discriminatory labor practices and well-funded internal and public media campaigns that kneecap workers’ ability to collectively bargain.
The industrialized river valley he hails from in East Tennessee is steeped in agricultural tradition, and more specifically Black agricultural tradition. “These agricultural communities, after emancipation, formed networks with Black communities in the coal fields, and so you had people working and building alongside each other,” he said.
And though racial violence is still happening all around America, it isn’t dampening the resolve of the Black communities that call Appalachia home. “We’re from here. Where I’m going to be buried is like, five miles down the road, and where we came out of enslavement is five miles the other way. We’ve been here a long time,” he commented.
The region’s relationship with corporate America and the outside world has always been one-sided, with Appalachia often on the losing end. In the early 20th century U.S. Steel was a global corporate giant and had bought entire towns to facilitate the constant extraction of its resources, humans included. “Appalachia is on the bleeding edge of modernity,” Isom solemnly noted. “We are always the ones to receive the first cuts, to bleed in our work. Where we are geographically and historically, we’ll continue to be [in this position].”
But there are positive changes, too. “In 2022 what we see now is a reverse migration, more Black people moving into Appalachia from all over,” Isom said. The cost of living, retiring, and the notion of coming back to the old family land are major draws.
“We’re really lucky to be able to have the space and time to try to fill in the gaps of our historical narrative,” Isom said.
BIA recently bought a building in Whitesburg that includes a research room, bookstore and library, and welcomes donations to help sustain their work. BIA is also always looking for volunteers and offers a range of benefits through its student partnerships; students can get practicum hours and interdisciplinary training in information science, mass communication, sociology and more.
You can find Black in Appalachia’s fascinating content on YouTube, PBS East Tennessee and its podcast on Google, Stitcher, Apple and Spotify. You can search their digital archives for a wealth of information on the trials, tenacity and triumphs of Black Appalachia at blackinappalachia.org. Instagram: @black_in_appalachia Twitter: @BlackAppalachia