It's not unusual for residents of small towns to bond by ties to family, vocations and geography. It's not unheard of for former residents of those small towns to host a reunion occasionally.
And it's relatively normal for former residents, who have settled in other areas, to have gatherings celebrating the good ol' days in their adopted cities.
But what is unusual is for those residents to establish chapters throughout this country, for those chapters to unite in a central location annually, and for that celebration to be still going on more than 40 years later.
That is exactly what black residents and former residents of Harlan County have done since 1970 as members of the Eastern Kentucky Social Club.
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Many of them, some say 1,500 or more, will be in Lexington on Labor Day weekend for the club's 42nd meeting. What that means for me is a two-week vacation to prepare for, attend, and then recover from that reunion.
My husband has very deep roots in Lynch, a coal mining town in Harlan County, built in 1917 by U.S. Coal & Coke Co., a subsidiary of U.S. Steel. The town is named for Thomas Lynch, a president of U.S. Coal & Coke Co., not for a brutal means of death.
Carolyn M. Sundy, vice president for diversity and special programs at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, was born and raised there. "My mom came from Alabama and my granddaddy was a moonshiner and union organizer."
The coal companies recruited labor from other countries as well as other states.
Although those hard and dangerous jobs provided a decent living for the miners, most wanted their children to strive for more, Sundy said. Many did just that, especially after mining slowed in the 1940s and 1950s. Younger folks left for college or manufacturing jobs up north and started families far away.
But Harlan County was never far from their hearts.
Sundy, who is a member of the Lynch Chapter of the EKSC, said she received a call recently from the daughter of a 94-year old woman who was making plans to attend the reunion this year.
"The daughter said her mother hadn't attended for a few years, but that she was coming this year," Sundy said. "She didn't know how she was going to get here, but she was coming."
EKSC began, according to Gean Austin of Lynch, at a gathering in Cleveland in 1968 or 1969 when a few men decided to have a reunion.
The idea spread and people formed chapters in other cities including Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago, New York City, Washington, D.C., and Milwaukee.
In 1970, the first gathering was held in Cleveland. The following year, Austin said he and four other men decided to start a chapter in Lynch. The Lynch chapter grew to more than 100 members, but has since fallen to about 27.
Only about 10 chapters are still active, with Detroit being the largest, Austin said.
The Lynch chapter, many of whose members live in Lexington, are the hosts for this reunion.
At its peak, EKSC could draw more than 3,000 expatriates, giving folks a reason to travel to other cities.
"It started with 250 to 300 people at a bar that someone owned," Austin said. "Then it got bigger and bigger. "
The reunions cost local chapters between $25,000 and $40,000, Austin said. Some of that money is recouped with registration and renting vendor booths and some from advertising and donations.
About 500 people have pre-registered for this year's reunion, he said, for tours, workshops, and the banquet and dance, but hundreds of others come just to hang out and retell old tales.
"We should have close to 2,000 people in Lexington," he said, adding, "a large crowd for today's economy."
Older members are fearful, however, that such a meaningful gathering may fade.
To address those fears, the Lynch committee has invited young people, some with only their parents' memories of Harlan County, to a Friday night dance. The reunion's theme is "Connecting Our Rich Legacy: Bridging the Gaps."
P.G. Peeples, president and CEO of the Lexington Urban League and a Harlan County native, said his talk at the banquet Sunday evening will stress the need for more young people to get involved.
"The reason is because we want to be assured that the legacies established by our parents and forebears is kept alive," Peeples said. "And that the future generations would know about the contributions of African-Americans who lived in the coal mining towns of Eastern Kentucky."