Where the past is prologue to the future, what may be yet to come for black people in Appalachian Kentucky might be mirrored in the stories of families such as mine. We spent 94 years at the base of Kentucky's highest peak, Black Mountain, in Harlan County.
My family was among the thousands of blacks who came to towns like Benham, Lynch, Cumberland, Harlan, Hazard, Jenkins, McRoberts, Middlesboro, Pineville and Wheelwright, beginning just over a century ago. Families like ours established the churches, schools and mutual aid societies which served their segregated communities during the reign of King Coal.
Jobs in the coal industry and the building of rail lines attracted them; most from the vicinity of Birmingham, Ala., where many on our family trees served as coal miners since the Civil War. United States Coal, Coke and Steel — once the largest corporation in America — had mines in and around Birmingham.
By 1920, the Pittsburgh-based company's facility in Lynch employed 5,000 — a third of them black — who with picks and shovels fed the black gold into the "largest coal tipple in the world," fueling the industrialization and modernization of the entire country. My grandfather, father, uncle and brother (all deceased by 2000) put in a total of 128 years in the U.S. Steel mine in Lynch.
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The hope and promise of a future for blacks who took coal-mining jobs a century ago in Eastern Kentucky lasted until machines began to replace manual laborers. Ironically, both my father and brother were among the first blacks to operate continuous mining machines, after my father, in a class-action suit, won a racial discrimination claim against U.S. Steel in 1970. Long-wall mining machines replaced more and more miners. Today, blacks are hardly employed around mountaintop removal coal sites.
Black people began to leave the area a half century ago. Fact is, had the rate of out-migration of the general population been the same as it has been for blacks over the past 50 years; there would be no people at all in Eastern Kentucky. Recently, as I drove through my hometown, what I saw — again for the umpteenth time since I left high school in 1964 — were more abandoned, kudzu-covered houses on lots vacated by families who now call Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit and Lexington home. Portal 31 — where the men in families like ours courageously entered and exited the mine for most of the last century — is a museum.
Eerily, it isn't just the physical spaces and places of my youth that are faded and vanished. It's also not seeing people walking or sitting on the porches or in the gathering places where the buzz is made.
Unlike most in my generation and beyond who left shortly after high school, the Rev. Ronnie Hampton, 63, stayed. The first African-American mayor of Lynch, who recently retired as a state mining inspector noted: "We were taught that we had to leave home to become successful, there was nothing here for us, no future."
Now to include Hispanics, who are a larger minority than blacks in some places, we must ensure that a critical mass of people of color are visibly active members of the decision-making process and in grassroots, community-based groups whose actions will influence and shape the future of the region.
These citizens must be proactively engaged as alliance-builders, community leaders, policymakers, professionals, public servants and skilled workers to keep hope alive for their future too in a revived, transformed, prospering and sustainable Kentucky.