The Harlan Renaissance Captures an Overlooked Part of Appalachia’s Past, With Lessons for Today
By Appalachian Places staff
Dr. William H. “Bill” Turner is a giant in the field of Appalachian studies, and the preeminent chronicler of the Black experience in the region. His 1985 book, Blacks in Appalachia, co-edited with the late Ed Cabell, was the first comprehensive scholarly examination of its subject and remains a major work in the field. As Alex Haley once said, “Bill Turner knows more about black life and culture in the mountains of the American South than anybody in the world.” Turner’s latest book is The Harlan Renaissance: Stories of Black Life in Appalachian Coal Towns. The book is a fascinating account aptly described by its publisher as:
. . . an intimate remembrance of kinship and community in eastern Kentucky’s coal towns written by one of the luminaries of Appalachian studies, William Turner. Turner reconstructs Black life in the company towns in and around Harlan County during coal’s final postwar boom years, which built toward an enduring bust as the children of Black miners, like the author, left the region in search of better opportunities.
The Harlan Renaissance invites readers into what might be an unfamiliar Appalachia: one studded by large and vibrant Black communities, where families took the pulse of the nation through magazines like Jet and Ebony and through the news that traveled within Black churches, schools, and restaurants. Difficult choices for the future were made as parents considered the unpredictable nature of Appalachia’s economic realities alongside the unpredictable nature of a national movement toward civil rights.
Unfolding through layers of sociological insight and oral history, The Harlan Renaissance centers the sympathetic perspectives and critical eye of a master narrator of Black life.
Turner, the fifth of ten children, was born in 1946 in the coal town of Lynch, Kentucky, in Harlan County. His grandfathers, father, four uncles and older brother were coal miners. He has spent his professional career studying and working on behalf of marginalized communities, helping them create opportunities in the larger world while not abandoning their important cultural ties. While Turner is best known for his ground-breaking research on African-American communities in Appalachia, he has also studied economic systems and social structures in the urban South and burgeoning Latino communities in the Southwest. In his work with communities, he strives for what we all want: prosperity, understanding and respect.
Turner has served as chair of the Department of Social Sciences at Winston-Salem State University, as dean of Arts and Sciences and interim president at Kentucky State University, as vice president for Multicultural Affairs at the University of Kentucky, and as distinguished professor of Appalachian Studies and regional ambassador at Berea College. His many honors include: Kentucky’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Person of the Year, membership in Kentucky’s Civil Rights Hall of Fame, and the Appalachian Studies Association Lifetime Service Award.
On Oct. 21, Dr. Turner delivered a lecture on his book at East Tennessee State University. The event was the inaugural lecture in a new lecture series co-sponsored by ETSU’s Department of Appalachian Studies and Black American Studies program. Appalachian Places co-editor Dr. Ron Roach was able to ask Bill a few questions about the book, which we share with our readers in the interview below.
First of all, I have really enjoyed reading the book. It is outstanding and is such a detailed, comprehensive treatment. In the text, you mention several reasons for writing the book. What would you say was your main motivation for writing this book at this time?
Maybe it was a matter of time itself. I've been carrying this idea around in my head for many, many years. In the book, I point out how I had done a book called Blacks in Appalachia with Ed Cabell 35 years ago. My friend Alex Haley, the Pulitzer Prize winner, said to me, “Bill, please don’t write any more crap like this!” You know, he did not disrespect the fact that it was an anthology done for academics, as you're pursuing tenure, that kind of thing. It was full of data and charts, and (it) was what you assume that people in Appalachian Studies might want to see, an analysis. He said, “You need to write something that your mother, your sisters, and people who don't have a degree in anthropology will want to read.” I said, “Oh, I know where this is going!”
So, it took me a long time to figure out how you do this. You mentioned the detail in the book, and I remember Alex telling me to just sit around sometimes and think about how your mama's kitchen looked, how the bedroom looked, and the trees and the spaces. And, you know, trying to get that in my head took a long, long time. So, I would say that the inspiration was Alex Haley's "Roots," as it was with so many people. And so, I'm just glad I finally got it done.
And another inspiration was watching my town — all those coal towns, not just mine — in southwest Virginia, in southern West Virginia, just watching them over the last 40 years dry up like a raisin in the sun. And so I think I was saying to myself, “I better do this now. If I don't do it, who's going to do it?” It's a slice of American culture, American society, that's just fast disappearing from the landscape. Generation, you know capture it while it's still fresh in my mind. And the last element of time is that I'm 75 years old, so my motivation is, “It’s time!”
In the book you mention going to John Rice Irwin’s museum and not finding your story there, and as you and Ed Cabell were among the first to point out, in the past Blacks have been made largely “invisible” in Appalachia, according to stereotypes. And I'm wondering, as you look back over time, since you and Ed published Blacks in Appalachia, has that changed or improved?
One way to look at it is to think about all the work that is being done now. Many times I've been over to East Tennessee State, and several times in the past few years at your invitation. The work there at the Langston Centre in Johnson City — Adam Dickson’s work. The International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough just completed a fabulous program on stories told by African Americans in Appalachia. There are the connections in Pennington Gap, Virginia — some 34 years ago, Ron and Jill Carson founded something called the Appalachian African-American Cultural Center there. I think of the work going on at colleges — places like Berea College and ETSU. I was just returning the other day from Morgantown, West Virginia, so I literally see some colleges vying with each other to say, “We're going to be the centering place, we're going to be ground zero for the study of Blacks and Appalachia.” There were folks, as you know, who came along, maybe 30 years ago now, and they had a new name for the record, called Affrilachia. There was a group of poets who so admired the place that they named themselves the Affrilachian Poets. There are websites galore all over the place. So, yeah, over the last 35 years I have seen so much expansion of the interest of people in terms of Blacks in Appalachia.
Just last month, I spent some time with W. Kamau Bell, who does this show on CNN called the United Shades of America, right? He came through and met me and we went to my hometown in Lynch and Harlan County, Kentucky. We spent time in that environment and the next day he went and interviewed some Black people in Big Stone Gap and Appalachia, and then we went up into West Virginia — with this eleven-person film crew — to McDowell County, West Virginia, and they even went over to Harpers Ferry to make some recordings about the role that place had in the beginning of the Civil War. They looked at the home of Booker T. Washington, they went to Huntington to look at the high school and the markers for the homeplace of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the founder of Black History Month. Then they came full circle back to East Tennessee where they came to the Highlander Center in New Market, where they filmed an episode around the whole Civil Rights Movement that took place there when Rosa Parks and Dr. King and Mr. Abernathy and John Lewis and Stokely Carmichael and Guy and Candy Carawan, and all these people met, as you know, at the only place in the South where Blacks and whites could meet together and strategize about Civil Rights. I can think of a nice new museum that's come up in Harlan, Kentucky, so there's a model, for example (The Southeast Kentucky African American Museum and Cultural Center, Harlan, Kentucky). I think it's important to note that Appalshop, that venerable studio that has been telling the truth about Appalachia for years, now has its first Black chief executive officer. So, there's a lot going on right now, and I think that I can't stop without mentioning the podcast that I've done with ETSU’s very own Dr. Ted Olson, on Black Appalachian music (Sepia Tones, produced by the Great Smoky Mountains Association). So we have a lot of people doing a lot of things and I'm so glad to see that you and I started down this road, about six years ago now, with bringing me to ETSU.
This has been a great partnership and I think a lot of this progress is due to your efforts. In several places in the book you talk about how this book can be useful and what people can take away from it today. What do you think this book, your story, the story of your town and your family, what main lessons does it have for us in our time?
Well, I think, a couple of things. One, my dear friend and mentor Loyal Jones, one of the founders of Appalachian studies, wrote the foreword to my book. Remember, more than 40 years ago, Loyal produced a document called Appalachian Values, and it talks about patriotism, faith, community, neighborliness, hard work, the primacy of family, and all of those values that spoke to Appalachian values. Well, those values are the foundation of what I saw as the resilience and the perseverance and the ability of people who were in coal mining towns in the '20s and '30s and the '40s and so many who came as contract labor as coal miners to places like outside of Birmingham, Alabama, just after the Civil War. So, one of the things that I think I've tried to say is, “Don't ever lose those kinds of Appalachian values.” That was a central part of what I tried to say.
And second, I tried to say, I hope, in very clear terms, that we made some tragic mistakes when we shuttered the Black schools that were called segregated schools in the '50s and the '60s and the '70s. The first thing they did was get rid of the Black teachers. I think that in the professionalization of Black people in education, fewer and fewer people went into education. I think I was trying to say, we need to step back and figure out some kind of way, how can we get more African Americans to become teachers. Teachers have great influence on people from grade school to graduate school, and the percentage of Blacks in grade schools, high schools, middle schools, graduate schools, is abysmally low, and I would hope that institutions like teachers colleges around the country will do a better job of recruiting and diversifying, including Black people, in terms of expanding the core of Blacks in the teaching profession.
In the book you have a chapter called, In a Coal Mine, Everybody Is Black; Outside, Not So Much. In that chapter you talk about the community in the coal camps that developed between Blacks and whites. You point out that racism was there but it was often not as obvious as it was in other places, that it was — the image you used was that it was like a rattlesnake coiled back in the hills that may have been dormant but you always knew it was there and could lash out. Could you elaborate on the kind of community that existed there?
Sure. Recently, I was in a situation where I was discussing my high school principal, a young white man that became the principal of the school when it was integrated. And I described him as the first white liberal I ever met, and I was about 17 when I met him. And then I thought about it, and I said, “Wait a minute, they won't know what I mean by liberal white because, you know, now that's become somewhat of a dirty word.” But we had these relationships in the community. There were some whites that used to come around in the Black community, particularly in settings like my grandma's kitchen, because she was a bootlegger. They would come down to my grandma's house after dark and one of them was the head of the local bank. He knew my grandma. My father was friends with some of the men that he worked with, I think they were very good friends. Dad would say of some of them, “Oh, he's a good old boy.” They had those kinds of relationships on a personal level.
So, I'm convinced that at a general global level, I don't know when we'll all behave like brothers and sisters, but I do know that individuals can find ways to get along, right? To get to know each other personally, to interact on a very personal and loving level, and I think if individuals did that the way I saw people do in my hometown that we'd all be a lot better off for it and I don't want to ever miss the opportunity to say that, in terms of the race issue.
Excerpt from The Harlan Renaissance, by William Turner:
As a direct result of growing up in an industrial town, one where planning, hard work, and ingenuity transformed a wilderness into a relatively bountiful human beehive that sustained life — and hope and faith — for legions of otherwise rootless Black people, I developed an industrial-strength sense of optimism and positivity. Even the trees that were felled a century ago to make the homes we lived in have been replaced, and life has been renewed. Similarly, I believe, and hope, that yet another Harlan Renaissance — another recovery, an additional regeneration, and an extra special revival — will arrive in the coal towns of central Appalachia.
The Harlan Renaissance: Stories Of Black Life In Appalachian Coal Towns
352 pp. West Virginia University Press, 2021. Paperback, eBook $26.99. Cloth $99.99.