Few in Number, Black Residents in Appalachia Push for Justice

By: - October 5, 2020 12:00 am

Just as soon as the grand jury decision came down in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor, several people in southeastern Kentucky began organizing a candlelight vigil in her memory.

Taylor was killed in March by police officers in Louisville, Kentucky, who executed a midnight no-knock search warrant, the type of which the city has since banned.

In late September, a state grand jury held no one criminally accountable for killing Taylor. Protests broke out in Louisville and other large cities.

In the small Appalachian town of Hazard, Joseph Palumbo and several friends began looking for a place to hold a vigil and posting updates to a closed Facebook group. Dozens of people attended.

“After all these needless deaths, it’s getting to the point where I can’t hold my tongue,” said Palumbo, 33, who’s biracial and was raised by White grandparents. “I can’t be a keyboard warrior. I want to do something about it.”

Months after a wave of anti-police brutality and Black Lives Matter demonstrations stretched into rural, largely White areas, the organizing persists in pockets of Central Appalachia. Young and old are sharpening their political voices and strengthening alliances across races.

Their work, however, serves as an example of the challenges organizers face in pushing for racial justice in areas where people of color are few. Some Black residents say they feel physically and psychologically isolated.

In Central Appalachia, the Black population is small, and therefore easily overlooked by White people and mainstream media, residents and experts say. Few Black residents or any people of color are represented in the highest ranks of local political leadership. People of all ages agree: There’s a disconnect between their generations. An above average unemployment rate pushes young adults to seek opportunity elsewhere.

And how do you talk about racism in a community that’s predominantly White?

“We make White folks do it,” said Jill Carson, who lives in Pennington Gap in southwest Virginia.

Carson and her husband, Ron, lead anti-racism workshops in the region. At the point in the training when participants separate by race, a White trainer works with the White group so that they can talk freely. The Carsons have converted the old one-room schoolhouse for Black children that Ron attended into the Appalachian African-American Cultural Center. They’re also beginning to reach out to local White pastors and encouraging them to address racism with their congregations.

Jill Carson, who also is vice mayor of Pennington Gap, is the first Black woman to hold the office. 

In some areas, the Central Appalachia community is stuck in the 1950s, says Ierusha Martin, a native of Middlesboro, Kentucky.

“We still do the good ‘ole boy system: not what I know but who I know,” said Martin, 65. “So that is a terrible disadvantage for African-American people for the simple fact that we were not a part of the good ‘ole boy system, OK? A person of stature does not give us a recommendation, then we’re left out.” 

Black residents represent 2% of the population in Appalachia’s eastern Kentucky counties. They’re 8.23% of all Kentuckians, according to 2019 population estimates from the Kentucky State Data Center at the University of Louisville. More than half of Black Kentuckians live in the metropolitan areas that include Jefferson (46%) and Fayette (13%) counties.

Between the last quarter of 2007, also the last quarter before the Great Recession, and the first quarter of 2020, the unemployment rate for White Kentuckians declined 1.1 percentage points, according to an Economic Policy Institute analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Nationally, people of color have lost their jobs at a higher rate than White people, but Kentucky’s populations of color are too small for sample sizes that create accurate estimates. 

They may be few, but Blacks and other people of color are pushing for political power and recognition.  

Since Palumbo turned his attention over the summer to leading social justice work, he now aspires to run one day for the Hazard City Commission.

We’re Here

Despite mainstream media narratives of Appalachia as White and poor, there’s a long history of Black residents in the region.

During the Civil War, people in Central Appalachia debated whether to remain loyal to the Union or to join the Confederacy. The western portion of Virginia split from the rest of the state and joined the Union, becoming the separate state of West Virginia in 1863. An Underground Railroad ran through the mountains from Chattanooga to Pennsylvania.

During the Great Migration, Black residents left the Deep South to work together with White Appalachians and European immigrants in the Central Appalachia coal fields. Black coal miners lived comfortably in coal company towns, such as Benham and Lynch in southeastern Kentucky, according to research in the Oxford African American Studies Center, an online collection of reference works and articles edited by Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Automation increased in the decades following World War II. Facing racial discrimination and other challenges, the Black population decreased as many left to pursue other opportunities.

“We’ve got to remind folks that there are Black people here,” said Mekyah Davis, a community organizer in Big Stone Gap in southwest Virginia. “Our background and experience is different, but we’re still Black folks in America.”

Davis, 24, is co-coordinator of the STAY Project, a network of teenagers and young adults who seek to make their communities places young people will want to invest in. He is also working to connect and develop Black leadership through the group Black Appalachian Young and Rising, which celebrated its inaugural meeting last November.

“There’s a longing for connection with Black folks,” Davis said. “We want to be together.”

Eyes Open

Brandi Boggs, who is White and grew up in Hazard, said she didn’t realize the extent to which racism was a problem in southeastern Kentucky until she had her son, who’s biracial.

She recalls people staring at her when she struggled to push her screaming newborn in a grocery store buggy and then unload her groceries in her car. No one offered to help, not even staff at the store. Boggs says she’s been refused apartments after landlords see her son.

“I knew racism was a thing,” Boggs said. “It was different after I had him. It opened my eyes.”

Boggs’ son, Damian, 16, initially struggled with George Floyd’s killing. “I couldn’t connect with him on that level,” Boggs said.

Damian told his mother that she didn’t understand how he felt. “But I know what it feels like every time you walk out the door and I hear sirens,” Boggs said.

“He’s worried about himself and he hurts for himself, but he doesn’t understand that Mom worries for you too,” Boggs added.

The overall population in eastern Kentucky declined by 5%, and the White population by 6%, between 2010 and 2019. However, the populations of color grew, Black residents by 4%, Asian residents by 26% and Hispanic residents by 37%. By numbers, Blacks are the largest group, at 10,988 people, followed by 9,904 Hispanics.

Mixed race and non-Hispanic populations of American Indians or Alaskan natives, Asians, native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders, grew by a third to 9,377, according to population estimates from the Kentucky State Data Center, a local partner of the U.S. Census Bureau.

Boggs organized a vigil following George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis. She tapped Palumbo to be the public face of the event, prompting Palumbo’s move to social justice leadership. Other organizers, like Palumbo, are biracial, in interracial relationships or have biracial children.

Palumbo was born in Jeffersonville, Indiana, and moved to Hazard when he was a toddler. Some organizers are from urban areas like Lexington, Kentucky, and have settled in the area.

Despite the changing demographics, some residents of color say they face intolerant attitudes from public officials.

For example, the assistant commonwealth attorney for Perry County, Cordell “Buddy” Williams Jr., posted a meme in mid-September to Facebook with an image of a young Black boy shrugging, with the all-capital-letter caption, “When you can’t get Little Caesar’s because your cousin burned it down.”

Palumbo shared a screenshot of Williams’ post in a closed Facebook group he and others started to share Black history facts and organize other peaceful protests.

“He may not have meant anything by it but, it’s distasteful,” Palumbo told Stateline, adding that people are entitled to their opinions. 

“My whole thing is, the folks who govern us, the city officials, it’s alarming to me how many of these people have control over people of color’s livelihoods.” 

Williams did not respond to Stateline’s requests for comment.

“A lot of people in the public eye, they’ve not said much about it,” Boggs said. “You can’t really defend people if you’re not on their side. And he pretty much made it obvious whose side he was on when he posted it.”

Apathy and Rage

It’s unclear whether the recent organizing for racial justice will result in political change or a greater awareness of the needs of people of color locally.

“Around here, folks tend to believe that if you’re not with the same political affiliation, it doesn’t matter how else you identify — if you’re gay, if you’re straight, if you’re Black, if you’re from an indigenous community or community of color,” said Joshua Outsey, who’s from Knoxville, Tennessee, and lives in Big Stone Gap. “If you’re not Republican, if you don’t have the same political views, you are bad. Period.”

In 2016, President Donald Trump won large majorities of eastern Kentucky counties and 62.5% of the state.

In June, a Senate Democratic primary between Kentucky state Rep. Charles Booker, the state’s youngest Black lawmaker, and Amy McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot, was considered a litmus test for changing views on race amid the summer’s unrest. Booker was intentional about engaging urban and rural Kentuckians. He captured 42.6% of the vote and lost. But Booker enjoyed a late gush of support. He lost to McGrath by 2.8 percentage points.

While Outsey and others say they have forged cross-racial alliances in their racial justice work, older Black generations often don’t engage. “There’s apathy and rage,” Davis, the co-coordinator of STAY, said in describing the disconnect.

“In the mountains here, a lot of Black folks stay to themselves,” Outsey said. “They don’t want to cause any trouble and they don’t really participate in a lot of things. People just stay in their houses and mind their own business, and they’re friendly to their neighbors.”

Rutland Melton, a Black retired coal miner who was born and raised in Lynch, Kentucky, said he’s surprised to see so many local White people wearing masks that say Black Lives Matter. But the older generation is hesitant to participate because they, their parents and their grandparents experienced racism that limited their job prospects and livelihoods.

“The older generation is thinking about the things, the names they had to take to being called coming up,” said Melton, 72. “Yeah they would be skeptical. It’s the way they were raised. They don’t trust because of the way they were treated. The younger generation, they’re not coming up in a divided world.”

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April Simpson

April Simpson reports on rural issues at Stateline. Before joining Pew, Simpson was associate editor of Current, where she covered public broadcasting and nonprofit media.