Celebrating Black History Month in Appalachia: An early look at William Turner’s Harlan Renaissance

William H. Turner’s The Harlan Renaissance: Stories of Black Life in Appalachian Coal Towns is coming from West Virginia University Press in fall 2021, and will be announced officially in our next catalog. In this preview from the manuscript, Turner—a sociologist and recipient of the lifetime of service award from the Appalachian Studies Association—reflects on Black life in his hometown of Lynch, Kentucky.

Lynch was a model company town, among the first planned communities in the mountains of the South. The engineers estimated that there was enough coal to stay in business for a century, so they, by design, constructed the business, mining, recreational, health care, and residential structures of the most durable materials. All municipal services were first-rate. By mid-September 1917, the year of my father’s birth, 300 cars of materials had been unloaded and the building of the town began. A mine was opened, and rail tracks were extended from Benham, which was owned by International Harvester, another of J. P. Morgan’s companies. The new town was named after Thomas Lynch, the president of US Steel, who had passed on three years earlier.

Within the blink of an industrial eye, between 1917 and 1920, the population of Lynch increased dramatically, to 7,200. The first nonnative residents in Lynch were Italian and Hungarian stonemasons brought directly from Ellis Island by the company; these robust souls were the first line of laborers who carved out what became a colossal coal camp, carved into the wilderness. By 1940, Harlan County’s population (75,275) was exceeded in Kentucky only by the counties of Jefferson (Louisville) and Fayette (Lexington).

Lynch and towns like Harlan, Hazard, Jenkins, and Wheelwright (in eastern Kentucky); Big Stone Gap, Grundy, and Stonega (in southwest Virginia); and Gary, Keystone, and Beckley (in southern West Virginia) were as racially and ethnically diverse—each group living in their neighborhoods and with traditions openly displayed—and as booming and blooming as New York City. Harlan County was to Kentucky Black coal mining families in the 1920s through the 1940s what Harlem was to Black New Yorkers in the same period. It was the cultural and social epicenter of the region for Blacks; and, as “the blackest town for mountains around,” Lynch was equivalent to 125th Street in Harlem—the school was our Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the Pool Room was our Apollo Theater.

The influx of Blacks—primarily from central Alabama—into the coalfields of central Appalachia reached its peak in the 1920s, the exact same time during which the “Great Migration” of Black Americans took place from the Black Belt South to the urban North. The section of New York City known as Harlem became ground zero for an African American cultural rebirth and resurgence that was labeled as the New Negro Movement or the Harlem Renaissance. America’s cultural gatekeepers—the mainstream journalists, critics, and publishing houses—had not, until the influx of Blacks to New York City in the 1920s, paid any attention to African Americans as far as literature, music, art, and politics were concerned. At this point, still, a critical mass of entertainers, such as Appalachian (Chattanooga) blues vocalist Bessie Smith, writers, and musicians exploded onto Harlem’s performance spaces, and in newspaper and magazine pages around the world. Not only did some of the top artists, like Duke Ellington, make highly publicized forays during this period into coal camps such as Lynch and Bluefield, West Virginia, but Maceo Pinkard, a Bluefield native, although not well known, also composed “Them There Eyes.”

When I went away to college in Lexington to the University of Kentucky at the age of twenty in 1966, my initial observation, my version of cultural shock, was made by phone to my parents: “I’ve never understood why they say there are no Black people in our neck of the woods. I have never seen this high a concentration of White people in my whole life!”

Fact is the counties in Kentucky’s coal producing regions—Bell, Floyd, Harlan, Knox, Laurel, Letcher, Perry, and Pike—were among the state’s most populous counties at the onset of WWII, and the percentage of Blacks in those counties was uniformly higher than in other parts of the state. Coal was king, and throngs of people moved into the region during the first four decades of the twentieth century to make their living serving the emperor. In 1940, Lynch’s population hovered around 11,000—about 14 percent of the county—and with some 4,500 employees working its mines, the US Steel plant there was one of the state’s largest employers.

Our family was among the nearly 4,000 Black people living in Lynch at the time. Life in Lynch in the middle of the twentieth century moved with a great display of energy, and it teemed with “something”; what the French called je ne sais quoi, an undefinable, elusive, and rather pleasing quality. It bustled with lots of people, many unforgettable characters, and all sorts of activities, both the sacred and the profane.

The mythical reputation of Harlan County, especially the “Bloody Harlan” tag, is linked to several major events in the struggle to unionize coal miners, which took place in the mid-1930s. The “Boom Times” of the forties faded into what became the “Awful Fifties,” when major changes hit Lynch like the caving in of the roof of a mine, wrought on by the weight of the ever-increasing mechanization of coal mining. Machines marginalized and then replaced men, and migration out of the area cleared people out of it just as the in-migration a half century earlier had filled it. US Steel sold its Lynch works to Arch Minerals of St. Louis in 1963, the same year the Lynch Colored School was closed. In 1960, there were 900 coal mining and related workers in Lynch. The losses and the proof of displacements were intense and evident. Yet by 1982, the Lynch mines, moving toward their lowest employment numbers, set another record for production of coal in one year—2,000,000 tons. A decade later, the last coal was removed from a seam in Lynch; it wasn’t done by coal miners, but through strip-mining, which requires very few laborers. On the north face of Black Mountain, the vegetation was cleared, the soil was removed, holes were drilled and blasted with dynamite, and the coal was “stripped” from the naked and exposed mountainside. The area has not yet been reclaimed. When the last Lynch mine was closed and sealed—literally—it invoked the feeling one gets at a burial site when the preacher says, “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” The mine opening was like a source of life, like a dear brother or sister, now departed, recommitted unto itself—the mountain.

21 thoughts on “Celebrating Black History Month in Appalachia: An early look at William Turner’s Harlan Renaissance

    • A good read. As I read this I relived my childhood and was captivated by the experience. I was a neighbor to Dr Turner. I was raised across the street from the Turners and proud to be apart of this history. Joyce Hall – Petteway now living in Waterbury CT since the great migration of the ‘60s. Can’t wait to read the book.

  1. This is a great start to the memoir. I was pulled right in. Damn, I wish it was released today.

  2. Put me down for a copy of the book! I know it will be great from the stories Dr Turner has shared over the years!

  3. This writing is a prophetic and moving discourse of a rich collective history of the migration of African Americans from the deep south, insearch of a”land of plenty” or a “land of enough”, arriving at “Sanctiified hill” to suport and educate a family. My knowledge of the many families i have come to know from Lynch is progressive and inspiring. I married into one such family, that of James Mason Freeman, Sr. and appreciating the decreasing degrees of seperation for ancestry, in this writing I note that my family in Waterbury Connecticut is related to the Petteway family. This book is a must for every black family that migtated from somewhere else looking for a better life an a chance to make a difference..Dr. Yvonne Blanchard- Freeman

  4. I lived up the street 261 2nd street was in love with Bill’s older. brother my Dad answered the phone a many of night and allowed me to talk to Irving Turner. I am looking for your book Dr Turner
    Pat. Tinsley

  5. Bill I was just watching Mysteries from the Abandoned about Lynch and the coal miners. Looking forward to reading the book and nothing but admiration and respect for how you put pen to paper.

  6. Fascinating and closer to the Appalachia I remember growing up in Laurel County and attending London High School in early 60’s. Proud of my fellow UK alum. Looking forward to reading the entire book.

  7. Thanks, Dr. Deaton. I am still in touch with folks from East Bernsteadt, your neck of the woods, to include Aaron Thompson, head of the CPE in KY., from Clay County

  8. Riveting depiction of my own modern day “Roots” as told by the ultimate Storyteller Himself, Dr. Turner aka Billbo!! Thanks BigBrother Homey for telling our story as no other could! Can’t wait to get my hands on the finished works later this year! GOD bless you to keep yet keepin on my Brotha!

    • “First and foremost an enthralling personal account of history in the making. A compelling and imaginative 20th century tale of Black Coal Miners life in Eastern Kentucky Appalachia mountains. A deeply thoughtful and thoroughly researched story, one worthy of a careful reading and time spent in reflection.
      Dr Turner’s provocative interpretations are sure to anger some readers and intrigue others… I’ll never forget reading it.”

      Benham Boys

  9. I am so excited to find these bread crumbs to lead me into the lives of my parents not to long gone. Thank uoi for your remberances and tireless work all these years! Brenda Williams Parker daughter of Emmett and Ann

    • Hello Brenda. How well I remember your father Emmett, who was classmates with my late brother, Irvin, on the cover of the book with my other other siblings. I also your kind and very friendly grandfather, as I am sure most in my generation from Lynch do. Josephine Williams, your aunt, was my classmate.

  10. I look forward with tip toe anticipation the release of Bill Turner’s Harlan Renaissance. Its teaser brings back fond memories of growing up in Verda and Georgetown where we swimmed in the Cumberland River, and trekked through the mountains and come upon beautiful glens that captured the sweetness of nature , places more idyllic than I have ever seen. And on the social side, who can forget the Jump Sharp in Lynch and the Hall in Harlan, our version of Harlem’s up town night spots , where we partied into the night. Bill’s soliloquy on the coal miners brings to mind their nick names: Black Hawk, my father, Big Heavy my uncle, and Contractor , a master coal loader. Bill’s master piece will spark similar memories in others. All of us are indebted to Bill for his adulation and devotion to the treasure of Appalachia. I venture to say that his book’ elegance, eloquence, and brilliance will rival the excellence of any existing literature on Appalachia. Thank you my dear friend.

  11. So grateful for another vital piece in the full history of the Appalachian South. Cannot wait for the full book, and the stories it will inspire others to tell and listen to, as well.

  12. I am so excited that this book, which I know has been percolating for a while in the mind, body and soul of Bill, has come to fruition. I am equally excited to read it. I know that only Bill has the proper balance of knowledge, informed by his mastery of applied sociological theory and his unique capability of applying a gifted sense of infusing humor when describing complicated, sometimes very messy and often mundane life experiences of those of us who lived our developmental years in Harlan County, as well as our parents and others who also lived there. Although, I was not born in Harlan County, I grew up and was educated and imprinted by my “lived experiences” in that environment. Bill and I became very good childhood friends because we had a common goal: we wanted to go to college and started to prepare ourselves academically to do so by often studying together. In fact, Bill taught me to practice the vocabulary quiz that was in the back of the Readers Digest magazine as a way to improve my vocabulary, for which I have always been grateful. Our families have remained friends over the years and for more than twenty years we spent our Thanksgiving holidays together as one expanded family. It is within this context that I have watched my friend refine his scholarship about Appalachian culture that has allowed him to produce this highly anticipated book where his love for the people of Appalachia with a special understanding and love for those of Harlan County shines so brightly.

  13. Hey young man:
    I don’t know what we would do without your time and talent that you have so eloquently used to provide a true synopsis of why we are who we are and where we came from! Your ability to tell the world about our origins and the triumphs that we have achieved despite the challenges we faced(not knowing if our Dads would come out of the belly of the earth on a daily basis) coupled with their unyielding insistence that we had to exploit our destiny to greatness in whatever capacity is the mark of excellence that is truly immeasurable!!!!!!
    Thank you Sir Turner for your wealth of kindness and talent to do what can’t be done with the sensationalism or intensity of your caliber……I’m forever grateful for you and I look forward to getting my hands on your written work as soon as it is available!!!!!

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