William H. Turner’s The Harlan Renaissance: A Memoir 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.Read More »