Discovering 'The Harlan Renaissance' and a Different Take on Appalachian Coal Towns
Updated: Apr 9
By Ronnie Blair
When I began writing my memoir Eisenhower Babies: Growing Up on Moonshots, Comic Books, and Black-and-White TV, one of my goals was to include elements that made my story universal for others who grew up during the same time period in the 1960s and 1970s.
A number of readers assured me I succeeded at this. But a couple of people, including one reviewer, noted that my story was universal not necessarily to what children experienced at that time, but to what white children experienced.
This was a fair point. The area of Harlan County, Kentucky, I grew up in had a decent-sized Black population, but my book largely ignored this. The one significant mention of race in Eisenhower Babies is in the chapter that describes my first day of school in 1964, when there were two Black girls in my classroom. I wrote that, though this was a decade after the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that integrated schools, much of the South was still segregated even in 1964. Kentucky was different, and I quoted from a book on the subject that said by the time I started school more than 90 percent of Kentucky school districts were desegregated, compared to 20 percent in the rest of the South.
Even this mention of racial dynamics might not have made its way into my memoir if not for my experiences later in life after I moved to Florida. As a 6-year-old I had been unaware that Blacks and whites attending the same school had a controversial past, so the presence of those two girls did not seem extraordinary to me at the time. Even when I grew older and learned some of the history, I assumed that anyone my age had the same experience I did––going to school with African-American classmates from day one.
Then in the early 1990s I was in a diversity seminar sponsored by the newspaper where I worked. Several of my white co-workers who were roughly my age said they had never gone to school with a Black person, that separate schools for Blacks and whites existed in their communities into the early to mid-1970s. Not only was I surprised to learn this, but when I mentioned I had gone to school with Black children in 1964, the consultant running the seminar seemed skeptical.
So, when I wrote about my school days in Eisenhower Babies, it was natural to mention the significance of Black children in my classroom, even though in 1964 it had seemed inconsequential to me. Beyond that, my memoir did not delve into the experiences of Black children of our Appalachian coal-mining community, which is probably just as well since I almost certainly would have messed up the telling.
Fortunately, someone else, William H. Turner, had already taken care of my omission. Turner’s book, which I recently discovered, is The Harlan Renaissance: Stories of Black Life in Appalachian Coal Towns, published in 2021. Turner grew up in Lynch, Kentucky, the Harlan County town where I was born, which is just a few miles from Cumberland, the town where I grew up. Turner dashes the stereotype of Appalachians as exclusively white with his reminisces about a vibrant Black community of coal miners in a town built by a coal company, U.S. Steel.
"In the mid-1960s, the central Appalachian coalfields were popularized as a ‘White’ space in the United States,” Turner writes in his book’s introduction. “Although many parts of the geographic area known as Appalachia were and are predominantly White, the region, like most of the United States, has never been entirely White. The inhabitants of the central Appalachian coalfields have always represented racial and ethnic diversity.”
That might be especially surprising to readers of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance, published in 2016. Turner addresses Vance’s book in The Harlan Renaissance, referring to it as “the latest in a long line of writing that advanced extremely negative and damaging stereotypes about White Appalachian people.” This wasn’t the first time Turner commented on Vance’s work. Turner’s essay "Black Hillbillies Have No Time for Elegies" was included in a 2019 book titled Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy.
Even with his fond memories of the area, Turner does not ignore the racism African-Americans experienced in Appalachia, noting that "Jim Crow-like segregation ... prevailed in the coalfields of central Appalachia up to the mid-1960s with no more, or less, effect than was the case throughout the American South."
“I well remember … when the city council of Cumberland, four miles from my home, chose to fill in the area’s only public swimming pool with concrete rather than to allow Blacks to swim in it,” Turner writes. Yet around the same time, he writes, a community college opened in Cumberland and Blacks were allowed to attend. He would enroll in that college in 1964, the same year I started elementary school.
Turner was born in 1946, 12 years before me, so our years of growing up in Harlan County weren't exactly in sync. But we do have shared memories and experiences, including the sorrowful yet inspiring story of Sanctified Hill.
Sanctified Hill was a ridge in Cumberland that was home to a number of African-American families. One night in 1972, after heavy rains, a sudden mudslide caused the houses on the hill to break loose from their foundations and to slide down the hill toward a white neighborhood below. Insurance companies refused to pay for the disaster, claiming it was an “act of God,” and local, state, and federal government agencies backed up that determination. The residents, though, claimed the mudslide was the result of neglect; that the tunnels of an abandoned coal mine beneath the houses had collapsed.
The homeowners, led by a woman named Mattye Knight, who had been one of Turner’s high school teachers, fought the decision. Eventually, they took their case to Washington, DC, and won federal funding to build a new community called Pride Terrace on a hill behind the Cumberland High School football field, in view of the house where I grew up. Turner writes that the Sanctified Hill saga was “an example of a group of Black Appalachians valuing social justice, resilience, dignity, and self-respect” in much the same way as a mainly white group of Harlan County coal miners who took on Duke Power Company around the same time and whose story was told in the Academy Award-winning documentary Harlan County, USA.
Turner’s book is a wonderful history of a people, a time, and a place, and I highly recommend it, regardless of when and where you grew up.
Ronnie Blair is the author of Eisenhower Babies: Growing Up on Moonshots, Comic Books, and Black-and-White TV.