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A history lesson

My Hometown Is Built On Stolen Land; it’s Time We Acknowledge That

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It was the sort of white flight that could never have identified itself as such: My family was pulled as much as pushed from Gwinnett County to Forsyth. Only a little farther from Atlanta, the schools shrank by an order of magnitude.  It was less than an hour away, but the traffic choked less. To my 12-year-old self, it seemed merely circumstantial that in the course of the move to a traditionally rural area, the entire Black population also disappeared.

In my family’s pursuit of the American Dream, Cumming — county seat of Forsyth — became my home base from 2002 until now. My brother and I thrived in those smaller schools. We swam in Lake Lanier and climbed Sawnee Mountain and played trivia over root beer and pretzels at the Mellow Mushroom back when it was still dingy. We still complained about Forsyth because that’s what teenagers do, but mostly we loved it.

After college I came to recognize how thoroughly privileged my seemingly normal adolescence was; the after-school activities, the safe but laid-back school environment, the leafy neighborhood, the ‘95 Buick my folks paid for until I totaled it. Still, though I theoretically understood these things had been systematically denied to most Black people over the last 400 years, I didn’t learn until 2016 that Black people had been forcibly erased from my hometown. It was only with the publication of Patrick Phillips’ historical account Blood at the Root that the whole truth was told: Forsyth had expelled all its Black citizens through a campaign of terror that lasted from 1912 until after my own birth.

The beginning of the story is disturbingly common. A white woman was raped and murdered. Two young Black men, Ernest Knox and Rob Edwards, took the blame without evidence. Knox was lynched while in police custody, and Edwards was hanged after a sham trial.

In 1987, nearly 20,000 activists, led by Coretta Scott King, the widow of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young and other veterans of the civil rights movement marched through all-white Forsyth County, GA in the largest demonstration since the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, AL. Extensive media coverage included a “town hall” segment of the Oprah Winfrey show on location in Cumming. A week earlier, a small interracial “walk for brotherhood” to protest the area’s racist legacy was attacked and halted by rock-and-stone-throwing white supremacists and KKK members. An activist shows off a souvenir t-shirt from the protest. Photo by jmichael

But the county’s white citizens weren’t appeased. Over the course of several weeks, groups of night riders expelled every Black family from Forsyth with threats, violence and fire. Black churches burned. Law enforcement took no interest. Feeble efforts by whites to stop the campaign were quashed. Practically overnight, Forsyth became a whites-only county — one quick to discover transgressors, who would be met with continued violence for much of the century. In 1989, a civil rights march demanding the county work to protect Blacks and speed integration met with an enormous and impassioned counter-protest.

Meanwhile, the land Black families had owned before the 1912 expulsion was slowly absorbed into the holdings of their white neighbors. Now some of the most valuable real estate in the Atlanta suburbs is twice-stolen: first in the Cherokee removal, and again in the 1912 attacks.

Ku Klux Klan and neo-Confederate supporters pass out flags and literature to counter-protesters at the 1987 “Brotherhood March II” in Cumming, GA. Photo by jmichael

When my family moved to Forsyth, this history was known to Black people all over the state; but within the county, this is all taboo. Like other classrooms full of white children all over the country, we learned about slavery, lynchings, and racism in the abstract—but never heard mention of the brutal pageant that had taken place blocks from where we sat. Over 400 students (seven of whom were Black) would eventually graduate from Forsyth Central High School in 2008 at the dusty fairgrounds—filing in and out of the empty livestock barn—having heard only the barest rumors explaining the racial makeup of our hometown.

Since then, the county has continued to grow by more than 25 percent, while the Black population has doubled. One newcomer is Daniel Blackman, community organizer and COO of communications firm Social Karma, who moved to Forsyth from Atlanta with his family in 2012. In 2016, Blackman became the first Black person to run for office in Forsyth and the first Democrat to run for State House in 25 years. Blood at the Root was published months before the election. Blackman says he had heard about the county’s history but didn’t realize the full story until the publication of the book. At the same time, in its current state, Forsyth is “not too different from other predominantly white counties in Georgia” where racism is an everyday occurrence.

 Overall, though, Forsyth is better known today for McMansions than for racist conspiracies.

Now, “Forsyth likes who we are,” says Rev. Keith Oglesby of Cumming’s Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit. “[People wonder] why go backwards? But [I still want to ask], who are we? How do we own who we are today?”

Oglesby belongs to a small group of people in the beginning stages of advocating for a memorial to the events of 1912. The group, which coalesced after a lecture in Cumming by Patrick Phillips, seeks acknowledgment of the past in a public place, agreeing that the memorial should be “effective but not adversarial” in order to bring healing to Forsyth. They have also sought to have Blood at the Root placed on reading lists for public school students in the county.

Opposition to a memorial is as inevitable as more clear-cutting for more housing. Members of some of the county’s oldest families still hold positions in local government; newcomers will ask why we should continue to bear shame for others’ past actions. But a memorial is not about shame or even blame, and we cannot take full responsibility for the present without one.

 A memorial is not about shame or even blame; and we cannot take full responsibility for the present without one.

Without a memorial, we function like a family in denial. I learned about Forsyth’s history of racial terror by accident, on the radio, from NPR’s Terry Gross, exactly like learning a sick secret about a relative from a far-flung family acquaintance. Meanwhile, the events of 1912 fester and their consequences continue to metastasize, shame and secrecy compounding the slow poison of that all-too-comfortable, subtle racism pervasive in personal attitudes and public systems alike. Meanwhile, students leave our schools ill-informed and ill-equipped to function in a globalized world.

I have had the privilege of studying history, while the oppressed have borne the burden of remembering it. A memorial at its best would invite us to a sacred place to finally remember alongside one another, a communal site for grief and for exploring how the past lives on in us. White people might not be able to agree on the magnitude of our debt, but we could acknowledge it exists. We could be allowed to reckon with injustice as a community, instead of wondering or ranting about it from behind our screens.

Even if the memorial never became those things, it would fulfill its most obvious and important function — to tell the truth. Supporters and opponents alike might suddenly find themselves freed by it—delivered from secret-keeping. But as long as fear and shame control us, invisible gag orders fully in effect, we acquiesce to our own haunting, and the past will never lie peacefully in the past.

Lyndsey Medford is a youth pastor and writer on social justice, Christianity, embodiment, and place. She lives in Charleston, South Carolina where she snuggles with her husband and rescue dog. Her writing is found at lyndseymedford.com as well as Amity Coalition, Fathom Magazine, and The Billfold.

A history lesson

Researchers Uncover History of Former W.Va. Coal Community

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Scott's Run miner's children lined up for a meal in the 1930s. In reaction to this photo Scotts Run elders said, "There was a soup line or the blacks and there was a soup line for the whites, and that certainly proves it, how sad." Photo courtesy of West Virginia and Regional History Center.

West Virginia University researchers recently completed a year-long project exploring the history of a coal community in Monongalia County, using photos and oral history to create an exhibit.

Scott’s Run is a five-mile area that stretches along the banks of the Monongahela River, about four miles from West Virginia University.

Today less than 2,000 people live there, and the former towns in Scotts Run – such as Osage and Cassville – are all unincorporated.

But, in the early 1900s, the area was booming from the coal industry. Its main economic advantage was its proximity to the river, railroads and coal resources. But, by the 1930s during the Great Depression, like much of the country, Scott’s Run hit hard times.

School children at Osage, a town within Scott’s Run, with their Sunday school teacher in the 1940s. When researchers showed this photo to Scott’s Run elders one said, “As youngsters on Osage Hill we all played together. No difference in color. We didn’t know a difference until we went to school.” Photo courtesy of West Virginia and Regional History Center

Consequently, the community banded together, creating a family-like bond that still exists today.

“There’s this community that is a completely different world from what you’ve seen of Morgantown that has this history that’s very much the history of West Virginia,” said Kristina Hash, a professor of social work at WVU.

Hash was one of six researchers on the team that studied Scott’s Run. Other researchers included Catherine Gouge, Lori Hostuttler, Tamba M’bayo, Christine Rittenour and Tyler Redding.

The project was funded in 2018 through a grant from the West Virginia University Humanities Center.

Many photos were taken of the people of Scott’s Run during the Great Depression years, Hash said. Using these photos, she and her team documented stories from West Virginians who were children during the early years of Scott’s Run.

About a dozen of the original residents of Scott’s Run still get together every weekend. Hash said the sense of community is strong.

“People that had a really diverse community that lived in harmony that centered around coal and together faced major tragedy,” she said.

All the research was compiled into a video and an exhibit that has been donated to the Scott’s Run Museum where it will be permanently on display. The museum is open every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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A history lesson

Art Exhibit Explores Appalachia’s Connection to Wales

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Some of the Welsh artwork on display at the Monongalia Arts Center. Photo: Jesse Wright, WVPB

Across the Atlantic Ocean — 3,586 miles away from West Virginia — you will find Wales, which is part of the United Kingdom. The western side of Wales is lined by two channels from the Celtic Sea. And inland is quite mountainous. Within those mountain towns, you will find similar folk culture to Appalachia.

“The nature of the people and the landscape is very similar. Plus, many people from West Wales came over here. So we’ve got those really strong connections,” said Peter Stevenson, a Welsh artist, writer and storyteller.

These strong connections inspired Stevenson to host an art exhibit at the Monongalia Arts Center in Morgantown, an expansive art exhibit dedicated to the Wales-Appalachia connection.

History

Many of Appalachian’s ancestors migrated from Wales to Appalachia. There are other strong historical connections between the two regions. For example, both have a long and complicated history with the coal industry, and both have a strong mountain culture – a culture that includes music, art and storytelling.

Some of the Welsh artwork on display. Much of the artwork Stevenson brought with him on the plane from Wales. Photo: Jesse Wright, WVPB

Stevenson has family who immigrated to West Virginia in the 1960s. So, Stevenson has listened to many Appalachian folktales, and he has found many similarities to Welsh folklore. Similar characters appear in both traditions, like fairies or little people and granny women – older, eccentric women who either create charm or mischief.

Stevenson and Ro Brooks, executive director of the Monongalia Arts Center. Photo: Jesse Wright, WVPB

But the stories differ slightly. Stevenson thinks the Welsh brought over their folklore when they immigrated to Appalachia hundreds of years ago, but the stories changed slightly over time to become more Appalachian.

“Within these stories which appear to be the same they take on something from the landscape and nature of the people in that landscape and they’re subtly different,” he said.

The Exhibit

Figures and drawings of Welsh ‘Granny Women’ that are part of the MAC exhibit. Photo: Jesse Wright, WVPB

Stevenson organized the art exhibit on display in Morgantown to further explore the connections.

The exhibit is one big story that contains many little stories, it is a bit like a fairytale book come to life at the Monongalia Arts Center, featuring Welsh and Appalachian artists.

There are dolls made to look like witches with a black triangle hat, drawings of mermaids in the Monongahela river and a woman who turned into a swan. There are a lot of bright colors and characters that make one’s imagination run wild.

Stevenson is a professional storyteller. When he tells a story, one feels spellbound. He tells the crowd a folk story using a cranky – a storytelling device likely familiar to Appalachians.

A cranky is like a picture book except with drawings all on one long scroll. It is contained within a frame with two handles that move the scroll, and it is typically accompanied by a story.

The Story of Betty

The story Stevenson told at the exhibit opening is about an old granny woman named Betty who lived on the west coast of Wales. She often would gaze out her window toward America.  

“Thousand wrinkles around the eyes, a single yellow tooth wobbling unnervingly in the breeze from her breath and a single gray hair in the middle of her chin,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson turned the cranky as he spoke. The pictures are drawn in heavy black ink. Betty looks like a kind, but mischievous old woman out of a children’s book.

Stevenson explained that Betty could make love potions. She would make them for all the town folk. But sometimes she mixed them up, and in Stevenson’s story, much to the town’s dismay, Betty accidentally made a farm woman and a man of nobility fall in love. But they ended up living happily ever after and having dozens of babies.

A miniature cranky made by Stevenson. Crankies are often used to tell a story. Photo: Jesse Wright, WVPB

Peter turned to the final image on the cranky, and revealed a picture of Betty with a sly smirk pointing to her love potion bottle and a trail of red hearts.

“Old Betty is still there. She’s still there in her little cottage. She’s got even more wrinkles around her eyes, her solitary yellow tooth fell out years ago, but her little gray hair is still there and she twirls it and looks out across the water to America,” Stevenson said. “And thinks to herself, maybe my love potions would work in West Virginia.”

West Virginian Art

The first floor of the exhibit features the Welsh artists and their interpretation of folktales. The second floor is dedicated to West Virginian artists, such as Eddie Spaghetti.

He is based in Morgantown and works in many art mediums, including crankies. One of Spaghetti’s crankies on display is titled ‘Light in the Darkness.’ It is accompanied by a poem that Spaghetti wrote in tiny print underneath the drawings.

“I put a magnifying glass onto it, that magnifying glass is a real attention-getter – you can’t help but to look at stuff,” he says.

Another of the West Virginian artists featured in the exhibit is accomplished sculptor Jamie Lester. Some of his well-known work includes the Don Knotts and Jerry West statues in Morgantown.  

Lester’s piece representing man’s connection to coal. He is one of many West Virginian artists featured in the exhibit. Photo: Jesse Wright, WVPB

Lester’s piece on display in the Wales-Appalachia gallery reflects man’s connection to coal. Something that is a big part of Appalachian and Welsh history. It’s a sculpture of a man’s body merged with a coal operation, and the coal tipple is connected to his head and shoulder.

“He’s being like fed coal, he is coal, coal is in his blood, he’s being force-fed coal,” Lester said. “And his arms are tied behind his back and one of his arms is breaking the structure of the tipple, so you get the feeling he’s being tormented, but there’s the possibility of him breaking away from his tormentor.”

This sculpture and all the many other pieces from Appalachia and Wales are on display at the Monongalia Arts Center in Morgantown. The exhibit will be up through the end of this month, when it will travel to Wales for display.

The second level of the exhibit featuring West Virginian artists. Then entire exhibit tells one big story of the Welsh-Appalachian connection. Photo: Jesse Wright, WVPB

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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A history lesson

Mountain Justice: Appalachian Women Fought for Workers Long Before They Fought for Jobs

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The only women delegates to United Mine Workers Convention in Washington, D.C., January 24, 1938. Left to right: Pearl Kosby, Bridgeport, Conn.; Esther Perelson, Ozone Park, Long Island, N.Y.; and Esther Levin, also of Ozone Park. Library of Congress.

This piece was originally published in Scalawag, which amplifies the voices of activists, artists, and writers reckoning with the South. You can read the original article here.

As historian Jessica Wilkerson carefully turned the pages of a notebook documenting a coal miners’ strike, fragments of dried leaves fluttered out. Sudie Crusenberry, who glued it together, was the wife of a disabled Kentucky miner. She had to reuse her children’s old school scrapbooks to record the work of her “women’s club,” which helped drive the successful 1973 Brookside Mine Strike. “She was layering memories of her children with this dramatic struggle for justice in the coal fields,” said Wilkerson.

The notebook also held newspaper clippings about the strike, the campaign to help miners dying of black lung disease, and the Ku Klux Klan’s attacks on female organizers. Crusenberry pasted a photo of herself next to the lyrics of “Dreadful Memories,” a song about raising hungry, shivering children in the coal fields. Another page featured a photo and quotation from the spitfire labor organizer Mother Jones.

Crusenberry and other miner’s wives inherited a legacy of labor activism from Jones and previous generations of Appalachian women. This tradition is the subject of two recently-published books of history written by women from the region. Wilkerson’s To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice documents how the War on Poverty in Kentucky triggered a period of rising activism among Appalachian women in the 1960s and ’70s. They, in turn, built on the union organizing at the heart of Never Justice, Never Peace: Mother Jones and the Miner Rebellion at Paint and Cabin Creeks, by Ginny Savage Ayers.

Both authors grew up with a generational fascination with Appalachian history.

An Assistant Professor of History and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi, Wilkerson hails from East Tennessee, where her distant cousin helped found the Museum of Appalachia. 

Her grandfather spent most of his career as a union organizer for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, and her grandmother papers she had saved from her own involvement in the labor and Civil Rights work of the Coalition of Labor Union Women.

“That I didn’t learn about his until I was a young woman, despite my grandmother’s deep pride in their involvement in the labor movement, is a testament to the power of conservatism in the region, how it silences and erases certain histories,” Wilkerson said. “It seemed such a relief to my Grandma when she could finally share that history with me.”

Savage co-wrote Never Justice, Never Peace with her late father, Lon Kelly Savage, a journalist and Virginia Tech administrator born in Charleston, West Virginia. His dad told stories of being hired to fight the miners in the Battle of Blair Mountain, the most significant in the West Virginia mine wars. Savage wrote the only popular history of that insurrection. After his death, Ayers decided to finish his research about the earlier mine wars, a forgotten chapter in American history.

Ayers’ book describes a strike that devolved into armed skirmishes between miners and hired “mine guards,” followed by a series of military trials held under martial law. Mother Jones, who would later inspire Sudie Crusenberry, traveled the country publicizing the plight of workers. Her famously foul mouth and rabble-rousing speeches belied her grandmotherly appearance. Jones was among many long held without trial at the whim of the governor, who also hounded the socialist press.

“He sent National Guard troops to physically bash the presses to silence that voice,” Ayers said, noting that attacking the media is a time-honored political tactic. “Today it’s not done physically, but done by casting doubt on the validity of the press.”

One of the main narratives in Never Justice, Never Peace, focuses on how Mother Jones helped the miners and their wives recognize their own power. (A West Virginia example was Willie Fish, a teenager and miners’ wife who smuggled guns and ammunition to strikers under her dress while very pregnant.)

Wilkerson’s book picks up decades later, as Appalachian women in Kentucky sought to reclaim that power. They started as community workers during President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, then expanded into related social justice issues, such as the environmental effects of strip mining.

Wilkerson argues their activism arose from their understanding of how their unpaid caregiving—for children, disabled husbands, and abused wives —was linked to their rights as citizens: the right to affordable child care and health care, clean water, and safe working conditions for raising a family.

Her book’s title was inspired by the words of Bessie Smith Gayheart, an Appalachian woman who led a group of activists during a sit-in at a strip mine: “I was born and raised in east Kentucky and I am going to stay; but to stay here you’re going to have to fight like hell.”

At a time of heightened racial antagonism in the South, white Appalachian women lobbying for welfare reform were still willing to form alliances with urban Black activists and disabled men. This solidarity arose partly from generational experiences in mining camps. Coal companies had historically employed mountain whites, Black workers moving north, and recent European immigrants.  

“Companies felt it was to their advantage to segregate these populations and foster distrust between them, because if they’re not working together, they won’t revolt together,” Ayers said. “This was flawed thinking on their part, because these workers became aware they were being abused. They knew there was strength in banding together.”

Wilkerson agrees that there was a collective memory of those partnerships – but also of lynchings and racial terror. “We often want to focus on one or the other, but the two were happening at once, which is why it was hard for those coalitions to hold,” she said.

Nevertheless, the latter-day female Appalachian activists faced risks for crossing racial lines.

For example, Appalachian community organizer Edith Easterling was called to testify before the Kentucky Un-American Activities Committee during the Red Scare. “Politicians saw it as a way to go after War on Poverty funding,” Wilkerson said. “They’d use the same organization to go after Black activists in cities and the white working class in Eastern Kentucky.”

Easterling, a local woman called to testify before the committee for her anti-poverty work, used the opportunity to strafe corrupt local “politicianers.” 

“I will confess we have done wrong—or I have done wrong,” she told the committee. “I voted for that dirty bunch in that courthouse.” She said they wanted to control all the money in the county and were angry when federal programs benefited community organizations. “If they can’t get it theirself, they don’t want nobody else to have it,” she said.

While some women faced public threats, other threats happened at home. Eula Hall endured years of abuse from her husband—who at various times broke her jaw and stabbed her—as her activism built toward the creation of a community health clinic in Kentucky where she still works. 

“When a woman tried to do anything, she must fight her husband to do it,” Hall told Wilkerson. “If we have a group, women won’t be so scared to try.”

Bessie Lou Cornett, a leader in promoting the Brookside Mine strike, later helped fight plans to build a highway through a Black neighborhood. Her husband would attack her to try to prevent her leaving the house to organize. After their divorce, he gained custody of their son by arguing that she was an unfit mother because of her union activity and alliances with Black people.

Cornett maintained her resolve with the memory of her grandfather suffering of black lung. In the film Harlan County, USA, Cornett says, “I told myself, if I ever get the opportunity to get those coal operators I will. Because I thought, you know, [the company] was the enemy. So when the strike came up, I saw the opportunity, and I jumped right in there.”

Cornett’s friend Crusenberry was targeted by the KKK, which burned a cross in her yard. (Local KKK members tended to be white, anti-union men, who thought both Black workers and women should stay “in their place.”)

While some things have changed in the decades since, Ayers says corporations continue to use their power in ways that harm and manipulate Appalachians. In the coal fields, she says that translates into convincing miners they are under attack from green energy and environmental regulations. Another example is the the 2010 explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine, which took the lives of 29 West Virginia coal miners but resulted in only a misdemeanor conviction for the company CEO.

She also sees examples outside the mining industry. Ayers points to the toxic Kingston coal ash spill in Tennessee, where 40 workers have died and hundreds more were sickened after the cleanup contractor denied them protective gear and tampered with air monitors. 

One of the women featured in To Live Here, You Have to Fight is still doing just that. Sue Ella Kobak, a 1960s War on Poverty Activist-turned-attorney, jumped up at a Knoxville book event in February to passionately argue that Big Pharma is the most serious corporate threat to Appalachia today. Kobak and her husband have been vocally challenging Purdue Pharma since shortly after it began marketing its highly-addictive drug OxyContin in the 1990s. She said her husband, a doctor, now treats about 70 addicts a week.

“My husband and I have been vilified, talked about. We didn’t get shot at like we did in the 1960s, but we have to be very careful,” she told a crowd of about 100 people who had come to hear about women’s activism in Appalachia at the East Tennessee History Center. “The raping (of) Appalachia has not stopped at all. I’m 73 years old… and I’ve never left. And it has not stopped or even slowed down,” Kobak said, her voice breaking.

Although coal is losing dominance, the industries replacing it are still rife with health and environmental hazards, Kobak argued. Streams that once ran black with coal now run black with fracking fluid.

Wilkerson said she’d like to see West Virginia teachers replace miners as the emblem of America’s workers. The statewide teachers’ strike—which inspired others across the nation – was a bipartisan, multiracial coalition with women at its center. It benefited not only teachers but all the state’s public-sector employees, as well as children.

Modern striking teachers owe a debt to women like Crusenberry. After her husband was injured in a mine, her family was forced out of a home the mine owned. Before moving out, she wallpapered the interior with United Mine Workers of America bumper stickers.

“I loved that image,” Wilkerson said. “They’re going to take her house, but not without recognizing who she is and what she stood for.”

S. Heather Duncan is a print and radio reporter and storyteller raised in Appalachia and living in Knoxville, Tennessee. She has won regional, state and national awards for her newspaper coverage of the environment, business, and government, as well as for feature writing. In her free time she enjoys hiking, whaling on the clarinet, and learning the knack of making five-star fried okra, biscuits, and chicken korma (although not necessarily together).

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