The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Black history of Marjorie Taylor Greene’s congressional district

Many imagine Appalachia as primarily White. But Greene’s African American opponent Marcus Flowers is challenging the stereotype.

Democratic challenger Marcus Flowers, left, and U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., debate in the race for the 14th Congressional District in Atlanta on Oct. 16. (Ben Gray/AP)
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In May 2022, as Georgia’s map of newly redrawn congressional districts took effect, many voters in the majority-Black city of Powder Springs were, according to one headline, “Shocked!” at being represented by Marjorie Taylor Greene. Another proclaimed, “A Georgia City Reckons With a New District, Led by Marjorie Taylor Greene.” The new map had brought two majority-Black communities into Greene’s staunchly conservative district.

To many observers, Greene embodies the all-White Appalachia described in Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance’s book, “Hillbilly Elegy.” But while the region is most often associated with poverty and a whiteness inculcated in Scot Irish heritage, its history is far more complex. Black communities have always been an important part of the region and have played a key role in what is now the 14th District in Georgia. This history provides crucial context for understanding the congressional election pitting Greene against African American Democrat Marcus Flowers.

By 1860, enslaved Black people in Appalachian Georgia made up over 20 percent of the population. Unfree Black Appalachians were typically owned by small-scale enslavers who frequently hired them out to work in the hospitality industry, to mine gold and cut timber, and to tend iron furnaces, tanneries and distilleries, among other jobs.

For example, in nearby Lynchburg, Tenn., Nathan “Nearest” Green, an enslaved Black man, was one of many enslaved people who made the spirits that contributed to the development of what would become Jack Daniels whiskey.

After emancipation, the region’s cheap labor and rich natural resources like coal and iron drew Black migrants, helping to diversify Appalachian communities and workplaces. Some of these new arrivals came by choice; others did not. Black convicts from state penitentiaries in Georgia and other areas in Appalachia were often leased as cheap labor to harvest resources and build railroads as the “New South” developed and became increasingly industrialized.

Desperate for labor to rebuild the state following the end of the Civil War, and hoping to tap into the growing interest in industrializing the region, businesses, factories and towns recruited Black laborers to work in the same industries in which Black convicts were conscripted. Often, those recruited were expected to relocate their families to the region.

This resulted in the establishment of Black enclaves in which laborers lived and worked, extracting iron ore and coal from the mountains of north Georgia. Northern-born White business owners who helped fuel the industrialization of the region sometimes provided a measure of protection for their Black employees, recognizing that it was a good business practice to attract and maintain Black workforces.

Yet the establishment of stable Black American communities in pockets of Appalachia, and the success of Black workers in the years after the Civil War, represented a threat to some. Consequently economic and racial tensions smoldered as landless Whites, living on the economic and social edge, viewed Black advancement as an affront to their sense of racial superiority.

White vigilante groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, which first arose in Pulaski, Tenn., by December 1865, quickly spread to southern Appalachia and made inroads into north Georgia. John B. Gordon, a former Confederate General, aided the efforts of white supremacist groups in the region. Acknowledged as the head of the state’s Klan, he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1872 and in 1886 became governor of Georgia. Violent white supremacist groups like the KKK frequently targeted Black Georgians who sought help from the five Freedmen Bureau offices located in and around what is now the 14th District during Reconstruction.

The KKK’s presence faded with the end of Reconstruction. State-supported White militias, which often included former Confederate soldiers, surrounded polling stations during the 1872 elections, intimidating voters.

Despite enduring discrimination and the threat of violence, Black Americans made important contributions to the region. For example, they became essential to the development of horse racing in Appalachia. Oliver Lewis, a Black jockey, was the first winner of the Kentucky Derby in 1875. Born in Kentucky in 1861, Isaac Burns Murphy was considered one of the greatest jockeys of all time, winning the Kentucky Derby in 1884, 1890 and 1891. He was inducted into the first class of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in the 1950s. But prohibitions implemented in horse racing in the 1890s, as in many sports, restricted Black people from serving as jockeys, and much of their history was forgotten or ignored due to the onset of Jim Crow segregation.

Although Black Americans were still a significant presence in this region — roughly 35 percent of the population in Floyd County in 1900 — their numbers soon dwindled. Amid a rising emphasis on Americanism in the region and a disdain for Catholics and Jews, a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan began in Stone Mountain in north Georgia in 1915, with the lynching of a Jewish man, Leo Frank. Fearing competition for jobs, the organization violently targeted Black Georgians — before eventually imploding by the 1930s, riddled with scandal and mismanagement of funds.

Despite the Klan’s implosion, by the 1950s and 1960s many Black residents of Georgia and in communities across Appalachia had departed the region, taking advantage of growing economic opportunities elsewhere to escape open violence and a backlash against the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Vestiges of the history of the region’s Black communities can still be found in the ruins of rural Black churches and schools that dot Appalachia’s landscape, standing as silent testaments to the Black communities that once defined the region.

Yet, although their numbers have diminished from a century ago, these communities are not simply vestiges of the past. Black Appalachians are still building communities in this region. In 2015, Powder Springs elected its first Black mayor. And in this year’s midterm elections, Flowers, an African American Army veteran, is challenging Greene’s reelection effort, exceeding her campaign donations by nearly $3 million.

However, pollsters are questioning his likelihood of winning. Even as scholars like Edward J. Cabbell, William H. Turner, Wilma Dunaway and Karida L. Brown, have lifted up the history of Black Appalachians in recent years, while popular media such as the “Black in Appalachia” podcast and W. Kamau Bell’s “United Shades of America” have showcased Black life in Appalachia, many still imagine the region as primarily White and politically Republican.

Through her campaign, Greene has reinforced this idea. Indeed, her political success could be attributed to her embodiment of this long-held view about Appalachia. Yet Appalachia history is diverse and rich with Black history that the popular stereotypes have obscured. Perhaps the redrawing of Greene’s district lines will enable more Americans to understand the complexity of this misunderstood region.