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African Americans in Appalachia fight to be seen as a part of coal country

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Growing up, Shaylan Clark watched as family after family packed up their cars and left her close-knit neighborhood in Lynch, Ky., to find work elsewhere after the coal jobs dried up.

Not much has changed. Everyone wants to talk about where working-class Appalachia goes from here, she said, but nobody seems to consider the African American families like hers who stayed behind.

“When someone hears ‘Appalachia,’ the first thing that pops into their head isn’t an African American face, ever,” said Clark, 20, a student who is studying history at the nearby Southeast Community Technical College. “It’s kind of irritating.”

The depiction of the working-class struggle in Appalachia — boosted by the nation’s renewed interest in so-called coal country — has been overwhelmingly white. That conflicts with the reality of towns like Lynch, a former coal camp clinging to the tallest mountain in Kentucky, where an estimated 200 of the 700 residents are black, according to recent American Community Survey data.

If Lynch reflects the economic decline across the central Appalachian region, the outlook is worse for black Appalachians. There, black residents are twice as likely to lack a bachelor’s degree compared with their white peers. By a slimmer margin, they’re also more likely to experience poverty.

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But compared with their white neighbors, who have dwindled in population, the number of black Lynch residents is growing — even if only by a slight amount. Despite that, black Appalachians are largely forgotten, said Ed Cabbell, among the first people in the country to receive a master’s degree in Appalachian studies, which he earned from Appalachian State University.

“Everything that you consider Appalachian that gets attributed to white folks, we did it, too,” said Cabbell, who was raised in McDowell County, W.Va. “Every bit of it. Appalachia is not a white man’s territory, but it is majority-white.”

While the white population has decreased across the 13-state region of Appalachia — stretching from southern New York to northern Alabama — the number of black residents has increased or remained the same, according to a report from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). Although that population shift is mostly happening in the Appalachian South or in larger metropolitan areas, places like Lynch have seen it, too.

Usually, that population is forced to feel like a racial minority within a cultural minority, entirely invisible to those outside Appalachia, said William Turner, research scientist leader at Prairie View A&M University in Texas and a native of Lynch.

Together, he and Cabbell wrote “Blacks in Appalachia,” dissecting the history and culture of African Americans from the region. For Turner, describing the dichotomy of a town like Lynch — founded by a subsidiary of U.S. Steel in 1917, which attracted a diverse group of coal miners from across the country — seemed necessary. Otherwise, he feared the history would one day be forgotten.

“We basically live on the memories of that place because it was such a unique town,” Turner, 71, said of Lynch. “We learned the values of respecting other people, expecting the best out of yourself. … If you just worked real hard, you would make it. And what is that, except the American story?”

While black people have found themselves excluded by the stereotypes of a majority-white Appalachia, Frank X. Walker, a writer and professor at the University of Kentucky, has offered some an identity: Affrilachian.

The Danville, Ky., native created the word in a poem in the early 1990s. While not meant to define all African Americans living in Appalachia, the term is a reminder that the region is not an all-white, rural space. Appalachia is fluid and diverse, Walker said.

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Walker is a founder of the Affrilachian Poets, a writers’ consortium based at the University of Kentucky. Not all of their work centers on Appalachia, and not every poet lives in the region, but the word itself can start a conversation about identity, said Crystal Good, a member of the Affrilachian Poets who lives in Charleston, the capital of her home state, West Virginia.

West Virginia is about 94 percent white, while the entire Appalachian region as defined by the ARC as about 82 percent white.

“It’s important now for the people of West Virginia to speak up and show the diversity of the region,” said Good, who also writes about racial identity for the creative group Heroes Are Gang Leaders. “It’s such a small population here, that sometimes it can seem as if we’re very diluted in a sense.”

For many white residents, hailing from a central Appalachian town is a source of pride. There’s cause to celebrate the successes, folk music and rich tradition of storytelling that sprout from its mountains. That’s just as true for its black residents: Consider the legend of John Henry, a black folk hero out of West Virginia who famously won a race against the machinery that intended to replace him and other steel drivers.

Still, the “Appalachian” aspect of a black person’s identity tends to be pushed aside by those not from the region, Turner said. That’s despite the thousands of black coal miners — among them Booker T. Washington and Carter G. Woodson — who carried the central Appalachian values of patriotism, family and pride on their backs wherever they went.

Now, Clark said she has to walk with her “head held high and her shoulders back” to let people know she’s proud to be African American in Appalachia. It’s not that she was alone in her identity, she said, but she sometimes felt like an outsider at her mostly white high school in Harlan County, where she said students would make racist jokes and expect black peers to laugh along.

“I stood up against that stuff, and that’s not commonly done,” Clark said.

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She wants to back up the family members who carved a space for black, Appalachian pride before her. When Clark was a sophomore in high school, she learned that her grandfather and great-grandfather had come to the mines to help integrate Lynch and the towns surrounding it.

Clark loves the history of the coal miners, and that an abandoned-mine-turned-tourist-attraction is a short walk away from her front door. She loves the green mountains and the clear river she passes on her way there, and the community that always seems to support her.

Though she hopes to transfer to Berea, a college in Madison County, Ky., and maybe move to a city, she knows she’ll come back home to Lynch, she said. That’s where her pride lives.

“I would love for my kids to know this place, for my grandkids to know this place,” Clark said. “I feel safe here, and I want them to grow up with that same safety and sense of being — just being able to run up and down the streets, without worrying.”

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