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(Re)locating Sites of Memory in Appalachia Through Black Spaces and Stories

“You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. ‘Floods’ is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.”1

On August 28, 2021, a historical marker was placed on the main street in Jenkins, Kentucky, a once-booming coal town in the heart of Central Appalachia. Over a dozen alumni, their families, local officials, and community members gathered for the dedication ceremony commemorating Dunham High School (DHS), Letcher County’s all-Black high school that operated between 1931-1964. The marker stands by the road where it is visible to the cars and people who go by. Behind it sits the public library and coal museum, in place of the old train depot; beyond the library is the Catholic church. Just a little further up the holler is an empty plot of land—the site of Dunham High. In 1969, the wooden building burned to ashes. All that remains today is a concrete addition, unassuming and ordinary to the average passerby. A sign recognizing this space as the all-Black school was also put into the earth, exactly sixty-six years after the brutal murder of fourteen year-old Emmett Till in the Mississippi Delta. I recognized this significance as I stood with others under the hot sun, fanning myself with the printed words of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” Just as others have done in Mississippi, we gathered in eastern Kentucky to preserve a space that holds us accountable to our history. It reminds us that the choices we make in remembering or forgetting shape the narratives we tell. And national memory is inherently intertwined with geography and physical space.

Spaces tell stories. Structures of the mundane bear witness to the history lived and made within their walls. The narrative of our national landscape contains the ghosts of slavery and Jim Crow that linger and haunt places and people who would rather forget. But within this narrative exists a will to remember through spaces that hold the memories of those who once moved and breathed and lived within them—Black Americans who found community in structures designed by—and in response to—segregation.

The marker in Jenkins tells a story about the all-Black school in the eastern Kentucky mountains. But it also conveys a history about Black education and white resistance in the region—of an Appalachian Jim Crow that kept schools segregated for a decade following the 1954 Brown decision. Until recently, this history has largely been silenced. Automation and displacement sparked an outmigration of Black Appalachians throughout the 1940s-1960s. Enduring myths of whiteness and “Black invisibility” have obscured the histories of Black Appalachians within the cultural landscape and have detached the region and its people from the civil rights movement, lending credence to what Julian Bond and Hasan Jeffries call a “master narrative” of civil rights history that ignores other geographies outside the Deep South.

I grew up in Jenkins not knowing its full history. I never knew the church I was raised in was once the movie theater that required Black patrons to sit in the balcony. My grandparents regularly took me to the drugstore, where I sat and ate my favorite sandwich, ignorant to the fact that this space had prohibited Black people from doing the same even after the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It was not until the separate actions of two Black students demanding recognition of their humanity that the restaurant finally complied with federal order.

When I began researching DHS, I was not surprised to find that very little had been documented in local histories. Many of the records and archival evidence of all-Black schools have been destroyed, concealed, or lost. I knew the history was with the people who lived it. I learned that an alumna was working toward obtaining a historical marker, and with her blessing I began conducting oral histories with other alumni. It is through their stories that a fuller history of Appalachia emerges.  

Read entire article at Black Perspectives