Kentucky Town Re-Examines Its Racial History

David Slone

David Slone moved to Corbin, Ky., from Biloxi, Miss., after Hurricane Katrina. He is one of about 10 blacks living in the town, and was unaware of its notorious racial history. John Biewen, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption John Biewen, NPR

More on Corbin's 'Fable'

Many residents grew up hearing a sugar-coated story about the 1919 racial expulsion that took place in Corbin, Ky. But novelist Silas House says the version of the story he heard — on porches and at dining room tables — was more grisly than the reality. There is no evidence that anyone was killed in the Corbin race riot.

A map of Kentucky's Laurel and Whitley counties. i i

A map of Kentucky's Laurel and Whitley counties. Jeffrey L. Ward/Courtesy Perseus Books Group hide caption

itoggle caption Jeffrey L. Ward/Courtesy Perseus Books Group
A map of Kentucky's Laurel and Whitley counties.

A map of Kentucky's Laurel and Whitley counties.

Jeffrey L. Ward/Courtesy Perseus Books Group

Another Town's Story

David Slone arrived in the small Kentucky town of Corbin in 2005, seeking a haven after Hurricane Katrina ripped through his hometown of Biloxi, Miss.

He was in a shelter in Gulfport, Miss., and saw a flier left by the Corbin church offering to house displaced families.

Slone didn't know until he arrived that he would be one of only a few blacks living in Corbin, a town still trying to come to terms with a troubled racial history.

In 1919, more than 200 black men worked in Corbin, expanding the railroad yard and paving streets.

But racial violence and labor strife were rampant across the country as soldiers streamed home from World War I.

In what came to be known as Red Summer, white mobs shot and lynched dozens of blacks in more than two dozen locales from Chicago to the Mississippi Delta.

Trouble came to Corbin the following fall, when reports surfaced that a white man had been mugged by two black men there.

Soon, a mob drove nearly all the town's black residents to the train station.

"They swore at us and said: 'By God we are going to run all Negroes out of this town tonight,'" said longtime black resident John Turner in a signed affidavit a few months after the incident. He and his wife were taken to the depot at gunpoint and forced to leave.

In Buried in the Bitter Waters, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Elliot Jaspin writes about racial cleansings from Central Texas through Georgia.

Between the Civil War and the 1920s, in Corbin and many other American towns, whites forcefully expelled virtually all blacks from their communities.

"In a sense, it's become America's family secret," Jaspin says.

Today, many of Corbin's residents are told a different version of what happened in 1919 — a more benign story in which black workers were forced out not because of their race but because they were causing trouble.

"People in my peer group, they said they had heard from their grandfathers," says Corbin's mayor, Willard McBurney.

"I've heard that it wasn't to that severity – that, you know, they were employed by the railroad company and they did move some out. But then they brought them back in two weeks later to finish the job."

Jaspin calls this Corbin's "fable." In fact, in affidavits collected for a state criminal investigation, white eyewitnesses agreed with blacks.

They said the mob announced its intention to rid Corbin of blacks, and that black baggage workers who tried to return a few days later were threatened. So they left again.

Most people in Corbin and the other towns where racial expulsions took place don't know this part of their history, says Jaspin.

They also don't know that the criminal investigation of what happened in Corbin found that several whites stood up to the mob. A few protected blacks in their homes or businesses.

"When you have the fable, the heroic acts of the people in the community are lost," Jaspin says. "They lose their heroes."

Almost 90 years later, Corbin's leaders say their town is as welcoming to black people as any other. They just need a chance to prove it.

In a sense, that chance came in 2005, when Senior Pastor Tim Thompson turned the First United Methodist Church into emergency housing for people who had lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina.

"We raised the issue: We're certain some of the folks that are gonna come and live with us are gonna be black," says Thompson.

"And we just said, whatever! Whoever comes, we don't care, it doesn't matter, we'll deal with it, it will be fine. And so the congregation said, 'Okay!'"

The church hosted about 25 people from the Gulf Coast. About half were black.

"Our hope was ... that maybe a few of the black folks that came would stay here and live and become a Corbinite — live in Corbin, and essentially become pioneers," said Thompson.

A year and a half later, many of the guests displaced by the hurricane — including all of the blacks — have gone home or moved away, except for Slone.

"I'm thankful that the church had the vision to open up their doors to bring us up here," he says. "I'm an adventurer, I'm a pioneer, I'll try anything once."

Slone now works in a cabinet factory in Corbin. He says he's received some cold looks in town, but for the most part, Corbin has not lived up to its old reputation as a place that's inhospitable to black people.

But some Corbin residents say their town still has a lot of work to do before its old image is put to rest.

Willard McBurney recalled attending a conference in Ohio in the 1980s. The lead speaker, a black man from Chicago, said publicly that he would not travel to Corbin for business.

"And that really made me feel small," McBurney says. "To be singled out with other people like that. I knew that he had heard of the stigma that has followed Corbin."

This story was produced by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, in association with the Center for Investigative Reporting. The CIR also co produced Banished, a film about three towns being forced to face their racist pasts; it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and will air later this year on PBS.

Excerpt: 'Buried in the Bitter Waters'

Buried in the Bitter Waters jacket image

The story of how I found America's racial cleansings begins in an unlikely place: the small town of Berryville in northwest Arkansas. I was visiting there in 1998 and, with time on my hands, decided to tour a small history museum in the center of town. It was a quirky place — one room was devoted to antique embalming equipment — with all sorts of bric-a-brac piled on tables.

As I wandered from room to room, a picture on one wall caught my eye. In the top of the frame was a photograph of a farmer and his wife taken some time before the Civil War. Below the picture was the farmer's will. On separate lines he carefully recounted his earthly possessions, parceling each out to family and friends. It was what you would expect until this line: Wedged between livestock and land were five slaves to be given away.

A friend once described walking into a vault in the New Orleans courthouse and seeing stacks of old record books listing the slaves that each person owned. He stood there in horror. Before him was row after row of moldering books with their ghastly roll call. I understood the shock he tried to describe because it was what swept over me as I stared at that will. How do you describe an encounter with the artifacts of slavery? It is the corpse at the funeral. In it we see both our own loss and the loss of someone else.

I stared at the will and as the shock drained away, a question began to form. I had been in the area for several days. For the first time it occurred to me that, in all the time I had been there, I had not seen a single African-American. Yet here in front of me was proof that at one time blacks had lived here. Were they still here? If not, when had they left and why? I walked out of the museum with the questions nagging me.

Over the next few days as I drove to my different appointments, I kept searching for even one black face. Tourism was one of the pillars of the local economy and the area was dotted with hotels, restaurants, and concert halls for country music fans. The people shopping in the stores were white. The people behind the counters were white. The people working in the motels were white. I began checking the people in cars as they passed. All white.

On my last day, I finally asked the person I was interviewing if there were any blacks in the area. "Oh no," she said, "the Klan keeps them out."

When I got back to Washington, D.C., I decided to take a closer look. Using 1990 census data I had downloaded from the Internet, I sorted the information from Arkansas to see how many counties had a black population of less than one percent. I soon had a list that included about a third of all Arkansas counties. I thought that Arkansas, as a slave-holding state, would have a more even distribution of its black population. Perhaps I had been mistaken.

I collected census data for other southern states. Tennessee. Georgia. North Carolina. Kentucky. Texas. Each time I found some counties that were either all white or populated by so few blacks as to be virtually all white. This was not what I had expected.

It was pure coincidence that, on one of the days that I was going over the census data in my office at Cox Newspapers in Washington, a woman from the Atlanta bureau was visiting. As we chatted I told her about the odd distribution of blacks in some southern states. She launched into a story about her brother, who is a cook. He had been recently hired as a chef in a restaurant in Forsyth County just outside of Atlanta. On the day she visited him there, she said the Klan was holding a rally on the courthouse lawn. She explained how all the blacks had been run out of the county around the turn of the century and had been kept out ever since. I went back to my census tables and found Forsyth County. In 1990, there were twelve blacks living in a county of over 40,000 people.

It wasn't until several months later that I had the time to drive to the National Archives in Maryland and copy data from census books from the turn of the century. At night I would sit at the kitchen table and pore over the columns of numbers. I would compare counties from one census to another looking for a sudden drop in the black population. Here and there I would see a strange gyration in the numbers. I had a gut feeling there was a pattern lurking in all these census tables, but the work was tedious and far too slow. There had to be a better way.

While I would frequently go on the Internet to find current census information, it had never occurred to me look there for census data from fifty or a hundred years ago. But frustrated with hunting through paper records, I did a web search for "historical census data." Almost immediately I found a database maintained by the University of Virginia. I began downloading census data from 1890 through 1930 for a small list of southern states. I then wrote a short computer program that would sort the data by state and county and compare the black population between each census. If there was a drop of fifty percent or greater between two decades, the data from that county would be saved in a separate file.

I punched the Enter key and in a matter of seconds the program had completed its work. I opened the new file I had created and began to scroll the list of counties where there had been a black population collapse. It was a moment of shock. Page after page of counties scrolled by. I had expected four or five counties, but I now had dozens. This could not be. I had made a mistake. I went back and checked the numbers. They were accurate. I downloaded data for more states from the University of Virginia and reran the program. The list grew. I started adding states outside the South, and the list grew even longer. What had happened?

I made a list of four or five counties that seemed to be the most suspicious and went to the Library of Congress. By cross-checking my list with the New York Times Index for the decade when each collapse occurred, I found the dates when there had been stories written about some of the counties. I mounted a microfilm reel and turned the crank. As I fiddled with the focus in the dark of the library's microfilm room, a headline appeared.

"ALL NEGROES DRIVEN FROM INDIANA TOWN."

The seven-paragraph story was to the point.

"Negroes began leaving this mining town early this afternoon, following the warning issued by white residents to be out of town by 7 o'clock tonight."

I mounted another reel and found another story:

"MISSOURI MOB'S WORK, Kills Three Negroes, Burns Their Homes and Drives Every Negro Out of Pierce City."

"For nearly 15 hours, ending at noon today this town of 3,000 people has been in the hands of a mob of armed whites, determined to drive every negro from its precincts."

I had found America's racial cleansings.

Like an archipelago, the counties where racial cleansings occurred form a rough arc that begins in North Carolina, crosses the Appalachians, and extends into the Midwest. In some cases more than a century has passed since blacks were driven out of these counties, and yet they still remain islands inhabited almost exclusively by whites. People pass through such counties on interstate highways never guessing at their history. If they were to stop and ask about a racial cleansing, it is likely they would be met with blank stares. History is what we choose to remember. But anyone who carefully digs through the history of these islands will often find the evidence of these long-ago eruptions.

From the book, Buried in the Bitter Waters; Copyright (c) 2007. Reprinted by arrangement with Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved.

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