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Kentucky Town Re-Examines Its Racial History

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Kentucky Town Re-Examines Its Racial History

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Kentucky Town Re-Examines Its Racial History

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Once in a while you can come across an American town or county that's long been virtually all-white even though surrounding communities have substantial black populations. It may not always be an accident. In the 60 or 70 years after the Civil War, in more than a few rural communities white mobs violently expelled virtually all their black neighbors.

A new book, "Buried in the Bitter Waters," describes a dozen of these racial expulsions. Among the places living with this uneasy history is Corbin, Kentucky, a small railroad town in the Appalachian foothills. John Biewen of the Center for Documentary Studies went to Corbin and sent us this report.

JOHN BIEWEN: People in Corbin, Kentucky will tell you their town is a friendly place with good schools. It's the proud home of the world's first Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant, opened by Colonel Sanders in the 1930s.

Ms. LAURA SMITH (Corbin, Kentucky Resident): I think that the first time I realized that there was something wrong with where I was from...

BIEWEN: Laura Smith is 27. She has long blonde hair. Her family has been in Corbin for generations. She says when she was a child, she and her mother were on a trip to Lexington when they ran out of gas.

Ms. SMITH: This really nice man stopped and picked us up and said I'll take you to the gas station and bring you back. And he was African-American. And we got in the car and he's, you know, just talking to us, talking to my mom, and he finally came around, where are y'all from? And my mom, you know, just looked over and said we're from Williamsburg, and I was shocked because my mom was lying.

I remember sitting in the back seat and just kind of taking that all in and the gears starting to turn and just being like, okay, there's something not okay with telling people, especially, you know, African-American people that we're from Corbin.

Ms. LAVERTA BOOTH(ph) (Barbourville, Kentucky Resident): My name is Laverta Booth. I was born in Knox County, 1927.

BIEWEN: Mrs. Booth lives in Barbourville, 15 miles southeast of Corbin.

Ms. BOOTH: Well, years back it was a very, very sad situation in Corbin.

BIEWEN: For a century, Corbin has been the railroad hub for this part of Kentucky. In the days of passenger trains, that meant blacks going to Barbourville used the Corbin station.

Ms. BOOTH: They would be scared to even get off the train. Face facts, it was a very dangerous situation to come to Corbin, African-Americans. It really was.

BIEWEN: Mrs. Booth is not afraid of Corbin anymore. On a Saturday in winter she's sitting in an apartment there, while her grandniece, Tammy Rogers(ph), gets her hair styled by her friend David Slone(ph).

(Soundbite of apartment)

BIEWEN: This is David Slone's apartment. He's one of about ten blacks living in Corbin out of about 8,000 people. He moved to town in 2005 to escape Biloxi, Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. He met Tammy Rogers at a mostly black Baptist church in Barbourville.

Ms. TAMMY ROGERS: When David said he was living in Corbin, I thought that was quite strange. I laughed, actually.

Mr. SLONE: When I first came up here, man, a toddler walk up to me and rubbed me on the back of the hand and looked at his hand. And I told him, it didn't rub off. That's permanent. He wasn't used to seeing black people.

BIEWEN: The reason dates back to 1919.

(Soundbite of music)

BIEWEN: The 1910 census found 60 black residents in town. By 1919, another 200 or so black men were working 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 some 25 race riots from Chicago to the Mississippi Delta. Then that fall in Corbin...

Unidentified Man: Corbin Times. Wednesday night occurred a highway robbery near the CV(ph) Bridge, when A.F. Thompson, switchman, 34 years old, was held up by two negroes as he was nearing home from his work.

BIEWEN: The day after this alleged mugging of a white man on October 29th, word passed in town that something was about to happen. These are excerpts from affidavits signed a few months later by long-time black residents Alex Ty(ph) and John Turner.

Unidentified Man: At about 11:00 on the night of October 30th, my wife, Annie Ty(ph), called me to look at a crowd of men going in the direction of John Turner's house.

Unidentified Man #2: They swore at us and said, by God, we are going to run all the Negroes out of this town tonight.

Unidentified Man: I saw Steve Rogers on the porch of the Little's(ph) home, hammering on the door, calling on the crowd to break in the door and bring them out and hang them if they didn't come out.

Unidentified Man #2: The fireman, Bob Smith, held a gun to my head.

Unidentified Man: So the three of us got through the back window and went over the top of the hill in the back of my house.

Unidentified Man #2: My wife and I were taken to the depot and herded there with a large number of Negroes and compelled to leave Corbin.

(Soundbite of train)

Mr. ELLIOT JASPIN (Journalist): By the end of this, all but three blacks had been sent packing. The mob leaders decided that these three, who had been there for years and were harmless in their view, they could stay. Everybody else had to leave.

BIEWEN: Journalist Elliot Jaspin spent more than five years researching places like Corbin. Places where whites violently expelled virtually all the blacks in their communities at some point between the Civil War and the 1920s. In his new book, "Buried in the Bitter Waters," Jaspin writes about racial cleansings from central Texas through the Ozarks and parts of Indiana, into Appalachia and northern Georgia.

Mr. JASPIN: It's kind of an arc that goes across the United States. The counties are typically rural along the Mason-Dixon line. In a sense it's become America's family secret. I found so many that I eventually had to limit the story that I eventually wrote to only those counties where the racial cleansing had been successful. Which is to say, it remains whiter, virtually all white today.

(Soundbite of train)

BIEWEN: In Corbin, Kentucky the railroad yard is still there, just off the charming main street. So is the depot, where a couple hundred African-Americans boarded trains at gunpoint on that night in 1919. In the Corbin public library, you can find this article in the local newspaper archives.

Unidentified Man: Corbin Times, November 7, 1919. In the matter of news, there is nothing that the Times can add to what has already been said about the terrible calamity that befell Corbin last Thursday night in the way of that mob.

BIEWEN: I take a copy of the article to Don Estep(ph). He's publisher of Corbin's current weekly paper, the News Journal. Estep is 67 and a lifelong Corbin resident. But he says he's never seen the article before and has always heard a more benign version of what happened in 1919.

Mr. DON ESTEP (The News Journal): Well, until I had read this I didn't know there was a mob spirit. But they are openly in this article written in 1919 calling it a mob. Our name has gone out - very, very interesting part of this written in 1919, I think is this: Our name has gone out over the nation with a black spot that can never be removed. Wow.

Mr. JASPIN: As a way to deal with this very uncomfortable history, what I see again and again, and this is certainly in Corbin, is that they develop a fable.

BIEWEN: Author Elliot Jaspin.

Mr. JASPIN: In Corbin the fable was that there was a black work crew that came into town that caused trouble and they were told to leave.

BIEWEN: The mayor of Corbin, Willard McBurney, is 63 and a retired postal service manager.

Mayor WILLARD MCBURNEY (Corbin, Kentucky): People in my peer group from - they said they had heard from their grandfathers...

BIEWEN: The 1919 story McBurney grew up hearing is what Jaspin calls the fable.

Mayor MCBURNEY: I've heard that it wasn't to that severity, that 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.

BIEWEN: That is, the railroad brought in another crew of black workers. In this version of the story that's proof that the expulsion was not about race. In fact, in affidavits collected for the state's criminal investigation several months later, white eyewitnesses agreed with blacks. They said the armed mobbed announced its intention to rid Corbin of blacks, and that black baggage workers who tried to return a few days later were threatened and left again.

Unidentified Man: I know that some of the Negroes who were compelled to leave Corbin had been property owners, and had always been considered peaceful and law-abiding.

Unidentified Man #2: I do not consider that it would be safe for any of the Negroes to return to Corbin, Kentucky at the present time.

BIEWEN: As a result of the investigation, a white railroad worker named Steve Rogers was convicted of leading the mob and spent two years in the Kentucky state penitentiary.

A lot of people in Corbin say there's no point in dwelling on something that happened way back in 1919. That's how Mayor McBurney feels, but he admits the race riot that happened long before he was born haunts his town and its image.

Mayor MCBURNEY: I had to go to a marketing meeting in Cincinnati.

BIEWEN: McBurney remembers an incident from the late 1980s when he was working for the Postal Service.

Mayor MCBURNEY: There was probably over 100 of us in this meeting from various...

BIEWEN: The main speaker at the meeting was an African-American who'd flown in from Chicago.

Mayor MCBURNEY: And he was going through how our plans would do this and that and if any of us had any problems, he said, hey, I'll personally come down and work with you on that. But, he says - and he pointed his finger at me - and then said, I won't come to Carbon - that's what he called Corbin - he said I will not come to Carbon. And that really made me feel small. To be singled out with a group of people like that. I knew that he had heard of the stigma that has followed Corbin. And I mean that was someone from Chicago.

BIEWEN: For decades after the 1919 race riot, Corbin was known as a white man's town with a visible Klan presence that would tolerate on a token handful of blacks. The criminal investigation of the riot did find that several whites stood up to the mob. A few protected blacks in their homes or businesses.

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

Mr. JASPIN: When you have the fable, the heroic acts of the people in the community are lost. They lose their heroes.

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

(Soundbite of church)

BIEWEN: On the edge of Corbin, a congregation with a 110-year history meets in a sprawling, much newer building. Senior Pastor Tim Thompson of the First United Methodist Church was sitting in his office with some of his staff in August, 2005.

Reverend TIM THOMPSON (United Methodist Church): We were watching the news. Man, this thing has just wiped out New Orleans and Biloxi and all that coastline down there.

BIEWEN: Thompson and his staff decided to turn their church into emergency housing for people who'd lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina.

Rev. THOMPSON: I went before the whole church on Sunday morning and said, here's what we want to do. We raised the issue. We're certain some of the folks that are going to come and live with us are going to be black. We're certain of that. And we just said, whatever, whoever comes, we don't care. Doesn't matter, we'll deal with it. It'll be fine.

BIEWEN: The church hosted about 25 people from the Gulf Coast. They stayed in the church for weeks or months. About half were African-American.

Mr. THOMPSON: Our hope was that maybe a few of the black folks that came would stay here and live and becomes a Corbinite, live in Corbin and essentially become pioneers. So 15 or 20 years from now there's a growing population of black people in this town.

BIEWEN: But a year and a half later, almost all of the dozen or so African-American guests from the Gulf Coast have gone back home or moved on to places like Louisville or Lexington. All except David Slone, who came to Corbin from Biloxi.

Mr. SLONE: I'm thankful that the church had the vision to open up their doors to bring us up here. I'm an adventurer. I'm a pioneer. I'll try anything once.

BIEWEN: Slone now works in a cabinet factory in Corbin. He says he's gotten some cold looks in town, and he thinks unfair treatment in a couple of previous jobs.

Mr. SLONE: A lot of the people up here are stuck back in the '60s.

BIEWEN: But he says Corbin has not lived up to its old image as a town where a black man had better get out of town before sundown or else. Slone's 79-year-old friend from nearby Barbourville, Laverta Booth, agrees. She shops in Corbin regularly.

Ms. BOOTH: It used to be that you could walk on the street. Oh, there go a nigger down the street. You would hear this in Corbin, Kentucky. But now it seems to be much, much better. Now you can walk into a store, you can get a nice smile.

BIEWEN: Still, some people in Corbin say their town has a lot of work to do before its old image is put to rest, and that can only start with some straight talk about the past.

For NPR News, I'm John Biewen.

SIMON: Our story was edited by Deborah George and produced by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, in association with the Center for Investigative Reporting.

To hear Kentucky novelist Silas House tell his version of the fable surrounding the Corbin riot, and to read an excerpt from "Buried in the Bitter Waters," you can visit our Web site, NPR.org.

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