Little is written about African Americans in Appalachia. They are basically a minority within a minority. The same is true for African Americans in far Southwest Virginia, said the operators of the Appalachian African American Cultural Center in Pennington Gap, Virginia.
“It’s like we don’t exist from Roanoke down to the Coalfields,” Ron Carson said Monday, Feb. 25, in the latest in the Black History Month Lecture Series at UVa-Wise.
Jill Carson, a Boston native, married Ron Carson and moved to Pennington Gap three decades ago. The first thing she noticed was “so few people of color” when she got to know her new community. She described African Americans as being invisible when she arrived from Boston, and being ‘inconsequential” seemed more racist, in her view, than racism her husband often noted in Boston.
Outsiders know little about Appalachia, Jill Carson said, adding that the region is one she has come to love. “It is our country’s hidden secret.”
The nation knows even less about African Americans in Appalachia, she added.
A person could stay in Lee County all day and never see an African American because of demographics, she said. The same is not true for Wise County today, and she credits UVa-Wise and its diversity for that change.
She worked as a grant writer and gathered demographics on Lee County and its towns. She noticed that the numbers did not change in 50 years.
“As years went by, that didn’t change,” she said.
The lack of records and other histories was a major reason the Carsons worked from scratch to preserve the history and culture of African Americans who lived or live in the Appalachians. It is important that future generations have the opportunity to learn who they are and where they come from, Jill Carson said.
The couple, with help from the community who donated items and completed oral histories, opened the cultural center in Lee County’s only school for blacks during segregation. Ron Carson’s great-great grandmother, a barber who grew wealthy and amassed 50 acres in Pennington Gap, built the one-room brick schoolhouse. One teacher taught all grades. The cultural center lost most of its historic items in a fire, but it quickly recovered.
Ron Carson gave some insight about life in segregated Pennington Gap. He walked past the white school each morning and wondered why his school didn’t have a playground and indoor plumbing. His dream of being bused to nearby Wise County to attend Big Stone Gap’s blacks only Bland High School ended when Lee County integrated its schools in 1965, one year before Wise County.
The black students and their parents walked to the Pennington Gap High School on a Monday in August 1965, the day the schools would integrate. The principal stood outside the door as the families approached.
“What took you so long to get here,” the principal said. Carson said the entire process was smooth. He was surprised when he entered the high school. “I thought I was at Harvard University,” he said.
The crowd in the Slemp Student Center was shocked at times when Ron Carson recalled life during segregation. One woman asked him how he did it.
“You had to live,” he said. “You might not like it, but you had to survive.”