Appalachian Hillsides as Black Ecologies: Housing, Memory, and The Sanctified Hill Disaster of 1972

*This post is part of our new series on Black Ecologies edited by Justin Hosbey, Leah Kaplan, & J.T. Roane.

Cumberland, KY (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

“‘What is that immediate need of your people?’ There can only be one answer. We WANT HOMES! PERMANENT HOMES!” 1

– Mattye Guy Knight

On Wednesday, December 14, 1972, one hundred and fifty people were ordered to evacuate their homes on Sanctified Hill in Cumberland, Kentucky. Four days prior, the topsoil beneath their homes began to slide downhill. As the soil moved, so did their homes. Walls buckled, foundations cracked, and widening fissures in the earth caused chimneys to implode. Newspapers reported two weeks of heavy rains as the cause of the slide, and by Friday, city officials estimated the slide was “continuing to move at that rate of about a foot a day.” 2  The city and state declared Sanctified Hill a disaster area. While some residents were able to return to their homes, the homes of seventeen families were declared permanently uninhabitable. As the slide destroyed their homes, the response by federal officials threatened to dismantle their status as homeowners. Instead of providing federal disaster relief directly to disaster victims, local and federal agencies attempted to use the opening of the disaster to turn Black people who had previously owned their homes into permanent renters.

The community on Sanctified Hill was predominantly Black, low income, retired, and elderly, yet most of the families owned their homes. Neither the city or state immediately offered disaster relief in the form of payment for their lost property, and due to the city’s earlier refusals to install basic city services on the hill, including fire hydrants and sewers, Sanctified Hill residents had been refused housing insurance. Governor Wendell Ford petitioned the federal government to declare a national disaster in an attempt to secure federal funds, declaring that the state had done all it could, but the Office of Emergency Preparedness (OEP) determined that the disaster did “not appear to be of such severity and magnitude to warrant a major disaster declaration.”3 It seemed that the disaster victims would receive no relief.

Sanctified Hill residents called the Black Appalachian Commission (BAC) for help. The BAC was a Black-led grassroots organization created to address the specific needs of Black people in Appalachia. Active from 1969 to 1975, the organization worked to develop a regional Black consciousness and solidarity across thirteen states. Developed during the aftermath of Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, part of its strategy was to push federal agencies to distribute anti-poverty funds directly to Black communities who were some of the poorest in the region, a fact the BAC argued was obscured by the federal focus on Appalachia as a white region. The BAC did not just ask for a portion of federal funds to combat poverty. They sought the power for Black communities to decide how those funds would be used.  The case of Sanctified Hill was an example of what happened when federal agencies did not put funds under Black community control. Soon after the slide began, the United States Office of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), and the Harlan County Community Action Agency made an arrangement with a local white contractor of an unfinished housing project. When the OEO granted $10,000 to go towards community relief, the money went to the Community Action Agency to cover rent in the housing project without input from the community.

With the support of the BAC, the community organized into the Sanctified Hill Disaster Committee and elected Mattye Guy Knight, a local teacher and musician, as chairman. By March, the committee was in Washington D.C. holding a press conference organized by the BAC. On March 8, 1973, outside of the Russell Senate Office Building, Knight spoke on behalf of the committee. “We are unfortunate in owning property in a (sic) area of town seeking to become an ‘All Kentucky Town’ although it is apparently unable to provide equal city services to all of its taxpaying people. We are unfortunate in being the victims of a landslide which is not large enough or tragic enough to make an impact on President Nixon so that he would declare the area one of disaster.” Knight also challenged the housing arrangements made without the input of Sanctified Hill residents by bluntly asking, “Who made these temporary emergency arrangements?”  The Committee’s statement also outlined demands from the committee including a study to determine the cause of the slide, legal assistance to assess their rights as homeowners, and what they determined to be their immediate need, “We WANT HOMES! PERMANENT HOMES!”4 That the committee sought a formal study of the cause shows that they found the explanation of heavy rains to be insufficient.

It was a six-year battle, but the community’s organizing efforts were successful. They incorporated into a non-profit organization, developed a proposal for a new community development project, and partnered with city, state, and federal agencies to form the Greater Cumberland Corporation. By 1974, Jack Guillebeaux, director of the BAC, reported the former Sanctified Hill residents had “acquired 1.3 million dollars to build a new community complete with 80 homes and a community center.” By 1979, the Greater Cumberland Corporation, a partnership of the Sanctified Hill Disaster Committee and local, state, and federal agencies, reported that it secured grants totaling nearly $3,000,000. 5 The community proudly named their new home Pride Terrace.

Almost fifty years after the slide, former residents are still trying to determine the cause of the slide. In September 2019 at the 50th reunion of the Eastern Kentucky Social Club in Detroit, Michigan, Ezell Gerard Smith remembered the morning of the slide. “Woke up one day and it had slidden off and dropped down… Houses were just gone. It was kind of a smokey-like coming up from the ground as if it had been a mine up under it because about a mile from Sanctified Hill the mountain burnt for all my life. When I lived there for the whole 30 years it would just smolder. My grandfather said that was a mine under there that was still burning.”6 Although Cumberland was not a coal mining town, it was only a few miles from Benham and Lynch, both historic coal-mining towns.

In “Mapping Black Ecologies,” historian J.T. Roane and anthropologist Justin Hosbey present Black ecologies as a way to interpret Black geographies as “foremost sites of ongoing injury, gratuitous harm, and premature death.” The Sanctified Hill disaster exposed racial inequalities embedded in Appalachian landscapes. By restricting working-class Black people to steep hillsides without city services, Black people were placed in an ongoing state of precarity. The Sanctified Hill disaster exposed the vulnerability of Black people to climate events due to a combination of placement and neglect. Rains impacted Black communities differently than white communities on stable ground. Assessing Black ecologies from the vantage point of Black Appalachian communities adds mountains and hillsides to Black ecologies of “the outside and the bottom.” Smith’s memories add another dimension. Coal mining might have exacerbated the dangerous position of Black communities on steep slopes. Smith remembered the impacts of digging coal could stretch for miles. “When you mine coal, it’s like city blocks. There’s streets and then it’s cut off streets. When you come back, you cut the coal. Let’s say you cut it for six miles, seven miles. You’re at the edge. You come back, you take everything out.” The slide might have been caused by decades of instability, neglect, and segregation.

Roane and Hosbey’s concept also considers the cartographic knowledge of everyday people as its own epistemology. When Smith posits that the Sanctified Hill Disaster was caused by more than heavy rains, he reveals a deeper story about the effects of coal mining on a landscape and the race and class dynamics the resource extraction built, upheld, and left in its aftermath. He offers a Black Appalachian epistemology of land rooted in a specific place. Smith remembered housing on hillsides as a common reality for Black people in mountainous communities. When asked about whether the slide affected white residents, Smith responded, “No. No. Their land basically is on the flat. They may have gotten flooded sometime because they were on the creek level. The two places that Black people lived was on the hillside and the mountains.” Here, Smith offers what Roane and Hosbey cite from Judith Madera’s work as a counter-cartography, “key ways that Black people have defined spaces for themselves and de-stabilized dominant and exclusionary representations.” The telling and retelling of the Sanctified Hill disaster challenges dominant narratives of Appalachia as an entirely white region. Additionally, Smith’s summation that fossil fuel extraction could have been the cause of the slide offers a counter-narrative to stories by white officials that the rains were the sole cause. Black histories of land and mudslides enable further study of the Black environmental thought of everyday people.

Roane and Hosbey’s theorization also speaks to the future Black communities imagined. Smith remembered being told about the possibilities of land ownership as a path to autonomy and community living. “It was a thing that our family always instilled in us. If you have land, you’ve got something because you can always come home. You can grow your vegetables, fruit, animals, and your family can live in a group setting.” 7 Although Sanctified Hill residents fought for homeownership, they did so as a community. They replaced their lost community with another community. They offer an example of the value Black communities placed on community and land ownership as a gateway to being able to live in a group setting where growing food would be possible. Smith outlines the possible roots of the values taught to him about land and his memory opens the door to Black visions of land use.

In 1979, the Sanctified Hill community celebrated its success with a program attended by residents and local, state, and federal partners. The event included songs by a youth choir, remarks by participants, and a dedication. The event published a program in which Knight wrote the story of the disaster. She concluded by writing, “When the last chapter of the Sanctified Hill Story has been written one may be assured that this small Community’s search for assistance will be long remembered. We sincerely hope that this demonstration project may in some way serve as a model (with the removal of all obstacles) for other small disasters.”8 Let it be so.

  1. Box 11, Folder Ex DI S/ST 17 Natural Disaster by State (Kentucky): White House Central Files: Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, Yorba Linda, California.
  2. “Landslide forces people from Cumberland homes,” Courier-Journal, Dec. 15, 1972.
  3. Box 11, Folder Ex DI S/ST 17 Natural Disasters by State (Kentucky): White House Central Files: Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, Yorba Linda, California.
  4. Box 11, Folder Ex DI S/ST 17 Natural Disaster by State (Kentucky): White House Central Files: Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, Yorba Linda, California.
  5. Greater Cumberland Corporation, “From Sanctified Hill to Pride Terrace: December 1972 to October 1979.” In the author’s possession.
  6. Ezell Gerard Smith interview with Jillean McCommons. August 31, 2019, Detroit, Michigan.
  7. Ezell Gerard Smith interview with Jillean McCommons. August 31, 2019, Detroit, Michigan.
  8. Greater Cumberland Corporation, “From Sanctified Hill to Pride Terrace: December 1972 to October 1979.” In the author’s possession.
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Jillean McCommons

Jillean McCommons is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of Kentucky. Her research explores the history of Black Power in Appalachia through the history of the Black Appalachian Commission. She will join the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia as a predoctoral fellow from 2020-2022. Follow her on Twitter @jilleanmcc

Comments on “Appalachian Hillsides as Black Ecologies: Housing, Memory, and The Sanctified Hill Disaster of 1972

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    Great piece, and would be interesting to integrate the thinking with the essay “Racialized Topographies’ by Ueland and Warf. These are critical nuances in the relationship between topographies and racial segregation. Thank you for starting this series. It will be a great source for both teaching and research.

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    Former resident of Sanctified Hill, Jonny Hicks, my stepdad served on the corporation. I had just joined Ky State Police when this happened. I see where you have the pamphlet of the Corporation detailing their work, support and successes to Pride,Terrace. Thanks for the article. Currently retired and pastoring a church in Richmond Ky. Thanks for the article.

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