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

Appalachian Black schoolchildren, Omar, West Virginia, 1935 (Library of Congress)

“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.  

The history of Jenkins begins in 1912, when Maryland coal giant Consolidation Coal Company built and developed Jenkins and its surrounding camps specifically to mine the area’s rich coal seams. The company recruited Black migrants from the Deep South to extend its capacity for labor as well as to diversify its workforce in an effort to prevent unionization. During the initial wave of the Great Migration, thousands of Black southerners came to the Central Appalachian coalfields to earn fairer wages than they had been given in places like Alabama. 

Coming to eastern Kentucky also meant better educational opportunities for their children than what could be found in the Deep South, although it remained an education made separate and unequal. The coal company designated separate schools for Black and white children. The all-Black school was located in the Jenkins subdivision of Dunham in the No. 7 holler. In 1931, the school was extended to educate children past the seventh grade. After an agreement with Letcher County, it became the county high school for Black students. In 1942, the company constructed a towering coal tipple—which processed the area’s coal—next to the school. It was deemed too loud and disruptive for the school to operate effectively, so the students were moved to Jenkins, to a white wood-frame building behind the coal depot across the street from the all-white Jenkins High. 

The designation of space for the all-Black school tells a story about what type of education the white school board deemed appropriate for Black children. The modest building stood in stark contrast to the stately brick of the all-white high school. DHS sat up on a hill above a creek. Because there was no cafeteria, students would have to cross a little bridge over the creek if they wanted to fetch a lunch—which could be dangerous if there had been a heavy rain. Parents regularly requested improvements to school facilities, including better transportation, an expanded auditorium stage, and new concrete steps leading up to the school. 

The story of the all-Black school in Appalachia is one of many narratives about all-Black schools across the segregated South. The history of valued segregated schooling illuminates the investment of parents and educators in providing a quality education to students as well as the ways in which the school represented an important cultural institution of Black identity and pride. DHS was a freedom space in which Black children could live and play, where they could learn and dream about their futures. Carolyn Hollyfield Rodgers, who attended DHS through eighth grade, shares that her favorite memories of Dunham were: “the plays and the basketball games and just some of the activities and the comradery with the students and it being small so you knew everybody that was there.”2

In 1964, the Jenkins school system, like other coalfield schools, was forced to desegregate. While Black students gained resources and opportunities at their new school across the street, they lost a space of their own. They lost Dunham High School. Jacquline Osley Jackson recalls: “I just really didn’t want to leave that school because of the closeness and the bonds that were developed there.”3

After graduation, most of Dunham’s students scattered across the country, pursuing dreams and possibilities nurtured by their all-Black mountain school. They wish to preserve its history, which is why alumni such as Rodgers and others worked to secure a marker. Even in the absence of its physical structure, the recognition of the all-Black school as a place of historical and cultural significance contributes to the ongoing efforts that document Black history in Appalachia and preserve historically Black spaces across the country.

This preservation is a form of activism that helps to articulate a fuller and truer American history in which Black people are recognized as historical actors who actively shaped history and presented the possibilities of a truer democracy. But it also counters a narrative that conceals the truth about racism and discrimination in the mountains, particularly during the civil rights movement. Appalachia was not holy, even if the aesthetics of Jim Crow looked a little different than in the Deep South. White Appalachians must reckon with a history of “hegemonic spatial practices” within a region historically exploited by capitalist interests. I must grapple with the history of ordinary spaces through which I moved freely that excluded Black citizens decades earlier.

Appalachia’s historically Black spaces remain endangered or have been lost due to neglect, destruction, or time. The absence of visible spaces seemingly renders Black people invisible. However, as Katherine McKittrick and Clyde Woods argue, Black histories “disrupt and underwrite” previously accepted human geographies. Black people have always existed in Appalachia, and they lived, struggled, dreamed, and actively shaped/were shaped by these spaces.

The empty space where Dunham High once stood provides a historical counter-narrative because it continues to exist in the memories of those who inhabited it. The marker contributes to what Andrea Roberts calls counter-narrative creation that confronts others with remembering. However, structure will not tell the full story. Instead, we must rely upon the stories of those who once made their place in the mountains. Their memories reconstruct the space that once held them and their dreams. This preservation (re)locates the all-Black school as a site of memory in Appalachia. Their stories refuse erasure, challenging a master narrative that has silenced their lived experiences and perpetuated myths about the region. This counter-narrative recovers Appalachia as a site of freedom dreams and struggle, explicating a fuller history of the movement. This method of “history as resistance,” subverts mythology and reforms regional and national memory.4

These spaces exist across the region and the national landscape. Their histories produce a counter-narrative that recovers the silenced stories of people and places that would allow us to remember a fuller and more complex history of the movement, the actors within it, and its place within the long and unfinished road toward freedom and a true democracy.

  1. Toni Morrison, “The Site of Memory,” in Inventing the Truth: The Art and and Craft of Memoir, edited by William Zinsser, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995, p. 98-99.
  2. Carolyn H. Rodgers, interview by author, April 9, 2019.
  3. Jacquline O. Jackson, interview by author, May 6, 2019.
  4. Derrick P. Alridge and Kristan L. McCullum, “Toward a Critical History of Education: The Uses of the Past and its Possibilities for the Present,” in The Routledge Handbook of Critical Educational Research Theory & Methodology, eds. Michelle D. Young and Sarah Diem (forthcoming).
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Kristan McCullum

Kristan McCullum is a doctoral student in the Social Foundations of Education program at the University of Virginia's School of Education and Human Development. This piece is based on her dissertation, a cultural history that examines the educational and community experiences of Black Appalachians during the civil rights movement in an eastern Kentucky coal town. Follow her on Twitter @krismccullum3.

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

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    It feels like at several parts in the article you use the word “appalachia” when you were really just referring to eastern Kentucky. I really enjoyed this article but that distinction would have helped make it clearer that integration was not a uniform process across appalachia. I have done research on educational integration in WV and there are several examples of schools integrating before brown v. board and per the governor’s request most of the state integrated quickly to the extent that the NAACP said west Virginia was the state that integrated best. All of this to say sentences like “Appalachian Jim Crow that kept schools segregated for a decade following the 1954 Brown decision.” Are too generalized, because kentuckys day law made Kentucky a particularly difficult case in regards to educational integration, not all of appalachia.

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      The point I am making in this essay is to acknowledge the presence of Jim Crow in Appalachia–I wouldn’t argue that it looked the same in West Virginia or any other part of Appalachia. I am specifically talking about how it presented itself in the eastern Kentucky coalfields (the Appalachian part of Kentucky), and particularly in Jenkins. The 1904 Day Law prohibited interracial education in Kentucky, but even after the 1954 Brown decision, some coalfield schools were some of the last to “integrate” in the state (and I use “integrate” here because this often didn’t mean full integration–there was often disproportionate displacement of Black administrators and teachers). Thank you for reading!

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    Great, thoughtful, and inspiring article. It gives me ideas of how to do research on Black people in my home county, Westmoreland County, PA. Thank you.

    • Avatar

      Thank you for reading!

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