Alex Haley, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Roots,” once said nobody knew more about Black life and culture in the mountains of the American South than William Turner.
The acclaimed sociologist and retired professor was born in Harlan County, Kentucky and has studied his region for 50 years. But even with his experience and Haley’s encouragement, writing about Black families of the coalfields was not easy.
“It took me a long, long time,” says Turner. “I started on that book 30 years ago.”
The result of his labors is “The Harlan Renaissance: Stories of Black Life in Appalachian Coal Towns,” published this fall by West Virginia University Press. Turner says his book explores an important aspect of the movement of Black southerners from the rural south to the industrial north in the early part of the 20th century.
“It’s all a part of a mass migration of people that’s very important to American history,” he says. “My book helps to fill that page, particularly about Black people in the Appalachian south, in southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, east Tennessee, and southwest Virginia.”
The Diversity of the Kentucky Coalfields
Telling this story is something of a professional and personal passion for Turner. He’s long grown tired of people, including some historians, who think the history of the eastern Kentuckians belongs to white, Scotch-Irish immigrants.
“My first thought was how dare you ignore the existence of my great-grandmothers… who were born into slavery in the 1850s in the heart of southwest Virginia,” says Turner. “Just because you just discovered them didn’t mean they hadn’t been there.”
Turner says his lineage continues through paternal and maternal grandmothers who were sharecroppers. His parents raised 10 children on his father’s coal mining wages working for U.S. Steel. When the company denied Blacks foreman positions at its mines, Turner says his father joined with other African American miners to sue for the ability to hold those jobs.
Turner’s dad only had a third-grade education, while his mother completed tenth grade. Yet the Turner children and grandchildren went on to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees from the likes of Spelman and Morehouse Colleges, MIT, Stanford, and Columbia.
The Harlan County of Turner’s youth was a highly diverse place. He says the residents represented 38 different nationalities during the 1950s. For that reason, Turner says he didn’t experience racism until he left the coalfields. The first shock came when he moved into Haggin Hall at the University of Kentucky in 1966.
“There were only three African Americans in that dorm,” says Turner. “I was going, where are the Black people around here?”
In time, Turner would discover that many Appalachians like him had left the mountains to take on the wider world.
“I heard [attorney and author] Harry Caudill say one time that people from eastern Kentucky came and took over central Kentucky and they never fired a shot,” he says. “Blacks and whites out of that area came with a certain value system, a certain resiliency that says I don’t know what’s out here in this world but there’s nobody in this world that can convince me that I can’t do what anybody can do.”
An ‘Industrial-Strength Optimist’
After getting his undergraduate at UK, Turner went on to get his doctorate in sociology and anthropology at Notre Dame. His teaching career included stops at UK, Kentucky State University, Berea College, Winston-Salem State University, and Prairie View A&M University. Yet he never lost touch with his coalfield roots or the label of being “Appalachian.” He says the region and its residents have become a convenient point of contrast for people from other places who are trying to elevate themselves.
“Appalachia became America’s other,” says Turner. “We’re really no different than anybody else except for this unique geo-physical space, so give us a break.”
The similarities extend to the impacts of changing socio-economic conditions. Turner says the nation watched as the decline of the coal industry resulted in high unemployment and high rates of substance abuse across central Appalachia. He says a similar fate now faces working class families in many urban centers.
“People in Chicago and in Detroit and in America’s inner cities are trying to adjust to joblessness and the globalization of the economy, which left a lot of people behind,” he says.
Although some politicians have sought to drive wedges between Americans along lines of race and class, Turner says there are still opportunities to bring people together for the good of the nation.
“I’m an industrial-strength optimist because I think that ultimately, despite this nadir we’re at right now, I believe that we will emerge as a country and still be able to say we’re a beacon light to the world when it comes to democracy,” he says.
A key part of fostering that change, according to Turner, is a thorough knowledge of history. He says when Americans learn what has happened in this country, and why that happened, we can avoid repeating the same mistakes. He says that includes learning about the nation’s legacy of racism.
“Anybody who doesn’t think race is a critical matter in America is in deep into self-denial,” he says.
That’s one reason why Turner says he wanted to document the experiences of African Americans in eastern Kentucky. He says their story is as important as the story of other Blacks who left the deep South for cities in the north and northeast during the Great Migration of the early 20th century.
“I hope that school students in the state of Kentucky at least will become familiar with Harlan, Kentucky, because it represented the epitome of the migration of Blacks out of Alabama,” says Turner. “In the same period people were going in to Harlem, thousands and thousands of African Americans came to Harlan County.”