Featured Essay - African Americans in Appalachia

Dr. Althea Webb

Assistant Professor of Education

Berea College

Contrary to popular perception, Appalachia has always possessed significant and influential populations of color. The region, so named for the mountain range that runs through it from northeast Mississippi to southern New York, historically comprises three subdivisions—Northern, Southern, and Central—each with its own history of settlement and race relations. Indian nations, including the Cherokees, were the first peoples to inhabit the area, but by 1860 African Americans were approximately 10% of the population. There is, however, no one story of African Americans in Appalachia. Black Appalachians—like all Appalachians—have lived in rural settings as well as urban settings, and current residents may have come from families that settled in the mountains hundreds of years ago, while others are first generation migrants into the region.

As the first major mountain range west of the Atlantic coast, the Appalachian Mountains were the first "frontier." By the mid-1600s, explorers were trekking into the mountains and within fifty years, settlements had been permanently established by whites from England, Ireland, and Scotland. Many Appalachian people trace their heritage to the Scots-Irish, immigrants who lived in the border regions of northern Ireland before coming to America early in the 18th century. As whites moved into the mountains so did free and enslaved Africans. After the Revolutionary War, Union officers were given land grants in the largely uninhabited Central Appalachian area, mostly in what is now West Virginia. As white settlers demanded more land, however, the native peoples were forced to move west, a policy well underway by the time of the infamous Indian Removal Act of 1830 enacted by President Andrew Jackson.

In the early years of settlement, whites, Indians, and African Americans lived in close proximity to each other, and later generations included multiracial and multiethnic people; the Melungeons, a group thought to have European, Native American, and African ancestry, were identified in Central Appalachia early in the 19th century. Additionally, the lives of African American and white Appalachians were intertwined socially and culturally. The most obvious representation of this syncretism is the banjo, a central instrument in traditional mountain music that originated in Africa.

Enslavement in Appalachia varied according to regions. Elite Cherokee people held Africans in enslavement in the Southern Appalachia region, but the topography did not lend itself to the large plantation systems found in the lowlands of the Deep South. In the southern region, non-slave holders were in the majority, and the area also contained a large number of landless whites. Indeed, Appalachia was once thought to be an area that abhorred slavery, although recently scholars have documented the complex nature of slavery in the Mountain South. Like the nation as a whole, Appalachia was equally divided by Civil War loyalties. Northern Appalachians joined the Union, Southern Appalachians joined the Confederacy and those in the Central Appalachian area were at a crossroads. Two years after Virginia voted to join the Confederacy, mountaineers in the west and southwest areas of Virginia formed West Virginia as an independent state and joined the Union. There was an active Underground Railroad running through Appalachia from Chattanooga to Pennsylvania.

The mountain economy was traditionally based on subsistence farming and the harvesting of timber, and free and enslaved African Americans farmed and worked in agriculture-related jobs. As industry increased after the Civil War, however, the need for coal expanded. In Northern Appalachia, African Americans were largely excluded from working the coal fields, but in the South, coal mines were largely dependent on African American workers. The South's long history of using enslaved African Americans was followed by the use of (largely African American) convict labor. With the entrance of railroads into Central Appalachia the coal industry grew in size and importance, as train access allowed for a much larger exportation of resources.

The African American coal miners in Central Appalachia encountered better conditions than those in the South, and were not excluded to the same degree as those in the North. The coal fields of Central Appalachia were a major destination of African Americans leaving the Deep South during the Great Migration, and between 1870 and 1930 the African American population in Central Appalachia increased dramatically. The coal mining industry actively recruited African Americans to work alongside native white Appalachians and immigrant workers from Europe. The motive behind having three relatively equal numbers of men in the different groups of workers was to prevent unionization, as there would be natural language barriers. Still, African Americans found a measure of inclusion in Central Appalachia, where they were able to work free of exceedingly harsh conditions, and many received equal pay for their work. Under these circumstances, a significant number of African Americans moved to work in the coal fields of southeast Kentucky and southern West Virginia.

While not all miners lived in coal camps, a significant number did reside in the company towns built by the coal company. Coal camps differed in quality and in terms of services offered, schools, hospitals, public services, etc; however, the camps offered similar accommodations to all the workers. Some of the early camps were not segregated, but later became segregated as Jim Crow conditions spread. African American churches were also established in the coal camps. Benham and Lynch, considered model company towns in Kentucky, offered a decent life to African American coal mining families. Civil Rights came to Central Appalachia when African Americans in both towns joined others to form the Regional NAACP of Eastern Kentucky in the early 1940s.

After World War II, the use of automation in the mines increased dramatically. Machines doubled production and vastly cut the need for manpower. Between 1950 and 1965, deep mining was replaced by strip mining, reducing the need for laborers even further. Company supervisors were reluctant to use African Americans as machine operators, resulting in massive layoffs. In a familiar pattern, African American miners began to leave the coal fields for more urban Appalachian communities and beyond.

After generations of outmigration, some counties in the region are now seeing population growth. While some Northern areas continue to decline or remain constant over the last decade, other areas in the South experienced rapid growth during the same time period. Increase in the overall general population also includes increasing numbers of Hispanic/Latinos and African Americans moving into the region. However, according to the 2010 US Census, the Appalachian region is still less racially and ethnically diverse than the nation as a whole. Although Hispanics constitute the largest minority group in the United States, African Americans continue to be the largest minority group in Appalachia.

No number of age-old stereotypes can erase the fact that, Appalachia, distinctive as it is, has never been a region that is lily white. History reveals that Appalachia has always had a racially and ethnically diverse population that has been significant and influential. Migration and mobility has shifted patterns of diversity within sub-regions and particular counties, but many areas recall traditions of inclusive collaboration unlikely to have taken hold outside the mountains. Indeed, while some areas today are largely white, the collective memory of a county may reveal a vastly different history.

Recommended readings:

Inscoe, John C. (Ed.). Appalachian and Race: The Mountain South from Slavery to Segregation. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2001.

Turner, William H. and Edward J. Cabbell (Eds.). Blacks in Appalachia. Lexington, KY: The University of Press of Kentucky, 1985.

Wagner, Thomas E. and Phillip J. Obermiller. African American Miners and Migrants: The Eastern Kentucky Social Club. Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

Wilkinson, Crystal. (2000). Blackberries, Blackberries. New Milford, CT: Toby Press, 2000.