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The Appalachian African-American Cultural Center: Building on the Past

by Carl Hoffman

It's a monument of sorts, yet so simple and unmarked that a passerby might not even notice it. But the little brick building on Leona Street in Pennington Gap, Virginia, holds such bittersweet memories—and fresh hope—that Ron Carson can't tear himself away from it. Often, he just sits in it for hours.

Built in 1940 on land donated by Carson's great-great-grandmother, the building once housed the only primary school for blacks in all of southwest Virginia's Lee County. Its legacy is complex: even as it stood as a visible symbol of segregation, it represented education, self-sufficiency, and community. "I cried when our teacher gathered us together and told us we wouldn't be here next year," remembers Carson, sitting in the now-renovated schoolroom, surrounded by sepia-toned photographs and artifacts. Today, thanks to the efforts of Carson and his wife, Jill, the building has become the Appalachian African-American Cultural Center, dedicated to uncovering and preserving the sometimes painful, often triumphant, life stories of Appalachian blacks even as it seeks to transcend them.

Ron and Jill Carson met in 1967, a long way from Lee County, in Jill's hometown of Boston, Massachusetts, where Ron attended the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy. Twenty years later, yearning for small-town life, they moved to Pennington Gap and built a house on land still owned by Carson's family—directly across the road from the old school. "I used to sit on a big rock while my house was being built and reminisce about all the days I went to that school," he says.

Indeed, there was a lot to reminisce about, for the Carson family's roots run deep in Lee County. Carson's great-great-grandmother, Rachel Scott, moved to Pennington Gap around 1900. A barber whose customers were white, she gradually amassed, as Carson puts it, "a little fortune" of over three hundred acres of land and a 19-room house.

At that time, the height of the coal boom, there were about 2,000 blacks in Lee County. "They lived totally segregated lives," says Carson. The only primary school for black children was an informal one in the basement of a church, a few hundred yards up the hill from the Pennington Gap elementary school. In 1939 Scott donated land for a new school for the children, and in 1940 the Lee County Colored Elementary School, a one-room schoolhouse, was built. Carson's mother was part of the first class.

Carson, who was born in 1953, has powerful and conflicting memories of his elementary-school days. "At any one time there were about 30 kids in the building," he says, and some of the seventh-graders were 17 and 18 years old. Just down the path was the modern school for whites. "I remember thinking, Why don't we have a playground? Why don't we have monkey bars? Why don't we have a cafeteria?' Our balls were socks balled up and sewn together and our bats were broomsticks. Our bathroom was an outhouse, and the building was heated by a pot-bellied coal stove."

And yet for all its relative poverty, the school represented hope and education to a community long deprived of both. And the times there were golden for Carson, a fact that, paradoxically, rankles him still. Teacher Lou Carson, who earned eighteen dollars a month, was talented and committed, and presided over a tight-knit classroom.

End of an Era

The 1965–66 school year was the last for the one-room schoolhouse; the following year Lee County's schools were integrated. Carson and his eighth-grade classmates were bused to Pennington High School. Carson can still remember the white principal's first words as they walked inside: "I wonder what took you all so long to get here."

In 1988, the same year Ron and Jill Carson settled into their new house, the county decided to auction off the old schoolhouse. "That school has such meaning to the black community," Ron says, that they couldn't bear to see it torn down or ill-used. So they petitioned the county board of supervisors to designate the building a historical landmark. After extensive delays, the board finally agreed, with one caveat. The board, which had used the school as a polling location, would maintain the building's gravel parking lot and pay its hazard insurance bill in exchange for continuing to use it during elections. The Carsons agreed.

Suddenly they had the building and a nonprofit corporation—the Afro-American Culture Center. But what exactly the center should do— that was a good question. That is, until Ron and Jill became fellows at the Highlander Research and Education Center's Southern and Appalachian Leadership Training Program. Through Highlander, the Carsons say, they gained a larger vision: the center would look backward, preserving the history of blacks in Lee County and throughout Appalachia; but it would also look forward, trying to bring people of all races together by celebrating their commonalities. A new name seemed appropriate: the Appalachian African-American Cultural Center was born.

Despite holding full-time jobs—Ron is a black-lung benefits counselor, and Jill is a financial officer for the county's Head Start program—they began systematically taking the oral histories of the 55 blacks, many of them elderly, living in Lee County. They held a memorabilia night, to which people brought old desks from the school, report cards, and photos. With a $3,500 grant from the Appalachian Community Fund, they renovated the building. They organized a Race Unity Day at a local park, which drew 400 people and has been held every year since. They have organized black history programs at local elementary, junior high, and high schools and at colleges. They bring preschool children into the center on a regular basis for short talks on the school's history. Connecting with the Appalachian cultural and educational organization Appalshop helped them organize monthly story swaps at the center. "We're filled to capacity for every one," says Jill Carson. And Appalshop has begun to incorporate those stories into its traveling Roadside Theater productions, which have been performed at schools throughout Appalachia.

"We started out just focusing on black history in Lee County, but more and more people expressed interest, and we had to broaden our scope," Jill says. The center is now involved in such activities as building a library of black literature and sponsoring a series of workshops on racism for everyone from county administrators to school board members to law enforcement officials. "The center is the only place in the region where blacks and whites come together in a public forum and discuss racial issues," says Ron.

"It's a place where people feel safe to do so," adds Jill.

Starting Over

Perhaps some find that threatening. In 1994 a suspicious fire—it remains officially unsolved—severely damaged the inside of the building, destroying nearly all the artifacts and oral histories the Carsons had worked so hard to collect. They were devastated. And the county, which held the insurance policy, at first didn't turn the money over to the center. "They wanted to move the center next to an old slave shack [in another part of the county] and create a black minivillage," says Carson. The Carsons turned to the NAACP, which convinced the board to reimburse the center for the building, although not for its contents. "We had to make a serious decision whether to start over again or not," says Jill. "Finally, we decided we had to, but it hasn't been easy."

Today, the center is slowly filling up once again. The Carsons have managed to redo most of the oral histories, thanks in part to a grant from the local Catholic archdiocese to hire a summer intern. Photos hang from the walls again—there's Ron Carson's mother, a little girl, smiling with her classmates at the old school. And Nathan Dykes, who at the age of six, in 1858, was sold for $420; the center also has copies of his slave papers.

"Losing all that we had achieved in the fire, that was tough," says Ron Carson. "But the most difficult thing is that sometimes people don't want to be reminded of those old times. People from this region often don't want to know about their past, because they're ashamed of it, and blacks are a minority within that minority. People come up to me and say, Why do you want to remember those sad days?' But for me, it's different. How can you say you know where you're going if you don't know where you're from?" Carson pauses, and gazes at an old photo of black coal miners. "I like to come down here on Sunday mornings before church and just listen to the ghosts talk," he says.

Carl Hoffman is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC.