Black in Appalachia

By Jenni Faires, Canon for Evangelism and Youth Ministry, 
The Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia

Several weeks ago, I had the pleasure of journeying with a group of diocesan youth, five of whom were from St. John’s, on the Black in Appalachia Youth Pilgrimage. 

Our journey began on Friday night when we were visited, via Zoom, by the pre-eminent historian of black history in Appalachia. A native of Harlan, Kentucky, Dr. Turner has devoted much of his life to the study of the black experience in Appalachia. During his time with our youth, he explained how black people moved into the mountain region, and the richness of their culture and influence on the area.  Most importantly, however, he reminded us that black history is American history and should be studied as such.

Saturday morning started with a stop at one of three lynching sites in the Appalachian region where UVA- Wise professor, Dr. Tom Costa, explained the research that goes into uncovering the history of a lynching. From examining slave registers to unearthing courthouse documents, the life and death of Wiley Gwen began to slowly emerge. As we stood in a quiet church parking lot overlooking an open field, Dr. Costa painted a picture of a life cut short by white vigilantes. 

Our next stop took us to Pound Gap and the border of Virginia and Kentucky, where we met Margaret Meade Sturgill, president of the Pound Historical Society. Ms. Sturgill gave her personal testimony of how a person can change over time. Initially, when Ms. Sturgill heard of the initiative to place a historical marker commemorating the lynching of Leonard Woods, she dismissed it. In her words, she was “embarrassed” that this had happened in her hometown and wanted to speak no more of it. As she learned more about the events surrounding the lynching of Mr. Woods, she had a change of heart. Placing a marker at the roadside became a priority for her and she worked tirelessly to see the marker erected. As we stood on the side of this busy highway, our group could see the very marker that she once stood against, but today is proud to stand beside.

Stop #3 took us high atop Black Mountain and the cemetery of Dan Fields. Members of the Appalachian Alliance (a coalition of four Episcopal Churches in Appalachia) brought their four-wheel-drive trucks, and we ventured up the mountainous terrain to see the mountaintop settlement of freedman Dan Richmond. Our guide for the weekend, and resident Black in Appalachia historian, Rev. Preston Mitchell, has been researching the Dan Fields Cemetery for many years. It was in this cemetery, surrounded by the unmarked graves of the family of Dan Richmond, that St. John’s youth Abigail Long, Lilah Vanke and Wilson Milam led us in our morning litany. As the litany came to a close, we stood in silence, praying for those who lie in eternal rest. 

Our silence was short-lived, as we descended from the mountain top to a wonderful lunch hosted by Williams Chapel AME Zion Church and several of the members of Christ Episcopal Church, Big Stone Gap. Our afternoon litany was held in the sanctuary of Williams Chapel and we were honored to have their minister of over 20 years, Rev. Sandra Jones, join us for lunch.

Our final destination was the Appalachian African American Cultural Center, where three pillars in the Black in Appalachia movement met us for story sharing of their own account of growing up black in Appalachia. Ron and Jill Carson, co-founders of the Appalachian African American Cultural Center and William Isom, founder of Black in Appalachia, captivated our teens. All of the experiences throughout the day were impactful, but hearing from Ron Carson about his childhood in segregated Pennington Gap, while we sat in the one-room schoolhouse (that he attended as a young boy), which now houses his black history collection, will leave an indelible mark on our youth. 

The definition of pilgrimage is any long journey, especially one undertaken as a quest or for a votive purpose, as to pay homage. By definition, this is exactly what youth experienced during the weekend of April 1-3, 2022. However, I pray that our youth can look past the long journey (and it was a lot of miles and time in the car!) and remember the second part of the definition. Those that attended heard first-hand from people that spend their life educating others - shining bright lights on not just a brutal and unfair past, but also a people full of creativity, genius and deep faith- so that the future of not just Appalachia, but the future of our country, can be changed to reflect the love, honor and history of Blacks in Appalachia.

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