A Small Town in Kentucky Seeks Redemption and Economic Opportunity
It’s been more then 100 years since a violent white mob forced nearly all 200 Black residents in Corbin, Kentucky, onto trains, and sent them out of town. A white man had been attacked and robbed, and a false accusation that a Black man had done it began to circulate. It didn’t take long for the mob to form, and make its way through town.
The long shadow of that event in 1919 lingers in the small southern Kentucky town of about 7,000 people, but a local group of volunteers, the Sunup Initiative, has been shedding light on that shadow, trying to move the community forward toward reconciliation and healing, a movement that is also fueling the city’s efforts to create equitable economic opportunity during this time of pandemic and the ongoing transition from the coal industry.
Their efforts over the past two years to raise awareness about the 1919 racial expulsion in Corbin culminated in vigils and protests in support of the most recent wave of uprisings to protest police brutality after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
These events might have been inconceivable before the Sunup Initiative formed. The founding members learned of the racial expulsion through rumors and snippets of information from others. Most of them previously knew nothing about the event, despite some of them having lived in Corbin their entire lives.
Sunup aims to change that. Their mission is to advance racial justice in Corbin in partnership with local and state organizations. The primary way they’re accomplishing this goal is through education about Corbin’s past as a means of opening dialogue about how to move the community forward. They don’t have formal membership, but do have a 101-person mailing list, and there are 10-15 people who are consistently involved in planning events. Several of those members are Black residents from the tri-county area of Knox, Laurel and Whitely Counties. The 2010 U.S. Census reports there are no Black residents in Corbin, though the population of Black residents in surrounding communities ranges from 0.8 to 1.3 percent.
Sunup started researching historical first-hand accounts of the racial expulsion, including testimonies from people involved in the trial against one of the leaders of the white mob. One of their first major public events was making these documents available to all Corbin residents. Many people living in Corbin know little about the events, if they know of them at all. One of Sunup’s founding members, EMI, who is white, said this was likely the first time any living person in Corbin had the chance to engage with these materials. EMI’s full legal name is End Mass Incarceration, but she prefers to use the mononym, EMI.
EMI said those materials revealed things about the full extent of the expulsion that had been lost over time, including how the Black families in Corbin were forced to the train depot. The white mob went to their homes and rounded up entire families at gunpoint, then marched them to the trains, where they forced them on, and sent them south to Knoxville, Tennessee. They were given no time to collect any belongings, and many were forced to leave behind everything, including farms they owned and their livestock. EMI said there are also reports of some white families sheltering Black families to protect them, and even one report of a marching band accompanying the mob as they made their way through downtown Corbin.
“Corbin’s history with race goes back a lot further than 1919, just like every other place in this country and on this planet,” EMI said. But that history comes to a point in 1919, she added, with the tensions boiling over after the robbery and attack against the white Corbin man.
EMI drew comparisons between then and now, noting that in 1919, the United States was in the middle of another global pandemic that had stunted the economy in ways we are now seeing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the Black families had moved to Corbin from the South so the men could work for the railroad, a long-time core industry in Corbin that was booming at the time. Racial tension from white employees had been building long before the night of October 29, 1919, in part because of the larger economic tensions experienced at the time, and the fear that Black men were taking local jobs away from white men.
Economic recovery in Corbin today has been happening at a rapid pace in recent years. Eastern Kentucky’s economy has suffered acutely since the coal industry collapsed beginning in 2012. Corbin’s fate has been linked to coal mining because trains carrying Eastern Kentucky coal passed through the town on their way to coal-fired power plants throughout the Southeast. The town has been rebuilding thanks in large part to young professionals from the area moving back to Corbin and opening small businesses.
EMI has been a part of that regrowth. She moved to Corbin in 2015 to headquarter her local media business there, but said the regrowth has been stunted by Corbin’s past. The town has long been known as a place unsafe for Black people. She had a Black colleague who felt uncomfortable meeting with her in Corbin, and has heard from other Black friends that they, too, did not want to spend time there. She knew this perception needed to change in order for Corbin to reach its full potential.
“This is more than just a social issue,” EMI said. “It is a personal issue and a business issue.”
Sunup felt it was vitally important to bring those events to light as a way to move the community forward, which they felt couldn’t happen in a real way unless there was acknowledgement of the event and a real effort made at reconciliation. One of the most lasting things to come from the racial expulsion, EMI said, is Corbin’s reputation as a place unsafe for Black people. She said unless the community was able to change that narrative now, local economic development that has been largely successful in the town would be stunted.
Sunup began their community education efforts in 2018 by hosting a community film screening of “Anne Braden: Southern Patriot”, an Appalshop biographical film about Braden, a prominent white civil rights activist from Kentucky. After the success of the screening, where 30-40 mostly white people attended, Sunup began thinking about how to commemorate the 100th anniversary of 1919 racial expulsion.
Sunup talked with the city commission about what kind of event they could plan together. It was important to Sunup to include city officials, particularly Mayor Suzie Razmus, so the effort would have more buy-in from the community. After much discussion, it was decided that a true commemoration would be one that recognized the real history of 1919 to educate the community about their history. And that the city would officially recognize the last week of October as Diversity Week in Corbin, during which education and commemoration of Corbin’s history would happen.
Sunup made available the primary sources they discovered through their research, and hosted a community conversation about them during Diversity Week 2019. Founding member Lisa Garrison, who is also white, hosted a community remembrance vigil through her church as an official religious recognition of 1919. And the city issued an official proclamation condemning the acts of the 1919 mob and the person who started it.
“There’s a little something for everyone in Corbin Diversity Week,” EMI said. “And it all came out of this idea of just telling the story right, and telling the history for the first time in 100 years.”
Garrison said Sunup wanted to fully acknowledge the 1919 event, and use that to continue having conversations to move Corbin forward in a positive way.
“It’s important for us to shed light on our own personal selves, looking at the darkness inside of us, before we can help shed light on other people’s darkness and help tackle some of the hard conversations in our world about change,” she said.
Garrison has helped plan and organize the recent vigil and protests against police brutality. She said she’s been involved in activism her entire adult life, and felt moved to action this time after witnessing uprisings spread across the country after the killing of George Floyd, particularly in Columbus, Ohio, where she lived for many years.
She got to work planning another vigil for her community, and within 24 hours, she was setting up in a downtown outdoor area with tape on the ground to adhere to social distancing guidelines, and making signs for people to hold. She only expected a couple dozen people to show up – mostly her friends whom she’d told about the event personally. But more than 100 people participated in the May 31 event.
“There were people that I expected to be there; young, old, multi-ethnic, very diverse crowd,” she said. “But it was still very white, which I was glad to see because it made me realize there are others like me in the community who were ready to be done with [police brutality against Black people].”
The vigil was very peaceful, she said, and community focused. Mayor Razmus, who signed the proclamation denouncing the events of 1919, attended the event, and said she felt it was important for her to be there because the vigil spoke to who she is as a person and leader, and how she was feeling in the wake of national upheaval.
“These are our community members, and they are hurting and they needed to be heard,” she said. “We are all hurting. This virus and the divisive state of the nation already had us off balance, and the murder of George Floyd tipped us.”
She was elected mayor in 2018, and said she began researching the history of the 1919 events when she started her bid for mayor. She knew some of the story, but not all of it, and said she felt “disturbed and sickened” when she learned the full extent of the history.
“I knew then that the city needed to speak into our history in a meaningful way to acknowledge the 100th anniversary of the racial cleansing riot,” she said. She instated Diversity Week as a way to do that, and also as a way to shift the narrative of modern-day Corbin to be more reflective of how far they’ve come and the reconciliation they are working toward.
After the vigil, several young people in high school and college from Corbin approached Garrison seeking her help organizing a three-day protest. She agreed to become an advisor to them, and helped them plan the three-day event, which went from June 4-6. She also went with them to other regional protests in Middlesboro and Barbourville. She said the city, including local police, was very supportive, with the police chief even taking a knee with the crowd during the first night of protests.
EMI said the events in Corbin acted as a catalyst for other events in the region. A city official from Hazard, which is several counties away from Corbin, reached out to Sunup after the Corbin events, seeking advice about hosting their own event. And while EMI says Sunup takes no credit for the large march that eventually happened in Hazard, Corbin did prove that such events were possible in Eastern Kentucky.
“It’s a dream come true for me personally, to see more people come into the work and more people doing the work,” EMI said. “I can only do so much individually. But when it’s growing, and people are bringing new energy and new ideas, it makes me really happy.”
Garrison has a lot of hope for the work Sunup is doing, and for the more open and honest community they’re trying to help build in Corbin. In the near future, they intend to have more conversations with local police, and work with the school system to introduce a more accurate history of Corbin into classroom curriculum. She says the work Sunup is doing is very much about future generations.
“As an individual, we can be so insular, and have our blinders on and just take care of our own selves,” Garrison said. “But that’s not what being a human being is about. Being a human being is about being a part of the community, and helping that community grow and be united, and work together to solve problems.”