The history of urban Appalachians is made up of many histories. We are not one unified thread, but a knitting together of many threads that led to the complex and constantly changing cultural network that is at the heart of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition. Part of this network is the history and life of black Appalachians who migrated from places like Eastern Kentucky and re-shaped the culture of northern cities like Greater Cincinnati. This history and culture are alive in the Eastern Kentucky Social Club.
The name, the Eastern Kentucky Social Club, does not fully reveal the purpose the Social Club historically served. William Isom II, the Director of Black in Appalachia, explained that the Eastern Kentucky Social Club exists in part as just what the name states: “It is the first organization of black Appalachians to provide a space purely for socializing.” However, Mr. Isom also told me that the Club helped people moving from mining towns to form social networks that supported each other. “People moved from the mining towns to cities to find works and opportunities for education, and they then laid the ground for others to follow,” Isom explains. The Eastern Kentucky Social Club was and is a network of people who lifted each other toward success. This is, in some ways, the story of Appalachian migration and the formation of what we now call urban Appalachians.
The Eastern Kentucky Social Club first met in Cleveland, Ohio, at Shaker Lee Hall, in 1971. Thomas E. Wagner and Philip J. Obermiller have written the history of the Social Club and the larger historical context in African Americans Miners & Migrants: Eastern Kentucky Social Club. They tell us that the origins of the Social Club are in the towns of Benham and Lynch in Eastern Kentucky. Wagner and Obermiller write: “At their peak, the two company towns would have a combined population of nearly 10,000 residents, with African Americans composing nearly 25 percent of the total. After World War II, many residents migrated to northern urban areas, and it was a small group of these migrants in Cleveland, Ohio, who founded the Eastern Kentucky Social Club.”
Along with the struggles of all Appalachians working the mines, black people in Eastern Kentucky also contended with the racism and violence that is part of the history of these areas and the nation more generally. Wagner and Obermiller recount in detail of this troubled history. These pressures prompted many to leave towns like Benham and Lynch for opportunities in northern industrial cities. When I spoke to Mr. Isom, he added that “by the end of the 1940s, the coal mining towns had begun to slow down, and the first job losses were black miners.”
William Isom II told me the migration from coal mining towns “came from many places. Folks came from all over Harlan County, Kentucky.” He cited Jenkins and Fleming in Letcher County as other examples. The Eastern Kentucky Social Club was initially formed, as Mr. Isom tells me, “as a social network to help each other to find jobs and education. The people who migrated from these areas placed a high value on education and knew it was the key to giving younger people advantages.” The Eastern Kentucky Social Club formed groups all over the country. William Isom continued: “They meet in one city, but each is representative of all 50 states. The Cleveland group, for example, is really the Ohio Chapter of the Eastern Kentucky Social Club”
The migration of black Appalachians from the coal fields of Eastern Kentucky can be seen as part of what historians now call “The Great Migration:” Described in the National Archives as a period which begins in the 1920s and “[a]pproximately six million Black people moved from the American South to Northern, Midwestern, and Western states roughly from the 1910s until the 1970s.” What makes the formation of the Eastern Kentucky Social Club so distinctive is that it is also part of the great migration of people from the Appalachian region to industrial cities in the north and elsewhere. This organization is the living embodiment of where these two movements converge. William Isom II emphasized that “people brought their language, their food, and their culture, and this changed the culture of the United States.” The history and cultural life of the United States has been defined in large part by the migration of black Appalachian people. This history is American history.”
Black in Appalachia has been working for the past four to five years on compiling an oral history of the Eastern Kentucky Social Club. In a manner quite simile to UACC’s Story-Gathering Project, Black in Appalachian has been recording the memories of people who are a part of the club and preserving these interviews in video archives. I will provide a link to this below. William Isom II told me there is an urgency behind this project since “the future of the Club is in question as people are aging and we are losing some of our older people.” The oral history project will make the history of the Eastern Kentucky Social Club a permanent feature of American experiences.
The Eastern Kentucky Social Club operates as a living testament to the experiences of black Appalachians who left the coal towns of Appalachia and established what we now call urban Appalachia. Black in Appalachia is working to preserve this even as membership in the Social Club wanes as members are aging. The work of Black and Appalachia, like our own work with the Story-Gathering Project will tell the stories of those who lived these experiences. The formation and enduring legacy of urban Appalachia in Greater Cincinnati and around the country form the basis of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition, and we look to groups such as the Eastern Kentucky Social Club an enduring example of central place of black people in Appalachian history and how this history forms the basis of the contemporary urban Appalachian experience.
More information on Black in Appalachia and the oral history of the Eastern Kentucky Social Club can be found at this link: https://www.blackinappalachia.org/eksc.
The reference to the Great Migration and the National Archive can be found at this link: https://www.archives.gov/research/african-americans/migrations/great-migration#:~:text=The%20Great%20Migration%20was%20one,the%201910s%20until%20the%201970s.
African Americans Miners & Migrants: Eastern Kentucky Social Club.
Thomas E. Wagner, Philip J. Obermiller. University of Illinois Press, 2004.
Cover photo credit: Kentuckians for the Commonwealth
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. He is the author of the forthcoming The Chief of Birds: A Memoir. Available later this year from Erratum Press. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.