It’s not too often that the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition says we are welcoming Appalachian royalty to Cincinnati, but with Dr. William Turner’s visit on September 21, that phrase seems to fit.  Dr. Turner (or Bill, as most UACC folks call him) is the leading scholar documenting what it means to be both Appalachian and Black. He will be in Cincinnati to talk about his latest book, The Harlan Renaissance.

Yep, I spelled that right. Harlan, as in the coal mining county in southeastern Kentucky where William H. Turner, PhD, was born in 1946.  Dr. Turner was fifth of ten children; his grandfathers, father, four uncles and older brother were all coal miners.  The family lived in Lynch, built by U.S. Steel Company, and the largest company-owned town in Kentucky through World War II, with over 6000 thousand people at its peak. It’s no coincidence that there is a Black Coal Miner Memorial in the town, as about 20% of the population were African American families recruited to work in the mines. According to webpage about this memorial, the “recruitment sometimes involved bundling miners, their wives, and children into cars and trucks and racing away from their white-owned sharecropper farms.”

The Harlan Renaissance describes African American life in Dr. Turner’s hometown from his own lived experience and that of others in the community. Local scholar Tom Wagner says, “Dr. Turner is one of the pre-eminent Appalachian scholars. The Harlan Renaissance is both an autobiography and a history of life in a model coal town during a time of great social change in Appalachia. His recognition of the success of his friends and neighbors who lived in Lynch, Kentucky is truly remarkable.”

The Harlan Renaissance was awarded the 2022 Weatherford Award for the best nonfiction book about Appalachia. It was also awarded the best Kentucky history book in 2023 by the Kentucky Historical Society. Dr. Turner’s first book Blacks in Appalachia, (with Edward J. Cabbell), was the first study of African Americans in the southern Appalachian region. Dr. Turner also served as an advisor to film maker Alex Haley on the award-winning film, Roots. Haley has said, “Bill knows more about black people in the mountains of the South than anyone in the world.”

According to a recent interview in one of William Turner’s alma mater’s, the University of Notre Dame, Alex Haley played a role in his decision to write The Harlan Renaissance. In this interview, Dr. Turner recounts that Dr. Haley had not such a high opinion of his tenure-producing scholarly work in Blacks in Appalachia. “Alex looked at it and said, ‘Bill, I hope you never write anything like this again. All these graphs, all these charts, all these big words, they might impress somebody back at Notre Dame, or some sociologists and demographers, but write something your Mama will read.’ And so I’ve played around with it for 25 years here and there, in and out of the mountains all the time. My biggest question was, how do you find a voice that my Mama would read? My Mama’s been dead 25 years, but I got it done.”

UACC Core member Michael Maloney is a long-time colleague of Dr. Turner. He says, “Dr. William Turner is a giant among the leaders of the Appalachian studies movement.  Blacks in Appalachia began to change the narrative about Appalachia as the exclusive preserve of people of Anglo-Saxon or Scotch-Irish stock.  The Harlan Renaissance, now takes its place with Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns in bringing to life for American readers the remarkable stories of Black individuals, families and communities in the Appalachian South.  Those who meet him in Cincinnati will find Bill Turner to be a handsome, charismatic and totally engaging representative of Appalachia’s ‘best and brightest.’”

Dr. Turner was also interviewed about The Harlan Renaissance by Berea College, where he is retired distinguished professor of Appalachian Studies. In that interview, he spoke more of the life in Lynch and in other eastern Kentucky coal camps. “You live in a company house. You drink company water. You see by company lights and the company appoints the preacher that tells you everything that’s right. That’s the world of a coal camp. It was a totally controlled community.” Dr. Turner stated that the central message of the book is “what compassion, what care, what neighborly support these people gave each other that took them through the crucible of isolation in those towns.” In this interview he emphasized the universality of the story—that there are always people who have more than us, but that does not make them better than us—proven, in part, by the intergenerational mobility of the children and grandchildren of the miners who were up “just a tad” from slavery.

My own father, Charles Valentine Hansel, grew up in Crummies Creek, Kentucky, another Harlan County coal camp not too many miles from Lynch, about a decade earlier than Dr. Turner. I am lucky enough to have access to oral history interviews with Dad from the 1980s where he spoke about the segregated communities in the coal camps and said of the miners, both black and white, “What they made was barely enough to keep them going.” Dad, too, went on to become an educator; he was the first in his family to go to college. He taught history, philosophy and religion first at Eastern Kentucky University, Union College and then Lees Junior College, both in eastern Kentucky. I wish Dad and Dr. Turner had had the opportunity to sit together and discuss their lives.

UACC Core member Maureen Sullivan told me that her first introduction to Bill Turner was not in person, but by viewing a recording of a presentation he made to an Appalachian Intersession course at the University of Cincinnati. She said, “His presentation was called ‘Footsteps on the Sands of Time’ and even taped, was so real and so compelling, that ever since then, whenever I have had the opportunity to hear him, I have done so and been thankful. His depth of scholarship is matched by his deep commitment to Appalachia and ALL of its people.”

You, however, have the opportunity to encounter Bill Turner live and in person! We hope you will join us on Thursday, September 21 at 4 pm at the University of Cincinnati for “Dr. William Turner – The Harlan Renaissance.” The event is at the University of Cincinnati-College of Design, Architectures and Planning (DAAP) Aronoff Center, 342 Clifton Ct, Cincinnati, OH 45221. Room 3410. Parking is available in the DAAP garage accessible from Clifton Court Drive.  If you are using a GPS system, you may use the corner of Martin Luther King Drive and Clifton Avenue to locate DAAP’s facility. Registration (with a link to directions) is here. This lecture is co-sponsored by the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition, the University of Cincinnati’s Office of Equity, Inclusion & Community Impact, School of Planning, and Center for the City, and the Over-the-Rhine Museum.

Material quoted from,,

Pauletta Hansel is a UACC Core Member. She is a poet and teacher originally from southeastern Kentucky.

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