Letcher County is nestled in the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Kentucky and is home to a diverse population of 23,123 people. In addition to a bounty of natural wonders, the arts remain alive in Letcher County. Anywhere local residents gather, the twist of a tale, the strike of a bow, or the stroke of a brush or pen pay homage to the legacies of mountain dance, craft, history and music. Strong initiatives spearheaded by dedicated citizens and engaged sponsors are helping the county communities find new ways to honor old traditions. Formed in 1968, Hemphill Community Center is a gathering place for local folks, and part of the Letcher County Culture Hub, a county-wide network of grassroots groups that are committed to economic development. Within the center sits a social enterprise program- Black Sheep Bakery which supports community members by providing job training to people who are recovering from addiction. Dedicated citizen, baker, child development specialist and Outreach Coordinator Gwen Johnson talked with us about preconceived notions and Appalachian solidarity with Black Lives Matter.
From Election years 2016 to 2020
"One of Appalshop’s staff members Ben Fink had written a piece for Bill Moyers – Building Democracy in Trump Country right after the 2016 election (Letcher County went 79.8 percent for Trump) about being a far left liberal in a far-right place, and how it isn’t always as it seems- that there’s a lot more going on than the simple battle lines often reported. Yes, some people fly Confederate flags. One of them, down the road, used to share a front lawn with an anarchist environmentalist, and they got along just fine.
After that piece appeared, we got an email from a liberal group in Leverett, MA asking if some folks wanted to get together to talk, to have some dialogue sessions around this whole thing. At that time their group didn't have a name, they were just a group of people reaching out to rural places and voting populations who had voted for Trump. So we had a culture hub meeting in the community center to talk about it, and this crazy thing happened where some people just burst into tears at the table. It was just days after the election and emotions were running really high because in the culture hub, not everybody voted for Trump. I don't really care what other people's politics are so much. I mean, that's their business, that's kind of the mountain way, you don't ask anybody how they voted. I didn't care if they voted differently than me, but some people seemed to really care if I voted differently than them.
So as a result of that, we drafted an email and sent it around to everyone to get approval of what was being said, because we were afraid that it was yet again, another way to stereotype us- the way we've been stereotyped for decades. We started corresponding and, in April of 2017, eleven of us drove to Massachusetts. We didn't know what we were going to find, or how we were going to be received. The short story is that it turned out to be a wonderful experience and we had three days of dialogue with these folks. In the beginning we kind of danced around some hard issues. And really, we teased them a little, but we didn't really get on them because emotions were running so high. They had arranged an assembly on the last morning and we were shocked to see that 300 people gathered, just to hear what we had to say.
We called the group ‘Hands Across the Hills’ because they are in hill country, and so are we. Dr Paula Green who dreamed the whole thing up has 40 years experience as conflict resolution specialist and she works on removing the voices of politicians and the media, who seek to divide us, to paint us as enemies, red versus blue. So here we all were, progressives in rural Western Massachusetts and (mostly) conservative voters in Eastern Kentucky coal country expressing our feelings honestly and deeply, creating trust and care for each other. We came to be friends and now, as friends, we are working on common projects, including an oral history project, a youth exchange and a speakers bureau.
Black Lives Matter
“With the help of a professor in South Carolina called Gloria Holmes we continued the conversations with Bridge4Unity. A group that works to bridge the gaps, the racial divide in the country. And that's been one of the more eye-opening experiences that I've had. We find common ground, acknowledge and learn from different life experiences and the perceptions they bring, and explore how we can come together beyond the racial, cultural, political, and class divides to learn and heal ourselves and our country.
Being raised in coal country, it was just a given that the miners had a brotherhood underground, Black and white - didn’t matter. They had to have each other's backs, literally or they might die any time, you know? The United Mine Workers of America was never a segregated union, it was for everybody, how it started out. I was not raised to be a racist but I do realize that I have walked in white privilege my whole life. I have a grandson that's the apple of my eye and I don't have to fear for him walking down the street the way a woman of color has to fear for her grandson, and that’s not right. And now more than ever, I'm sitting here in the community center talking to you on the phone, looking at a Black Lives Matter sign that we have in the window you know, because we are trying to stand in solidarity, with our Black brothers and sisters and all the people of color everywhere."
Maybe only four or five Black people visit the center here in any month, but it was important to us to show solidarity to them, and project that solidarity to the majority white community so that they become aware if they're not aware. There's a lot of older people kind of out of loop and wondering what's going on. That's where we’re at in the present moment around here, just trying to be sensitive to the needs of others. I was so appalled by the George Floyd video. I’m just trying to stand in solidarity and try, you know, to remember those other grand mommies, who do not get to walk in the same privilege that I do simply because of the color of my skin.
Gwen Johnson is a mother, grandmother, educator, community volunteer and lover of Appalachia. She devotes her time to connecting people to their Appalachian culture and volunteering at the Hemphill Community Center. Johnson had felt a sense of hopelessness for her area, so she and a few others decided to roll up their sleeves to help the community. She’s working with the Letcher County Farmers Market in Whitesburg to establish a satellite market at the community center. The satellite will include the Farmacy Program, where doctors write prescriptions for fresh fruits and vegetables that residents can redeem at the market.