Hope in Lee County, Virginia

When I was younger, growing up in Lee County, Virginia, I always wondered, “What more is outside of my hometown?” Who is outside of this bubble and what are their stories? Where do the roads take you when you get off of highway 58 or 421? When do you no longer see mountains? There is so much I have not seen, so many people I have yet to meet, and many experiences I have not turned into memories yet. Lee County, Virginia is located in the southwest corner of the state smooshed between Kentucky and Tennessee. Lee County is a predominantly white, conservative, and Christian county. For as long as I can recall, the close-mindedness I encountered has made me feel sick to my stomach. Although not true of everyone in my community, there is still a lack of mental health awareness, understanding of the LGBT+ community and other minorities, along with a history of drug abuse. Little did I know, my hometown had more beauty to offer and a few secrets up its sleeves.

During this past year, 2020, our country as a whole was made to answer the question of who matters and to whom. Many white Central Appalachians will shout that we all matter; however, our societal norms and government would beg to differ. On May 25, we lost another black man to police brutality due to the racist upbringing of our country: his name was George Floyd. After his murder, I was quite surprised to see protests to support Black Lives Matter in areas close to my home because I have had little faith in the humanity that surrounds me in Lee County. Unfortunately, I was always working and could not participate in the protests other people were organizing, so I decided we needed one in my town, especially my town.

Other people in my hometown actually had the same idea, which was another big surprise to me, so a few members in the community of Lee County organized a vigil in memory of George Floyd and others lost to police brutality. The vigil took place at a farmer’s market in Pennington Gap (a small town in Lee County), which I had only seen it used by the guys that sit and hang out in their trucks. About 30 minutes before the vigil started, a handful of us decided to meet at the middle school to march with one another to bring more attention and awareness to what was happening. I was so happy with how the vigil turned out, all of us standing with one another, lit candles in hand, feeling a sense of being united. The vigil is also how I met Jill and Ron Carson, the cofounders of the Appalachian African-American Cultural Center (AAACC).

Can you believe this beautiful center is in my hometown, mine?! I did not at first. It is a one-room brick building with photographs covering the walls. In one of the corners of the room sits a couple of seats taken out of our local theatre, which Ron remembers going to as a kid. This was when it was still segregated and if you were black you had to sit in the balcony seats. A group and I went to visit the center together, we were all seated in a circle and ready to learn about the story it held. When Lee County was still segregated, the building served as the only school for African American children from 1940 to 1965. Ron Carson’s great grandmother, a barber, obtained some wealth, used it to buy land, and then built the one-room schoolhouse in 1939. The Carsons fought long and hard with the school system to keep the land and the building. In 1987, they joined the Southern Appalachian Leadership Training Program at the Highlander Research and Education Program in eastern Tennessee, where they developed the vision for the center.

What is the Appalachian African-American Cultural Center? After getting their vision for the center they began collecting photos, handwritten and oral stories, and heirlooms from Black residents of Appalachia. All of this hard work was stripped away due to a fire in 1994. A local election was taking place around the same time and many locals thought the Carsons were trying to make a political statement, so in response, the Carsons’ Center was set on fire and they lost everything. This tragedy did not stop the Carsons. They went back out and started collecting again with the mission to give Black Appalachians a voice. They have been paving the path for this voice through anti-racism workshops (since Covid-19 they have been offering these virtually) and speaking at various conferences throughout the years, gaining more knowledge on how to push the need for Black Appalachians to be seen and heard. The mission of the Appalachian African-American Cultural Center is to preserve the history, heritage, and culture of Black Appalachians, while providing a space for discussion in hopes of finding ways to resolve the racial injustices within our country.

After finding the center, the way I look at my hometown has been transformed. I see real potential to unite if people actually take the time to listen to other people’s experiences and try to understand them. More than ever, I see that many people who reside in our county were and are continuously silenced by the majority. However, through seeing this, I also see that there is beauty in the broken roads that we journey on. I never want to stop being curious of what else there could be, and I want to keep learning. I challenge all of us to keep seeking out new knowledge, especially among the people in our own communities.

 Article written by Erika Wilson

Photographs by Roberta Thacker-Oliver