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(Re)locating Sites of Memory in Appalachia Through Black Spaces and Stories


(Re)locating Sites of Memory in Appalachia Through Black Spaces and Stories

Appalachian Black schoolchildren, Omar, West Virginia, 1935 (Library of Congress)

“You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. ‘Floods’ is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.”

On August 28, 2021, a historical marker was placed on the main street in Jenkins, Kentucky, a once-booming coal town in the heart of Central Appalachia. Over a dozen alumni, their families, local officials, and community members gathered for the dedication ceremony commemorating Dunham High School (DHS), Letcher County’s all-Black high school that operated between 1931-1964. The marker stands by the road where it is visible to the cars and people who go by. Behind it sits the public library and coal museum, in place of the old train depot; beyond the library is the Catholic church. Just a little further up the holler is an empty plot of land—the site of Dunham High. In 1969, the wooden building burned to ashes. All that remains today is a concrete addition, unassuming and ordinary to the average passerby. A sign recognizing this space as the all-Black school was also put into the earth, exactly sixty-six years after the brutal murder of fourteen year-old Emmett Till in the Mississippi Delta. I recognized this significance as I stood with others under the hot sun, fanning myself with the printed words of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” Just as others have done in Mississippi, we gathered in eastern Kentucky to preserve a space that holds us accountable to our history. It reminds us that the choices we make in remembering or forgetting shape the narratives we tell. And national memory is inherently intertwined with geography and physical space.

Spaces tell stories. Structures of the mundane bear witness to the history lived and made within their walls. The narrative of our national landscape contains the ghosts of slavery and Jim Crow that linger and haunt…

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