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Kentucky Town Re-Examines Its Racial History

David Slone moved to Corbin, Ky., from Biloxi, Miss., after Hurricane Katrina. He is one of about 10 blacks living in the town, and was unaware of its notorious racial history.
David Slone moved to Corbin, Ky., from Biloxi, Miss., after Hurricane Katrina. He is one of about 10 blacks living in the town, and was unaware of its notorious racial history.

David Slone arrived in the small Kentucky town of Corbin in 2005, seeking a haven after Hurricane Katrina ripped through his hometown of Biloxi, Miss.

He was in a shelter in Gulfport, Miss., and saw a flier left by the Corbin church offering to house displaced families.

Slone didn't know until he arrived that he would be one of only a few blacks living in Corbin, a town still trying to come to terms with a troubled racial history.

In 1919, more than 200 black men worked in Corbin, expanding the railroad yard and paving streets.

But racial violence and labor strife were rampant across the country as soldiers streamed home from World War I.

In what came to be known as Red Summer, white mobs shot and lynched dozens of blacks in more than two dozen locales from Chicago to the Mississippi Delta.

Trouble came to Corbin the following fall, when reports surfaced that a white man had been mugged by two black men there.

Soon, a mob drove nearly all the town's black residents to the train station.

"They swore at us and said: 'By God we are going to run all Negroes out of this town tonight,'" said longtime black resident John Turner in a signed affidavit a few months after the incident. He and his wife were taken to the depot at gunpoint and forced to leave.

In Buried in the Bitter Waters, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Elliot Jaspin writes about racial cleansings from Central Texas through Georgia.

Between the Civil War and the 1920s, in Corbin and many other American towns, whites forcefully expelled virtually all blacks from their communities.

"In a sense, it's become America's family secret," Jaspin says.

Today, many of Corbin's residents are told a different version of what happened in 1919 — a more benign story in which black workers were forced out not because of their race but because they were causing trouble.

"People in my peer group, they said they had heard from their grandfathers," says Corbin's mayor, Willard McBurney.

"I've heard that it wasn't to that severity – that, you know, they were employed by the railroad company and they did move some out. But then they brought them back in two weeks later to finish the job."

Jaspin calls this Corbin's "fable." In fact, in affidavits collected for a state criminal investigation, white eyewitnesses agreed with blacks.

They said the mob announced its intention to rid Corbin of blacks, and that black baggage workers who tried to return a few days later were threatened. So they left again.

Most people in Corbin and the other towns where racial expulsions took place don't know this part of their history, says Jaspin.

They also don't know that the criminal investigation of what happened in Corbin found that several whites stood up to the mob. A few protected blacks in their homes or businesses.

"When you have the fable, the heroic acts of the people in the community are lost," Jaspin says. "They lose their heroes."

Almost 90 years later, Corbin's leaders say their town is as welcoming to black people as any other. They just need a chance to prove it.

In a sense, that chance came in 2005, when Senior Pastor Tim Thompson turned the First United Methodist Church into emergency housing for people who had lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina.

"We raised the issue: We're certain some of the folks that are gonna come and live with us are gonna be black," says Thompson.

"And we just said, whatever! Whoever comes, we don't care, it doesn't matter, we'll deal with it, it will be fine. And so the congregation said, 'Okay!'"

The church hosted about 25 people from the Gulf Coast. About half were black.

"Our hope was ... that maybe a few of the black folks that came would stay here and live and become a Corbinite — live in Corbin, and essentially become pioneers," said Thompson.

A year and a half later, many of the guests displaced by the hurricane — including all of the blacks — have gone home or moved away, except for Slone.

"I'm thankful that the church had the vision to open up their doors to bring us up here," he says. "I'm an adventurer, I'm a pioneer, I'll try anything once."

Slone now works in a cabinet factory in Corbin. He says he's received some cold looks in town, but for the most part, Corbin has not lived up to its old reputation as a place that's inhospitable to black people.

But some Corbin residents say their town still has a lot of work to do before its old image is put to rest.

Willard McBurney recalled attending a conference in Ohio in the 1980s. The lead speaker, a black man from Chicago, said publicly that he would not travel to Corbin for business.

"And that really made me feel small," McBurney says. "To be singled out with other people like that. I knew that he had heard of the stigma that has followed Corbin."

This story was produced by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, in association with the Center for Investigative Reporting. The CIR also co produced Banished, a film about three towns being forced to face their racist pasts; it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and will air later this year on PBS.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.