- Gone Home: Race and Roots Through Appalachia by Karida L. Brown
For much of the twentieth century, the study of Appalachia has been marred by voyeurism, geographic determinism, and charges of cultural pathology. Recent studies have begun to challenge this trend, emphasizing instead the region's history of liberalism, environmentalism, and organized labor.
Karida L. Brown's work continues to complicate Appalachian history by surveying the lived experiences of black residents in Harlan County, Kentucky. She places her work solidly within the literature on identity and migration, while seeking to deconstruct "what it was like to grow up as a black person in a company-owned town in Appalachia in the era of Jim Crow segregation, and then to transform into an entirely new type of citizen by coming of age at the height of the civil rights movement and the African American Great Migration" (p. 6).
Using the snowball method, the author conducted more than 150 interviews. Each chapter begins with a short literature review on a particular topic such as education or family life before interrogating the oral histories. Chapters 1 and 2 serve as introductions to the region's industrialization at the turn of the twentieth century and detail the wave of black southerners, mostly from the [End Page 725] coal-producing regions of Alabama, who migrated to Appalachia's coal towns before World War II. The vitality of black life, despite the limitations placed on these communities by Jim Crow, is assessed in chapters 3 and 4. Coal companies followed the South's racial order and supported segregated schools, housing, and community centers for both white and black employees. Not succumbing to the degradation embedded in these racial barriers, black residents found solace in nurturing family life, lively social organizations, and participation in cultural rituals such as separate Independence Day celebrations that cultivated racial solidarity and pride.
Chapters 5 and 6 describe segregated education in the towns of Benham and Lynch, Kentucky. Brown finds that black students in Appalachia were given inferior textbooks and underfunded facilities compared with their white counterparts. However, she also finds a community that valued learning and encouraged its children to pursue higher education. Marked feelings of nostalgia for the loss of community schools and the cultural sanctuaries that they provided before desegregation are present in many interviewees' sentiments. In the last chapter, Brown, whose own family hails from Lynch, poignantly recognizes the declining number of black residents since the 1950s and interprets this departure as part of a larger story where the progeny of first-generation immigrants move in search of greater educational and employment opportunities. Claiming great affinity for Appalachia, the author concedes that the region "belongs to no one" and laments that somehow black families knew that "it was never really theirs" (p. 161).
In chapter 2, "The Great Migration Escape," Brown characterizes black relocation to Appalachia as escape and, in doing so, overlooks the literature that grounds black migrations as organized movements. Recounting stories of impulsivity ignores the forethought, planning, and deliberateness of those choosing to migrate. This one portrayal, however, is a quibble.
The personal stories of black Appalachians provide useful data for seasoned researchers. The author has deposited the interviews in their entirety in the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A monumental contribution to black southern history, the Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project's collection of interviews, ephemera, and photos is currently available to researchers wishing to conduct detailed investigations of black Appalachian life.