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Finding black spaces: McKinney Center talk covers black history in Appalachia

By MARINA WATERS

Staff Writer

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There was a time that William Isom II looked through grainy black and white photos of his ancestors in his personal research. Little did he know it would help him discover and educate others on the history of black history in the Appalachian region, which he gave a presentation on during his “Black Cultural Spaces: Holding on, Loss and New Use” talk presented by the McKinney Center.

“My family’s been here (in Appalachia) for a really long time,” Isom, who is originally from Hamblen County, said. “I wanted to show this picture particularly because researching my own family was how I kind of cut my own teeth. It was kind of the training ground for the work I’m doing right now.”

Isom works for East Tennessee Public Television in Knoxville and is the director of the Black In Appalachia project, which works to highlight African American history and its culture in the mountain south, namely in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, Eastern Kentucky and Southeastern Ohio.

Isom’s presentation took guests, who attended the talk electronically, through mountain towns from Pennington Gap, Virginia to Rogersville, Tennessee and up to Fleming-Neon, Kentucky and Black Fork, Ohio with a focus on how to find black history throughout the region.

“One of the tools I utilize regularly are Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps,” Isom said of the maps which he said can be found in many local planning commission offices. “(The map of) Jonesborough in 1939 designates Washington School (as a black space) and the Mill Springs Baptist Church as colored. This is a great tool to identify where things used to be.”

Isom said that the black spaces that seem to be lost or fall into complete disrepair are often one-room or two-room black school houses that were used before integration. Towns all across Appalachia have lost such pieces of history, he said, while other communities have worked to preserve its history and reuse the space, such as Jonesborough’s arts and cultural space, the McKinney Center, which was the former Booker T. Washington School for African American students. 

“I think reusing these spaces in a respectful way that gives a nod to the foundation of these spaces all really relies on a culmination of a political wheel,” Isom said. “There has to be people in power who are willing to listen. Oftentimes when there are people of color in elected offices, this is where you see a lot of preservation efforts occur and things aren’t lost.”

Isom also delved into what he called a “tale of two schools”, which is the former site that held the historically black Morristown College that was removed and turned into Heritage Park by the City of Morristown, as compared to the former African American school in Johnson City, the Langston High School, which has been turned into a multicultural arts center.

“I think when you have the political wheel to listen to people and listen to the residents and listen to the alumni and the affected community, this is what you get,” Isom said, giving praise to the Langston Center, which he said honors history with historical photos, displays and exhibits. “There was so much love at this event. It provided me with hope after the previous day’s events in Morristown. 

“A lot of these things are preserved and taken care of when politicians and community members and those with a stake in the community listen to each other and try to bring together its resources.”

Many towns throughout Appalachia had their own black spaces, such as the numerous black churches that are still standing in Greeneville and the black pool that was built in Greeneville along with one in Kingsport as well. In others, black spaces were harder to come by in places like Newport, Tennessee, which allowed blacks to swim in its only pool in town once a year, on Aug. 8. He said each year on the following day, the pool was annually drained.

“Lots of times it’s kind of uncomfortable to talk about the negative impacts integration had,” Isom said. “I’m the first generation of my family that didn’t have to live through legalized segregation. I’m 40-something years old, but my parents have lived most of their lives under some form of legalized segregation. Because of that, some of the social and economic cohesion of the black community began to unravel as a consequence of people having the option to participate fully in our democracy.”

While black spaces are often found in old churches and former black schools, Isom said he feels that today they are wherever blacks are, so long as they choose to take their history along with them.

“Cultural spaces are wherever people are at,” he said. “They are at protests and libraries and churches … We are not divorced from our culture.”

For more information, go to www.blackinappalachia.org. To view Isom’s presentation, go to the video on the McKinney Center’s youtube page at https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=ZQzYvkpHLWs&feature=youtu.be.