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Youth experience black history at Pennington Gap cultural center

CALVIN SNEED • Mar 9, 2020 at 12:30 PM

“We’ve come a long way in black history, but our history is not over yet.”

You might think those words come from a warrior during the struggles of the modern-day Civil Rights movement, or an African-American senior citizen who endured the Jim Crow segregation era.

You’d be wrong. Those words are from Ezra Smith-Howard, a sixth-grader at John Sevier Middle School.

He’s 11 years old.

On a sunny day climbing a weathered hill overlooking Pennington Gap, Virginia, Ezra and 10 other members of Kingsport’s New Vision Youth group and their chaperones toured artifacts and exhibits inside the Appalachian African-American Cultural Center. The center, housed in the former Lee County ‘Colored' School,’ is on a lifetime mission to preserve the early African-American educational and societal experience in Southwest Virginia, Northeast Tennessee and Eastern Kentucky for communities near and far. The region’s young people are one of the target audiences so that they can help pass along the experiences of a separate, but equal former existence to future generations.

“I didn’t know a lot about the history of African-Americans in Pennington Gap, but I did read about segregation and Jim Crow laws and Brown vs. Board of Education and what they meant to black people,” Ezra said. “It’s interesting to see those reminders in the center.”

A quiet beginning

The roots of the Appalachian African-American Cultural Center go back far and deep in Lee County.

Ron Carson’s great-grandmother Rachel Scott spent $16,200 of her own money to construct the only school for African-Americans in the county.

History tells us that a lot of black people were trading the cotton fields of Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia back in the early 20th century for the coal fields of Southwest Virginia and Kentucky in search of better jobs to feed their families,” Carson said. “While there were plenty of jobs for workers at the mines in Bonny Blue, St. Charles, Kemmer Gem and the Monarch area, hundreds of their children who were not working in the mines themselves came through the doors here to be educated, not being able to attend the white schools of the county at the time.

“Holding classes in a overcrowded church is how this school came about.”

Lee County’s school for African-Americans closed due to desegregation in 1965, the year most of the region’s black schools closed. Carson had attended the one-room school himself and once told an interviewer for the Appalachian Voice newspaper that walking into Pennington Gap High School was like “walking onto the campus at Yale or Harvard.”

Fortunately for the next 20 years or so, the one-room building continued to give young people a “Head Start” on their education. Around the same time, the Head Start program moved to its current location. Carson and his wife, Jill, realized that little had been written or done to document the African-Americans who lived in the community. More pressing was the fact that the town of Pennington Gap was about to auction off the historic school building and tear it down. All of a sudden “we had a mission,” Jill Carson said at the time.

In 1987, the building was given a new purpose. It became the Appalachian African-American Cultural Center, begun on a prayer by the Carsons. It eventually became yet another educational opportunity.

The ‘center’ of history

Once they were able to save the structure, the Carsons began collecting memorabilia, asking people to donate their families’ personal and ancestral items: perhaps a box of photographs in the bottom of a bedroom closet, documents stored in a lockbox, an old guitar once played at neighborhood gatherings, family trees printed on paper and stored in old family Bibles, pictures from the mantle in the living room of the elderly lady or man who used to live down the street. Ron Carson said all of the artifacts are historic heirlooms. They’re also teaching tools.

The collection got quite big, but a fire in 1994 quickly wiped out those precious memories. After some soul-searching, rebuilding and continued requests for donations, the center began receiving even more items than it did before. Only this time, more than 300 videotaped interviews with the seniors of the black community were included.

“Although those neighbors have since passed,” Ron Carson said, “their memories of life in the early 20th century were quite vivid. Their parents and grandparents knew slavery. They knew the freedom struggle for acceptance afterwards. We documented everything they told us so that future generations would have focal points to begin conversations from.”

Everywhere you look in the center these days, something catches your eye.

“You see a lot of memorabilia in this room — pictures, paintings, books, and artifacts from segregation, but it’s what you do not see that is the most important. It’s not so much the physical things in the building,” Ron Carson said as he waved around the room to the New Vision Youth, “but the memories of the schoolchildren that you don’t see and hear inside these legacy walls.”

New Vision Youth Director Johnnie Mae Swagerty periodically takes the group on educational trips to broaden their imaginations and ultimately their horizons. This trip had an inspirational purpose.

“Just to hear the stories of black children in the Pennington Gap area from the Carsons is a blessing for the New Vision Youth,” she says. “Many of the things the kids take for granted today were nonexistent for children back then — no outdoor swings, no sliding boards, no playgrounds, no record players, phones or modern conveniences that many of the white homes had. The cultural center reminds us to remember a segment of our society that were forced to live that way many years ago.”

Meanwhile, little things in the center made quite an impression. Fourteen-year-old eighth-grader Brooklyn Moore was intrigued by the fact that anybody could get an education ... in a one-room schoolhouse.

“It’s difficult to understand,” she said, looking around the room. “A bunch of kids all in one place, all trying to learn at different levels. The teachers were probably pretty good, but at the same time it makes you feel bad that students were here, just because they were judged by the color of their skin and not how smart they were. They had to be strong children to grow up and find out they were just as good as everybody else.”

“What I heard from Mr. Carson,” said Ezra during his visit “is that their learning was affected by wondering why their school was only one room and the rest of the schools in the Pennington Gap area had many rooms with more learning opportunities. That’s not right. That’s not fair. But that’s what the Jim Crow laws were all about.”

History’s future is in the past

“If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition and it stands in danger of being exterminated,” Ron Carson said, quoting Carter G. Woodson, American historian, author and founder of the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History.

“It’s all about the documentation and preservation of history. Many of our African-American ancestors gave their lives so that their descendants can have cellphones and wear $200 sneakers and nice clothes today. Freedom did not come without a fight. That early history laid the foundation for who we are today. Because of that, my wife Jill and I hold diversity training and ‘dismantling racism’ workshops on African-American history here at the center, not just for black people, but for everybody."

The journey continues

New Vision Youth members want Black History Month to continue, too. They left the cultural center, hoping that one day Black History Month can be celebrated not just during the four weeks of February.

“Some of it is difficult to understand," said Brooklyn Moore, “but I want to understand and it takes time. The things I don’t know about black history are what I want to know.”

“A month isn’t long enough to go back to look at the way that life was for African-Americans during segregation days,” said Ezra. “We should be studying it all year long, because we are still living some black history right now. It’s never going to be just a month for me.”

Then, a quick smile came to his face in passing.

“Having Black History Month all year long would be pretty cool.”

For more information about the Appalachian African-American Cultural Center, contact Ron Carson at (276) 546-5144 or ron_carson12@comcast.net.

For more information about the New Vision Youth group of Kingsport, contact Swagerty at (423) 429-7553.

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