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On a warm July day, Ron and Jill Carson sat in a former one-room schoolhouse in Pennington Gap, Va., that until 1965 was the only primary school in town for Black children. The first seven years of Mr. Carson’s education took place in that building, which was built by his great-great-grandmother in 1939.
Many years after it quit serving as a schoolhouse, and with the building still in the family, the Carsons reimagined the space and converted it to the Appalachian African-American Cultural Center. Its walls are covered with old grainy photographs of Black Appalachians and lined with bookshelves of African-American literature.
In the corner are two chairs taken from the balcony of the town’s old movie theater. Mr. Carson remembers climbing up the fire escape to reach the seats when he was a young child because, at the time, he wasn’t allowed through the front door.
Mr. Carson, who is a retired black lung disease benefits counselor, and Ms. Carson, a retired community organizer and financial manager who now serves as the vice-mayor of the town, run the center. They continue to collect oral histories from Black residents in rural Appalachia and they regularly lead seminars about racism, white privilege and oppression.
Since early June, as the Black Lives Matter movement swept through small, primarily white towns of Central Appalachia like Pennington Gap, Mr. and Ms. Carson have redoubled their efforts to help shape the future of Black Appalachia.
I sat with Mr. and Ms. Carson in the old schoolhouse for a wide-ranging interview about the history of racism in the region and their vision for its future. The interview has been lightly condensed and edited.
OW: Was that the impetus for founding the Appalachian African-American Cultural Center?
JC: We were able to get into what’s called the Southern Appalachian Leadership Training Program at the Highlander Research and Education Program in Tennessee in 1987, and it was there that we got the vision for this building. It was there that we learned that little or nothing had been written about the experience of African Americans in this region. When we finished the program, we came back and had a meeting at Ron’s parents’ house to talk about something that we thought would fit the community, and the idea was to start gathering stories, getting stories documented and preserving the stories here.
OW: How much of your work deals with and addresses prejudices in the white community versus addressing oppression, in your words, in the Black community?
RC: If you asked us this question three months ago, I would say it would have dealt mostly with white privilege and just pure racism and white racism. But what we have seen here recently — and we knew this, but it just never did hit us like it hit us this year for several reasons — is the work that we have to do with Black internalized oppression.
JC: And I think it really hit home to us when that group had a vigil up in Big Stone Gap. When some Black folks organized a vigil after George Floyd, we went up there and the group gathered in the Miners’ Park after a short march, and Black people were sitting in their cars rather than becoming a part of it. So many sat in their cars. The Black community on the periphery.
OW: How else did the national movement that resulted from George Floyd’s death and Breonna Taylor’s killing and these really big national incidents change your work through the Center?
RC: It has brought out the component of our racism workshops. The phone is ringing off the hook, people wanting to talk about race. It’s given people a chance now to openly discuss race as it should have been 400 years ago. And I always tell the white people: You had no choice but to be who you are. If you are a racist, and I’m not calling you one, but if you are, you had no choice.
JC: This is a learned behavior.
OW: Are white people seeking you out?
JC: The phones are just going crazy. So what we’re finding too is that we’ve got to upgrade and update our whole syllabus, our whole packet and presentation to make it more current based on everything that’s happened around us.
RC: We used to call it Dismantling Racism Workshops. But now we’ve changed it to the Anti-Racism Workshop.
OW: Why did you make that change?
RC: I think that when we said “dismantling,” we were saying that it’s OK for you to say that ‘I am not a racist.’ It’s OK to say that my best friend was Black or my best friend is this, but now you can no longer say, ‘I am not a racist.’ If you say that, then what are you doing about it?
The thing that we want to show you is just the system itself, and how it plays out into you.
OW: Do you think there’s a difference between how you see racism, how you see prejudice, how you see oppression around here, and how younger Black people see oppression, prejudice, racism?
RC: We had this discussion with our daughter, and I think we see today’s racism totally different from the way she sees it. I lived through segregation. I lived through lynching. In 1968, a dear friend of mine was hung in Roseville, Va.
I lived through the Jim Crow laws and I just recognize and see different things than you would, or someone my daughter’s age would. And therefore I call it out a lot quicker than you guys would.
OW: So you think you actually see more racism?
RC: Without a doubt. Just by design, you got all of these liquor stores in Black neighborhoods. The red lining and all these factories, toxic waste and stuff that is in Black communities. And I don’t think a lot of young Blacks realize that the system, the way it was designed, the way the government designed it, is racist.
OW: How much of the responsibility for racial education and education of white privilege do you feel falls on your shoulders?
RC: I think it should fall on all of our shoulders. But it seems like [we are] the only ones in this area who have taken an interest or realized how important history is. I went through the Lee County school system and I didn’t learn about any Black side of history. It wasn’t until I went to Boston and got involved with different groups there that I started learning about Black history.
I think it’s important that we talk, we put it out there: the history, the race talk. Just create a forum or a place where it’s safe and honest, and people can just speak from their hearts.