My wife is originally from Harlan, Kentucky. Some of her family still live there. We’ve driven to Harlan dozens of times. Our route always takes us through Corbin, Kentucky, the birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Only recently I learned that Corbin, like many American towns and cities, has an ugly racist past.

There are varying accounts of what happened in Corbin in October 1919. (In those days, most newspapers supported white vigilantism, even when it resulted in lynching.) The Notable Kentucky African American database states: “On October 29, 1919, a white man was attacked and robbed by two white men with painted black faces in the railroad town of Corbin, Kentucky. The next day a vigilante mob took revenge on the African American community, searching homes and businesses and eventually forcing the African American railroad workers into boxcars and shipping them south to Knoxville, Tennessee.”

According to Wikipedia: “On October 29, 1919, two men robbed and stabbed A.F. Thompson before escaping without him getting a good look. Thompson was able to stumble to a nearby house and get help. Word quickly spread about the crime and that the attackers were two black men. On October 31, 1919, an enraged and armed white mob made up of hundreds of Corbin’s townspeople organized and went house-to-house rounding up black residents. When they felt that all of the African-Americans of the town had been gathered, the mob marched a group of approximately 200 men, women, and children to the train station, and herded them onto cramped railcars. The train departed with its human cargo and were sent south to the town of Knoxville. ‘They swore at us and said: ‘By God we are going to run all Negroes out of this town tonight,’ said longtime black Corbin resident John Turner in a signed affidavit about the incident.’ ”

NPR, “Kentucky Town Re-Examines Its Racial History,” reported: “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.”

Corbin is in Whitley County. According to data from the 2000 census, Whitley County had a population of 35,865, of which 98.37% was White and 0.34% was Black. That figures out to 122 Blacks in all of Whitley County—and that’s less than the 200 Blacks shipped out of Corbin in 1919.

The incident in Corbin was by no means singular. According to Wikipedia, it “was one of several incidents of civil unrest that began with the ‘American Red Summer’ in April 1919 — terrorist attacks on black communities and white oppression in over three dozen cities and counties. In most cases, white mobs attacked African-American neighborhoods. In some cases, black community groups resisted the attacks, especially in Chicago and Washington, D.C.; however, more deaths occurred in rural areas during events like the Elaine Race Riot in Arkansas, where an estimated 100 to 240 black people were killed. Also, in 1919, were the Chicago Race Riot and Washington, D.C. race riot in which 38 and 39 people (respectively) were killed. Both events also had many more non-fatal injuries and extensive property damage reaching up into the millions of dollars.”

I once wrote in a novel that, due to America’s awful racist history, every day should be officially recognized as “Be Nice to Black People Day.” I removed that from the novel before its publication. I feared it might sound frivolous or condescending. Truthfully, though, I really do feel that way. Anyone with half a heart who is aware of America’s awful racist past undoubtedly feels that way, too.

But wait! Screech! Stop the presses! Black people don’t want to be treated any nicer, or any differently, than anyone else. And they surely don’t want or need an old white guy like me to write about the racial trouble that happened in Corbin 102 years ago.

In The Guardian (9/19/2021), “No more white saviors, thanks: how to be a true anti-racist ally,” Nova Reid writes: “I felt overwhelmed: 40,000 hits to my website — 50 times more than the average month — plus 2,000 emails, people tagging me in social media posts to let their followers know they had signed up to my online anti-racism course...The murder of George Floyd had thrown up a very apparent collective sense of white guilt around the world....

“Many came swooping in with a freshly ironed superhero cape, it having only just occurred to them that they, too, could do something about racism.

“I don’t know how else to say this so I’ll just say it: Black people don’t need white people to rescue us. We don’t.

“We have been rescuing ourselves and revolting against the oppressor throughout history. Contrary to the popular belief that only great white men [THINK: Abraham Lincoln] rescued us from slavery, it was the Haitian Revolution from 1791 to 1804, the only successful slave revolt in history, that instigated the global abolishment of slavery.

“Being an ally means...a person who advocates and works alongside the Black community, who uplifts communities for a shared common goal driven solely by the cause — not so that they can look good.

“It is a person who wants to learn how to recognize what everyday racism looks like — from pay inequity to social persecution — and address it....

“It is a person who accepts that there is no certificate or completion date. To accept they will get it wrong and do it anyway. But it is mostly a person who accepts that there is no magic formula, or a one-size-fits-all approach to this work. The only way to be truly anti-racist is go on a journey to unlearn your own inherent racism, because it is on that journey that you will find your unique path to becoming actively anti-racist.”

I know I sometimes get it wrong, but I do it anyway. It’s a tough and thankless job, but someone has to do it, right?

Mark Heinz lives at Nolin Lake. Visit his website at amazon.com/author/markheinzbooks.

Mark Heinz lives at Nolin Lake. Visit his website at amazon.com/author/markheinzbooks.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.