CORBIN — One Corbin woman is hoping her summer internship will help spark interest and create new narratives surrounding a historic incident in Corbin.
Grace Moses is advocating on behalf of an organization to help open up conversational space, promote experiences of people of color, create awareness and build relationships that promote understanding around race.
The oldest of five, she is a 2017 graduate of Corbin High School, and is a junior at the University of Kentucky. This summer she’s working with a group of community members (known as the Corbin Racial Justice Initiative) who are interested in learning more about how to handle the issue of racial justice in Corbin.
Moses, still unsure of her career path, is trying to dabble in as many things as possible, so when an internship regarding racial justice in her hometown came up, it piqued her interest. Moses said she felt like the internship was her duty as a born and bred Corbin community member to dive into the position, research and begin to educate others.
“I felt like it was my duty,” Moses said. “To be someone from Corbin who can represent what I know about Corbin from growing up here my whole life but also to be able to challenge people as well.”
Growing up, Moses was involved in a multitude of things, various clubs, sports and the arts. She considers herself open to new and most all things. One of the biggest reasons she wanted to be involved in this project is to bring her findings and learnings about race to the educational system.
“When I went to UK I was confronted with racial diversity and conversations, and I wasn’t properly informed on how to talk about those kind of things,” admitted Moses. “We hope to get these conversations and these events into the school system.”
Moses and the Corbin Racial Justice Initiative (CRJI) have already been in contact with the superintendent and several community officials.
Since beginning her work with the CRJI, immediately Moses was surprised to learn that the events happened so long ago and continues to be intrigued by her findings.
As the 100th commemoration of the 1919 Racial Riot of Corbin is approaching, Moses said it seems that there are few who are aware of this piece of history, or its importance. As a native of Corbin, Moses had only heard grumblings of the event, and the amount of misinformation and missing pieces in the story continues to surprise her.
Some rumors have circled that there was a lynching in downtown Corbin, and while those may have taken place in other southern locations, Moses said her research proves there was no such lynching in downtown Corbin. She is glad to clarify that rumor and said that’s one of the reasons this projects is so important to her.
However, what did happen one October day in 1919, has left an impact on Corbin.
In late October 1919, a racial cleansing happened when a white mob marched through town and forced most of the black population out of town via trains. Moses said her research indicates the leader was a man by the name of Steve “Pistol Pete” Rogers. These men forced out were men that were brought to Corbin to work when white men were sent away to war.
There were a few white community members that were opposed to this, stood up to the mob and even tried to harbor the black men and their families. Moses said sadly this is one of the good parts of the story that gets forgotten and never gets told.
“Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America” is a book by Elliot Jaspin about racial cleanings in 12 counties including Whitley County, and his book and an article the Times-Tribune published regarding his book is noted as one of Moses’s sources of research.
"When you have the fable, the heroic acts of the people in the community are lost," Jaspin says. "They lose their heroes."
He goes on to say, “What needs to happen, and the only way that these communities — and in fact the country — are going to be free of this, is for people to face their past squarely and deal with it honestly. Once they move from denial and acknowledge it, then it’s over.”
The CRJI and Moses have similar understandings.
“So as the years go on, our African American population doesn’t increase a whole lot,” said Moses. “Some fault it because of that event.”
Moses said it is her duty to try and assure every community member feels safe no matter what their race is.
“I felt a duty to represent my community and say that I am looking at these things and these things are important,” Moses said. “I don’t feel fear in my community and if someone does, then it’s my job to help them not feel that way.”
Moses said this experience has been enriching for her and she’s growing as a person through it.
If Moses is clear about anything it’s that the group isn't blaming anyone or pointing any fingers. They simply want to start a conversation that isn’t happening. They want to educate and create safe and welcoming spaces.
“This 100th commemoration is as good of a time as any,” Moses said. “Each and every one of us is going to make the change.”
Moses and the CRJI are working toward a community event in the fall to mark this 100th year event.
The Corbin Racial Justice Initiative is a coalition of community members who are working in partnership with local and state organizations to promote racial justice in Corbin and beyond. The goal of the event was to start and sustain a constructive conversation on race and racism in the community.
CRJI’s partners include the Laurel County African American Heritage Center, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, the University of Kentucky Appalachian Center, and more.
The CRJI has meetings the second Monday of every month, offer community conversations and film screenings.