IN THE LOOP: The rope swing 

Erin Cox

On July 26, 2018, nationally-known, award-winning author Silas House, originally from Lily, wrote a column "Memories From the South: Growing Up in a 'Sundown Town'" for Time magazine.

He noted growing up near Corbin in the 1980s, the town was "still grappling with a shameful event that had happened decades earlier. In 1919, a mob of white men had driven nearly 200 black railroad workers out of town… some white families sheltered black residents, but many were forced out at gunpoint. Corbin became widely known as 'a sundown town' - a place where African Americans were actively unwelcomed - well into my childhood."

House notes in the early 2000s the city began taking strides to overcome the spirit of the 1919 riot that had held a shadow over the town.

In 2005, he said the United Methodist Church made a concerted effort to welcome African Americans displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

That sentiment was echoed by Laurel County African American Heritage Center Founder and Director Wayne Riley in a recent Corbin City Commission meeting. He said Corbin was so welcoming to the African Americans who needed a place to stay after the hurricane and the city went above and beyond to make them feel at home.

But Riley was at the meeting because the organization he had been working with, the Corbin Racial Justice Initiative, was there to apologize for its name, as it had not been well received and the group wanted to let people know its intentions.

The group changed its name to the Sunup Initiative in recent weeks, but over the last year the folks in the organization have held meetings, film viewings and more in an effort to have a conversation about that infamous event of 1919 -- the one that the Corbin Daily Times in November 1919 said, "Our name has gone out over the nation with a black spot that can never be removed."

One hundred years later, Corbin still has the shadow of that black spot on its name because of that incident, regardless of the fact that efforts have been made to show sentiments have changed (or were never exclusive in the first place by the majority) and different people live here now.

I'm one of those living in Corbin now. As a transplant to the city, I have heard several references to the 1919 riot in the two years I've been here. The explanation of the black spot still on the name of the town because of the 1919 incident was actually first told to me by someone who lived elsewhere in Kentucky.

I can honestly say that before Monday's reading of the proclamation deeming this week the Week of Diversity in Corbin, I didn't know the whole story of what happened.

Of the hundreds of people I've talked to since living here and the many who have referenced the 1919 incident, not a single one ever mentioned it was one man, Pistol Pete, who led the charge.

No one had ever mentioned many white families helped to shelter the black residents.

And I think that is a telling tale.

Perhaps a proclamation won't do much for anyone, but what it has done already with just one small recognition of it -- through a simple, straight-forward proclamation explaining what happened -- it has made us talk about the incident. I learned from the proclamation. I'm sure others have as well.

Sure, it happened 100 years ago, but a dust pile swept under the rug is still a dust pile under the rug -- even 100 years later.

I would argue that talking about it will educate more of us about exactly what happened on Depot Street on Oct. 30, 1919, so we all are able to tell our neighbors, the tourists that stop in town and those who believe we still have a black spot on our town from the 1919 incident that Corbin isn't that town.

Was it a bad egg in a town full of nice, welcoming people?

It could have been.

Pistol Pete and the others involved were charged with their crimes and received punishment, which is a major part of the story that should be acknowledged.

But what it doesn't take away is the fact that there are people living in Corbin today who don't feel welcome, who feel they have been treated differently due to their race, gender, sexuality, etc. and who have come together over the last year to talk about the trials and hardships they face.

"As a product of a bi-racial marriage, what I can tell you is that I have experienced the hate and vitriol that racism embitters, and I know that I am not the only one," said Angelika Lewis-Bowling during a discussion she facilitated, "Tackling Racism in Everyday Conversation," in March this year in Corbin. "It is important to at least acknowledge there are other perspectives in the community. Talking about racism isn't a one and done conversation. It is like every other issue that we deem valuable. You have to constantly discuss, assess and re-evaluate the things that the community says is important to them."

Today begins the Week of Diversity in Corbin. Now is the time, on the 100th anniversary of the 1919 incident, to completely remove the shadow of the black spot on Corbin's name by showing how Pistol Pete's actions were never and still are not synonymous with Corbin and let's welcome an ongoing conversation about diversity.

Erin Cox is the editor of The Times-Tribune and The Sentinel-Echo. She can be reached at 606-528-7898 or ecox@thetimestribune.com.

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