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Tom Chaney: R755: Your history is not my history

Of Writers and Their Books No. R755: First appeared 25 March 2007 in the Hart County Herald. Review of Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America [Basic Books, 2007]
The next earlier Tom Chaney column 7: Tom Chaney: R754: Avenging Mountain Murder Cases

By Tom Chaney

Your history is not my history

In the late afternoon of September 30, 1919, the Corbin, Kentucky, municipal band had finished playing for a political rally. Deciding to march back to the school, they struck up "There'll be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight."

The band found itself commandeered by a mob of 175 gun toting white men bent on rounding up all the Negroes in Corbin and herding them to the L&N Railroad depot for deportation. They were put on two trains -- one headed for Knoxville, the other for Lexington. In a few short days only three blacks were left in town.

The story of Corbin's 'racial cleansing' is one of fourteen which Elliot Jaspin chooses to tell in his new book Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America [Basic Books, 2007].

Jaspin discovered the phenomenon while on assignment in Berryville in northwest Arkansas. Visiting a local history museum, he was stunned by the exhibit of an antebellum will in which five slaves were listed with cattle and sheep as property to be disposed of. This evidence of a black population there in the nineteenth century was in sharp contrast to the total absence of local blacks in the 1990's.

A check of government census data revealed that in the period from 1890 to 1920 a great number of counties lost fifty percent or more of their black population between census dates. The counties studied were in an arc from North Carolina across the mountains into the Midwest.

A county was included if the expulsion met four criteria. First, the drop in population had to be county wide. Second, it had to have happened quickly -- within a few months at most. Third, contemporary documentation had to exist. Finally, the expulsion had to have been successful, that is, the reduction in the black population continued down into the present.

Jaspin uses the term 'racial cleansing' to refer to instances such as that in Corbin where no one was killed. The threat of violence -- leave town by a certain deadline or die -- was sufficient.

Racial cleansing left a checkerboard of voids where black folk once lived and where, with few exceptions, they do not at present.

In his attempt to find out just what happened, Jaspin discovered three reactions to the forced migration.

First, a profound silence enshrouded both the black and white communities. The flight to safety was an emasculating experience. A black Corbin farmer ever after said he was from Chicago when asked. As time passed the detail of expulsion from a particular community faded, but the community was still a "bad place" to be avoided. In the white community even the stories of heroic counter-mob activities dimmed from memory. Such towns became known as "Sundown Towns." Often the "Welcome to" signs were accompanied by others informing black folk that they were not welcome after sundown.

Second, the white community tended to blame someone else for the expulsion. Vague crimes committed by black folk were invented to justify the mob reaction.

Finally, the white community came to deny that the cleansing had occurred.

And it came to pass that a town had two histories -- one black and one white. Our history consists of what we choose to believe. If a particular ethnic group, which is never accepted, is suddenly uprooted, then the identity of that group is apt to be radically different from the folks who remain.

In the case of Corbin, the documentation was extensive. Steve "Pistol Pete" Rogers was convicted and sentenced to two years in the penitentiary for his part in the Corbin mob. He asked the governor first for pardon and then for clemency. In both of those hearings, extensive records of testimony were taken and still exist in the state library.

In 1987 Robbie Henson, a documentary filmmaker, came to Corbin to do a film about the town. Having grown up in Danville, as a youngster he had been told of Corbin's reputation. He did not know about the court records, rather he worked from newspaper accounts.

When Jaspin came to town in the 1990's he was referred to a local historian, Allen Dizney.

About the expelling mob, Dizney said "It never happened. The story about blacks being run out of town is an invention of the 'damned media,'" referring to Henson.

"He talked about me being a racist and that sort of thing," Dizney continued.

Jaspin continues,"For some reason Dizney says the film even bothered with the name of his dog.

"The dog was named N****r.

"The damned media."

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73/111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2012-03-25 02:33:00
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