Author Archives

#ThisIsAppalachia: Independent Booksellers

Independent Booksellers by Welch Welch with Walter Davis and Kathy Johnson| September 16, 2019 Independent bookstores serve important roles in Appalachia: economic development, showcasing regional talent, and offering intellectual watering hole spaces, to name a few. Bookstores provide excellent showcases for regional authors. Wild Fig Books and Coffee in Lexington is the only black-owned bookstore in Kentucky. Genia McKee writes of Wild Fig: “Lexington is

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#ThisIsAppalachia: Coal Miners


A Strike Like No Other Strike

Walter Davis and Reed Young |August 19, 2019

The history of Central Appalachia for more than a hundred years has been interwoven with the lives of coal miners.  As a result of their efforts, mineworkers brought much more to their communities than a paycheck. Their actions promoted public schools and improved the quality of life for their families and children.

Strategies from the labor movement by necessity involved community organizing. Miners were among the first to fight for the eight-hour day and health and retirement benefits. When it became obvious that there was a physical price to the body for being in the mines, miners fought for disability coverage and Black Lung benefits. Even in places where life was difficult, miners and their families built communities.

 “No pay, we stay.” — Blackjewel miners, Harlan County, 2019
Coal miners blocking railway tracks in Harlan County, Kentucky in recent weeks bring to mind the long history of struggling for justice in the coalfields of Central Appalachia.

The blockade is to stop freight cars from carrying away the product of the miners’ unpaid labor.  The Blackjewel company paid miner wages with checks that bounced as it filed for bankruptcy on July 1st. At that time, it was the sixth largest U.S. coal producer with 1700 employees, 200 located in Harlan County.

The banks then stripped money from the miners’ accounts throwing them into overdraft. The state failed to require a performance bond which would have guaranteed four weeks of pay (the company was later charged for operating without that bond for two years). State officials didn’t seem to notice or care until Blackjewel filed for bankruptcy. Kentucky Governor Bevin began a charity collection for the miners’ families. However, what the miners want is their pay, not charity; dignity, not disrespect.

Miner Curtis Cress, standing next to the railway tracks, is quoted in Resource speaking of what it means to be a coal miner, ““It’s part of my heritage, you know? My dad and papaws had always done it,” he said. “And I’m proud of that heritage.”

While politicians rushed to show support for getting the miners paid, they did not explain their inaction on enforcement of regulations or why Majority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell (KY) blocked the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund.

As we write this, the story of the Blackjewel miners continues to unfold.  A Knoxville company, Kopper Glo, has acquired the Harlan County mine in the sale of Blackjewel assets. As they close, only 35-40% of wages are committed to be set aside. Miners continue to demand all they are owed and their pension funds.

“A Strike Like No Other Strike” – Pittston Miners, Southwest Virginia, April 1989-February 1990
These Harlan County miners recall a stand taken by miners 30 years ago. The coal miners in the Pittston mines in Southwest Virginia reached a breaking point when the company unilaterally cut off retirement and health care funds to about 1500 retired miners, widows of miners, and disabled miners.

Pittston management miscalculated the response, not just of the union members, but also of the communities where they lived. A mass uprising followed in a fight for worker rights and the quality of the lives of families. The allies of the miners included significant numbers of women, who contributed a large amount organizing work through groups like “The Daughters of Mother Jones,” and “The Freedom Fighters.”

Pittston threw everything at the union. The courts limited legal pickets and the Virginia State Police was complicit with the company by bringing non-union labor into the mines and escorting coal produced out. In solidarity, on April 18, 1989, the Daughters of Mother Jones held a 30-hour sit-in in the lobby of the company headquarters in Lebanon, Virginia.  Instead of folding under the pressure, thousands of union members and supporters blocked roads leading to the mine – 4,000 people were arrested.  Fines against the union mounted, but it chose to face the burden.

The United Mine Workers Association adapted the non-violent direct-action tactics of the civil rights movement. Inspired by the call for justice, people from other unions, the local communities, churches, and young people came to the strike. The UMWA built a culture and community of resistance around the strikers and supporters.

Pittston became a cultural event, a free space. In total, 2,000 miners and 40,000 supporters were involved in this strike. Richard A. Couto wrote, “Camp Solidarity was created for the thousands who came to support the strike. The lessons and history preserved in families and union locals found more public and wider expression at Camp Solidarity.”

At the height of the strike, miners occupied the Moss 3 company plant. Joe Burns wrote in In These Times about what came next: “On September 17, 1989, the union upped the stakes when 98 miners and a member of the clergy dressed in camouflage entered the Pittston Coal treatment plant. They approached the security guards and informed them they were peacefully taking over the plant. Like the sit-down strikers of the 1930s.”

Rev. Jim Sessions of Knoxville was that minister who entered the plant with the miners. He described the experience to us recently: “It was a humbling privilege to accompany 98 miners on that Sunday afternoon as we stepped through the gates of the Moss 3 coal preparation plant near the small town of Carbo in Russell County, Virginia, and watched the guards scatter and depart. Living together and protecting one another for those four days and nights of the occupation was a life-changing experience for me. And I discovered that I was not the only ‘faith leader’ in the occupation. There were four bi-vocational pastors/miners among us.  We were brothers who took care of one another under tense and dangerous circumstances… circumstances that helped turn a strike into a victory.”

Pittston UMWA meet railway protestors.

The Pittston Strike Continues to Inspire
Miners have seen one failed promise after another by federal and state officials. Safety inspectors have been reduced. A runaway opioid invasion of mountain counties by the pharmaceutical industry continues.

Here is a lesson that organizing is important to preserve what is won. You might think black lung disease is waning. Think again. Last year, the largest cluster of new black lung cases was recorded, 400 in Southwest Virginia. One possibility is that new mining practices for efficiency create greater risk to the miners. The cases are appearing among younger workers.

Thirty years ago, Pittston workers and their allies taught a wide array of young people, and those not so young, non-violent strategy and tactics and the steps to fight for free spaces outside of corporate control. The work and the inspiration continues.

Reading: “Bloody Harlan” Revisited: Blackjewel Miners Draw On Labor History While Facing Uncertain Future By Sydney Boles, Resource,

Read more about the Pittston plant sit-in in Singing Across Dark Spaces: The Union, Community Takeover of Pittston’s Moss 3 Plant by Jim Sessions and Fran Ansley, in Fighting Back in Appalachian: Traditions of Resistance and Change, edited by Stephen Fisher, Temple University Press, 1993.

For a video of the Pittston strike: One Day Longer The Pittston Strike 30th Anniversary 



#ThisIsAppalachia: Ashleigh Shanti

The Past as Possibility in the Appalachian South
How chef and Eater Young Gun Ashleigh Shanti centers African-American voices through her cooking

Story excerpts originally published on Young Guns Rising Stars

by Osayi Endolyn | Jun 3, 2019 Photography by Tim Robison

About a year ago, Ashleigh Shanti was trying to imagine her future in the culinary industry. A search was necessary. Shanti planned a meandering road trip hoping to feel a natural draw to the next thing.

A cook, herbal enthusiast, and food event producer from Virginia Beach, Virginia, Shanti had been reflecting on her life’s resume. Before attending Hampton University, she spent a gap year in Nairobi, Kenya. After graduating from college, she continued on to culinary school in Baltimore. She worked at Cindy Wolf’s restaurants Cinghiale and Charleston. She bartended for a while, then later became a certified sommelier. She catered for the El Paso Supper Club in West Texas. All this training had served her well. Still, she was struggling. “Being in this industry, a woman, an African American among a sea of faces that are typically white and male, it can be easy to feel like you don’t have a place,” she says. She carved out time and space to consider what 2019 could bring.

Not every path to chefdom is linear. Ashleigh Shanti’s star rose as the culinary assistant for chef Vivian Howard’s PBS show A Chef’s Life, and now she’s working as the chef de cuisine at Benne on Eagle, a new Asheville restaurant from big-deal Southern chef John Fleer. In her role there, Shanti brings her unique perspective to the restaurant’s mission of showcasing the African-American foodways of Appalachia, combining her love of culinary history and storytelling with the relentless forward momentum needed of anyone opening a restaurant.

Just six months after Shanti hit the road, she landed as chef de cuisine of Benne on Eagle, a refreshing Appalachian restaurant that declares a celebratory and exploratory focus on black regional foodways. Since beginning at Benne on Eagle last fall, Shanti’s menu, rich with spices, memory, and a remix of tradition, has attracted regular diners and popular industry figures alike, all enamored with her dexterity. Her cooking brings forward a part of Appalachia that many haven’t heard about, or have forgotten. Her work has earned her recognition as an Eater Young Gun for the class of 2019.

[Before meeting with chef Fleer] she’d spent months thinking not just about where she’d settle, but about how her identity appeared in her food. She wanted a culinary home that could speak to her skills as much as her heart. She had been remembering her great-grandmother who was also from Virginia. As a kid, Shanti would snap beans and help “hang britches” on the clothesline. She remembered how her mother, who aimed for quick dinnertime meals during the week, seemed to transform into an all-day home cook on Sundays. She remembered slow-stewing pots, put-up preserves, fresh leaves, and all sorts of pickled things.

Walking around the space that would become Benne on Eagle, Fleer pointed out four portraits of African-American women who’d once owned restaurants or bakeries in the Block. Shanti saw in their faces a sense of herself. This place — , this idea for a restaurant — it held pieces of her cultural history. That future Shanti had imagined was taking a more defined shape.

To read the complete article about Ashleigh Shanti go to:



#ThisIsAppalachia: Lige Clarke

Appalachian Gay Pioneer

Walter Davis |June 18, 2019

Appalachian people were part of the early lesbian and gay civil rights movement even before the Stonewall Uprising advanced the struggle.  But it is difficult to see role models if they are excluded from history.

Over forty years ago, then Berea College student Bill Fields tells us that his inspiration for coming out as a gay man wasn’t some distant event. It was the life story of someone from near Bill’s rural Leslie County, Kentucky home. The role model was a young man who grew up on the Cave Branch Hollow near Hindman, Kentucky just 37 miles up the road.

Lige (short for Elijah) Hadyn Clarke became a pioneering figure in the young movement.

Clarke worked in the federal government in D.C. where he posted signs describing rights of homosexuals in hallways. He was not an aggressive person, however. A biographer describes him as a “A beautiful, multi-faceted pioneer of the gay liberation movement, he lived out the many paradoxes of his being with an indefatigable aliveness and zest. Fiercely passionate, Lige was also gentle, androgynous and loving.”

He helped organize the first “Gay” protest at the White House in 1965. Together in 1969, Lige and his companion Jack Nichols founded Gay magazine, the first weekly gay newspaper to appear on some newsstands.   In its pages, the term ‘homo-phobia’ first appeared. He co-authored with Nichols the first non-fiction book by a gay couple, I Have More Fun With You Than Anybody.

In 1968, Lige and Jack wrote a column for Screw magazine called The Homosexual Citizen, the first gay interest column regularly to appear in a non-gay publication. (The title – The Homosexual Citizen – first appeared in the 1950s in a column written by lesbian pioneer Dr. Lilli Vincenz.)  They published Roommates Can’t Always Be Lovers.

On February 10, 1975, Lige Clarke was shot and killed under mysterious circumstances near Veracruz, Mexico; His death at 32 was too young but he left a legacy and is now recognized in the history of the 1960s.

Here are some sources of further information about Lige Clarke (including his family in Kentucky):


For more about Lige Clark and the history of the LGBT movement in Kentucky, go the National Park Service:


Lige Clarke: Body and Soul in Gay,  12/01/02

An Interview with Shelbiana Rhein & Jack Nichols By Raj Ayyar


Other books about Lige Clarke and the early movement

Before Stonewall (edited by Vern L. Bullough, RN, PhD, Haworth Press, 2002)


Rebels, Rubyfruit and Rhinestone: Queering Space in the Stonewall South (by James T. Sears, PhD, Rutgers University Press, 2001).

Voices of Revolution: The Dissident Press in America (Columbia University Press, 2001) by Dr. Rodger Streitmatter, and his landmark history of the gay and lesbian press, Unspeakable (Faber & Faber, 1995)


Out in the South Job Description

Out in the South Project Team Job Description Administrative Scheduling regular meeting and status reports that will keep the project on schedule and keep all identified stakeholders apprised of the Initiative’s progress. Taking the lead in organizing: face-to-face gatherings, in Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia or Virginia; individual meetings and/or phone calls; and, online, mail and/or in-person surveys. Managing and maintaining the grant database and

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One of our ACF Divas recently shared with me an article that said writing an appeal letter was a creative process. Well I must admit that my creative bone has been a little paralyzed here lately with everything going on in the world and our region right now. Between the election, arson-started wildfires in our beautiful Appalachian Mountains, people terrorizing college campuses, police shootings…

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We Have a New President Elect, Now What? A Call to Action

My mommy always told me, if you don’t have anything good to say…..I’m sure many of you know how that sentence ends. Therefore, I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about what just happened on election day last week. We have a new president elect y’all. So now what!? Many of you know that ACF is part of the Appalachian Funder’s

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We Who Believe in Freedom Shall Not Rest

I’ve recently been reading a lot about Ella Parker, community organizer and civil rights activist. Her life’s work and theory on leaders inspires me. She said, “You didn’t see me on television, you didn’t see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organizations might

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