Racial Cleansing in America
This is an audio piece produced by John Biewen at the Center for Documentary Studies in collaboration with the Center for Investigative Reporting.
Corbin is a small town in the Appalachian foothills of Southeastern Kentucky. Once a thriving railroad hub it is best known nationally as the birthplace of Colonel Sanders and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Locally and regionally, though, it is used as shorthand for a violent racist past that still marks the area.
In 1919, a race riot occurred on the outskirts of town. African American workers, many of whom had made their way to Kentucky during the ‘Great Migration’ to work in the railroad yards, were violently forced out of town by an angry mob of white men. The riot echoed other acts of mob violence that moved up the East coast that year, riots ignited by racial and labor tensions from white GIs returning to find jobs filled by a new labor force willing to work in worse conditions for less money. Corbin is also my home town, situated in the county where my family has lived for seven generations. Still identified as a “Sundown Town,” Corbin has yet to truly confront its history.
Much of my work in graduate school focused on exploring issues of community memory within the stories told about the 1919 riot by Corbin families in the context of their homes. I worked on a project to plan a public exhibition and dialogue about the history of Corbin that was eventually shut down by local city government. My passion for social, labor, and racial justice in the South began here- confronting the censored and painful story of my birthplace.
I appear in this audio piece and collaborated with John to help him find interviews and gain access to different parts of the community. I first met John while taking his audio institute at Duke University. A podcast with photographs from the story is available on NPR’s website.