Transition Stories: Eastern Kentucky Social Club binds Lynch community

Posted by: KFTC Staff on August 14, 2014

The building that was once the black high school in Lynch, Kentucky, now houses the Eastern Kentucky Social Club. But the social club began far away from here, in Cleveland, Ohio, when a couple of eastern Kentucky boys were missing home.

For nearly 45 years, the Eastern Kentucky Social Club has provided a connection among Lynch residents and thousands of African Americans from eastern Kentucky who have migrated to other places. The story of the social club is a prominent thread in the history and fabric of Lynch.

Lynch was established in 1917 in Harlan County by U.S. Coal and Coke Company, which built schools, churches, hospitals and houses. At its peak in Lynch, U.S. Coal and Coke employed 4,000 people and owned 1,000 structures housing people of 38 ethnic backgrounds. By 1945, Lynch and the nearby coal town of Benham had a combined population of nearly 10,000 people, according to the 2004 book African American Miners and Migrants: The Eastern Kentucky Social Club by Thomas E. Wagner and Phillip J. Obermiller.

Today, Lynch has about 750 people and is still one of the most racially and ethnically diverse communities in eastern Kentucky. The town is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and many of Lynch’s original structures remain.

After mining’s peak in the 1940s, people began to leave Lynch to find work in cities to the north: Indianapolis, Detroit, Cleveland. But for many, Lynch would always be home.

In 1969, two men were having a drink in a Cleveland bar and started talking about pulling together a reunion of people they grew up with in Lynch. In 1970, the first reunion was held in Cleveland.

Over the decades, thousands of African Americans with ties to Lynch have been involved with the Eastern Kentucky Social Club. Now the club has about a dozen chapters all over the country, from California to Milwaukee to Dayton. It recently reinstated the Texas chapter and gained a new one in St. Louis. Members include people who grew up in Lynch but also the next generation who have never lived in Lynch.

A document called “The Most Noteworthy Characteristics of the Eastern Kentucky Social Club Cleveland Chapter” states that the central objective of the EKSC has been to “stay together.”

Sitting in club headquarters at the old high school in Lynch, with banners of EKSC’s chapters and hundreds of reunion pictures on the walls, Rutland Melton and Bennie Massey talk about the social club.

In addition to serving as the physical headquarters for the club, the Lynch chapter caters local events, opens its doors for reunions and meetings, and hosts the Lynch homecoming on Memorial Day weekend.

“That’s what I think really kept the chapter together, us working together as a community and staying in touch with each other,” Massey said.

And once a year, members board a bus for the annual EKSC reunion, which has been held each Labor Day weekend since 1970. This year the reunion is in Burbank, California, and members will spend a week. Both Melton and Massey plan to attend.

“Whatever we can do to keep the heritage here, that’s what we’re trying to do.”         - Bennie Massey

The reunion is held in a different city each year and usually includes a gospel fest and a lot of reminiscing. “Really, it’s just getting together to talk about old times,” Melton says.

“You had a lot of people who had to leave here to get jobs, but every year we come together and we get to see each other,” says Massey, who joined the club in 1972. “That’s what I like about it. Still get to see some of the older people who used to live here and the young people coming on.”

Melton, who joined the club in 1978, points to a picture from 1984. “See that picture back there on the wall? That was in Connecticut. That was over 3,000 people.”

Reunions today don’t draw quite as many, but Melton and Massey expect 300 to 400 people for the Burbank reunion and more for next year’s reunion in Indianapolis.

In addition to being active in the Greater Mount Sinai Baptist Church, the Mount Sinai Spirituals gospel group and the EKSC, Massey and Melton are members of KFTC, have served on local boards and government, and have participated in Southeast Community and Technical College’s Higher Ground theater performances, which are drawn from oral histories about life in Appalachia.

The social club collaborated with KFTC to host the Appalachia’s Bright Future conference in Harlan County in 2013, and the two organizations will team up next year to host a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the book Blacks in Appalachia, edited by Dr. Bill Turner, another Lynch native and member of the EKSC, and Edward J. Cabbell.

Melton’s and Massey’s ancestors came to Lynch from Alabama and Mississippi, where a man named Limestone recruited black families to work in the coal mines. Both were born in Lynch, raised their families here, and both worked in the mines.

They have stayed in their hometown and worked to keep it viable. Massey says he feels “blessed to be here,” and both men mention people they grew up with who would like to come back to Lynch if they could.

“When they come home, they just feel like they’re at home,” Massey says. “They feel good. They walk the streets. Everybody has a good time.”

Massey was recently named an Appalachian Hero by the Appalachian Community Fund for his work to protect his community from the impacts of surface mining and build a brighter future (see story in this issue).

Melton and Massey understand that building a bright future in Lynch will take work and time. They want to renovate the spacious old high school and open the upstairs rooms for community use. “It is a landmark here,” says Massey. “We’re trying to get people to invest in it so we can keep it.”

They’d like to see many of the old houses renovated so retirees can return to Lynch or people visiting for reunions can have a place to stay. They wonder if the pure waters of nearby Looney Creek might supply a water bottling plant. And, most of all, they want young people to stay and keep their town and the EKSC alive.

Dr. Frank Callaway of Houston is a member of the Eastern Kentucky Social Club. He and some other eastern Kentucky natives in the Houston area formed a chapter there and hosted the Labor Day reunion in 1988. He was born in Benham and recently went back home for his 50th high school reunion.

Callaway compares the importance of the annual reunion to that of a family reunion – multiplied. “You get to see people that when you were little bitty – you get to see them once again. And our legacy, our heritage, our history, as it was in Africa, is orally passed down and we get to know what happened.”

Like Melton and Massey, Callaway speaks of the importance of the next generation. Most of the founders of the social club have passed on. “And so it’s been passed down generation to generation, and now a new generation is taking it on.”

Callaway, whose family had 15 children, left Benham at age 17 to attend Kentucky State University, joined the Air Force and eventually went on to earn a doctorate. Like many who grew up in Benham and Lynch, his home community is still dear to him, even though he has not lived here in decades. “The house that I was born in is still standing.”

But Callaway worries that mining in the area will compromise the community’s water supply and its future. “Years from now this won’t be here.”

But if Melton, Massey and the Lynch chapter of the Eastern Kentucky Social Club have anything to say, young people will stay around because they have good jobs and opportunities for their families. And retired people will come back to Lynch because it’s a good place to live.

“Whatever we can do to keep the heritage here, that’s what we’re trying to do,” Massey says.

0 comments view comments

Jefferson County members talk tax reform with mayor

Posted by: Linda Stettenbenz on August 7, 2014

A small group of Jefferson County chapter members met with Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer last month to find common ground about the need for revenue.

The meeting came about as a result of an encounter in March between KFTC members and the mayor in Frankfort. Members were in Frankfort for our Economic Justice Lobby Day to lift up the need for fair and adequate statewide tax reform; Mayor Fischer was seeking support for his local option sales tax initiative. KFTC decided to oppose the local option sales tax mostly because it takes more from the budgets of low-income people than from higher-income people.  There has also been concern that revenue from it would not be sustainable or flexible enough to meet community needs. 

0 comments view comments

Louisville Metro Council unanimously passes resolution supporting Voting Rights Restoration in Kentucky

Posted by: Bonifacio Aleman on August 7, 2014

We Did It!!!

Louisville Metro Council once again made history last month by passing the Resolution supporting the Restoration of Voting Rights to Former Felons in Kentucky with a unanimous vote of 19-0!

Going into the July 24 Metro Council hearing, the Resolution had 11 bi-partisan co-sponsors. Once the Resolution was brought to the floor for discussion, five more Metro Council members (bi-partisan, again!) signed on as co-sponsors.  With no opposition on Metro Council, or from the chambers, the Resolution passed, with several Metro Council members going on record about why voting rights matter, and why this resolution is so important.

0 comments view comments

Great food served up by Rowan members at music fest

Posted by: Annie Adams on August 2, 2014

The Rowan County Chapter held its annual fundraiser at the Old Time Music Festival, which took place at Jaycee Farm in Morehead on July 25 and 26. This was the fifth year the chapter worked the festival, and the fourth it served as the sole food vendor.

Rowan 2014 fundraiserThe chapter set up two food stations, a KFTC informational table with KFTC merchandise, and a spacious eating pavilion.

Ted Withrow oversaw the primary food station, which offered vegetarian and non-vegetarian soup beans and corn bread, hamburgers, hot dogs, pulled pork sandwiches (with slaw), fried taters and fresh corn.

0 comments view comments

Kentucky lawmaker praises EPA Clean Power Plan

Posted by: Lisa Abbott on July 31, 2014

Over the next few weeks we will share some of the powerful public statements made by Kentuckians to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about the agency's proposed Clean Power Plan to limit carbon pollution from existing power plants. Below is testimony given at a hearing yesterday in Atlanta, Georgia by Joni Jenkins, who represents Kentucky's 44th House District in the state legislature.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak today.  My name is Joni Jenkins and I represent Kentucky House District 44 in the Kentucky General Assembly.  The 44th district is South of the Louisville, right on the banks of the Ohio River.

It is home to hard working, mostly blue collar, workers who strive everyday to raise their children for a brighter future. The 44th District is also home to 2 coal fired power plants with 2 coal ash landfills and coal ash ponds.  

0 comments view comments

Kentuckians to EPA: Act on climate, protect health, support a Just Transition

Posted by: Lisa Abbott on July 30, 2014

Kentuckians in Atlanta for EPA climate hearing

Kentucky was well represented by grassroots voices at the first hearings held this week by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the agency’s proposed Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon pollution from existing power plants.

Forty citizens from Owensboro, Bowling Green, Louisville, Lexington, Morehead, Berea, Burnside, Inez, Hazard and Whitesburg made the long drive from Kentucky to Atlanta, Georgia on July 28-29 to urge the EPA to strengthen the draft power plant rules. In addition, a KFTC member from Harlan County spoke at the EPA hearing in Denver, Colorado, along with allies from other Central Appalachian states.

0 comments view comments

KFTC will be pilot site with Climate Justice Alliance

Posted by: KFTC Staff on July 23, 2014

KFTC has signed on to become a pilot site for the Climate Justice Alliance, a coalition of 40 organizations and networks working together to create a new analysis and a new “center of gravity” in the policy conversation about climate – informed by impacted communities.

0 comments view comments

Rising Kentucky Voices: Coming Together for Tax Fairness

Posted by: Sarah Martin on July 17, 2014

Central KY Chapter Member Sarah Martin was among a group of folks with low-wage work experience who went to Washington, D.C. in April to lobby for closing corporate tax loopholes and raising the minimum wage. Right now, these corporate tax loopholes exist as the "tax extenders" that Sarah will reference in this blog. Congress isn't expected to act on these until after the election.

Corporate tax loopholes also exist as "inversions." (Hang in there, and remember, tax policies language is wonky to keep us away!) Those "inversions" recently allowed Pfizer to claim itself as a United Kingdom company, thereby avoiding paying taxes in the U.S. With that in mind, Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) and 13 Senate co-sponsors (including Sen. Elizabeth Warren), and Representative Sander Levin (D-MI) with nine House co-sponsors, introduced companion bills yesterday to close these “inversion” loopholes.
We hope to learn more, and track the involvement of Kentucky's delegation. In the meantime, check out Sarah's story about why she went to Washington, and why she'll go back.

It’s 8 AM on a Monday morning and as our bus creeps through D.C. traffic, CKY Chapter Member Greg Capillo, CKY Chapter Organizer Beth Howard, and myself have a quick breakfast. We think we are on our way to the White House to participate in a direct action regarding immigration reform and deportation policies. While that plan is true, there is a “quick” stop to make before we arrive at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It turns out that we are on our way to a secret action. We are told to not broadcast any information on social media or to communicate with anyone what we’re doing until the action is complete. We are also told that when the buses arrive, we need to exit as quickly as possible, and that conference staff, in fluorescent vests, will direct us to run inside of the building to gather in the lobby.

0 comments view comments

Louisville Housing Experiment

Posted by: Shavaun Evans on July 10, 2014

Think government-controlled experiments on our nation’s poor are a thing of the past?

Think again.

0 comments view comments

VISION Smoketown

Posted by: Elijah McKenzie on July 9, 2014

Change abounds in the city of Louisville. As bike lanes begin to appear on familiar neighborhood streets, arrangements are being made to bring a Wal-Mart Supercente

0 comments view comments

The journey to pass Fairness in Danville

Posted by: KFTC on July 2, 2014

On the evening of June 9, the city of Danville became the 7th city in Kentucky to pass a local LGBT anti-discrimination ordinance when the Danville City Commission approved a Fairness ordinance with a 4-1 vote. It was a long road to get there, one that local members of the Wilderness Trace KFTC chapter started walking back in 2012, shortly after the chapter officially formed.

Leading the way to pass Fairness in Danville were local KFTC members, Jane Brantley and Eric Mount. Well before their work on Fairness in Danville, both Jane and Eric worked in various ways for LGBT equality, from urging legislators to oppose the same-sex marriage amendment in 2004 (this amendment was recently ruled unconstitutional) to supporting their churches moving forward for LGBT equality. It wasn’t until 2012 that they felt moved to work for a Fairness ordinance in Danville.

 “I became aware that cities in Kentucky were beginning to examine passage of local Fairness ordinances,” said Jane. “When the small town of Vicco in eastern Kentucky passed its ordinance, I thought, ‘Why not Danville? After all, we’re supposed to be the City of Firsts. We need to get busy.”

0 comments view comments


Subscribe to KFTC Blog