The conventional portrayal of people who live in Appalachian coal country, a part of the United States that has ballooned in the national consciousness after its support for Donald Trump in the 2016 election, has generally focused on a few key characteristics: Rural, mostly poor and mostly white. Lynch, Kentucky, might fit the bill for the first two—but its racial diversity stands in stark contrast to the popular perception of Appalachia.
In the early 20th century, when the coal industry was booming across Appalachia, coal companies used labor agents to recruit a racially and ethnically diverse labor supply for the mines. Those efforts weren’t exactly progressive: For the companies, a demographically diverse workforce and the racism that likely followed hindered the formation of strong unions. So labor agents looked abroad to southern Europe and southward to Alabama, where they made arrangements to sneak poor black sharecroppers off their land and ferry them to the heart of coal country. Now, after a decades-long decline in the coal industry, many of those black families have left for urban centers on the coasts, leaving behind shells of former coal towns. Lynch, Kentucky, with its mere 800 residents left behind from the collapse of coal and the resulting out-migration, is one such community.
A scholar who focuses on Lynch, Kentucky, and other communities like it invited Sarah Hoskins, a photographer with experience documenting black communities in Kentucky, to visit the town of Lynch last year, and Hoskins came away with a picture of Appalachia that was much more complicated than what she had heard and read about the region. “I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know there were black people in Appalachia,’” she says.
All photos by Sarah Hoskins.
Lynch is located in far southeastern Kentucky on the border with Virginia and was founded in 1917 by the U.S. Coal and Steel company. The company bought 19,000 acres for the town and built everything from houses and stores to a hospital and baseball field. At its peak, Lynch had about 10,000 residents, but is down to below 1,000 today. Above is a side road in Lynch.
Ever since Trump put on a hard hat and pretended to mine coal at one West Virginia rally, his promises to coal miners became a proxy for his promises to the newly scrutinized white working class. But coal miners have never been a racially homogeneous group. The Eastern Kentucky Social Club has long been at the center of African-American life in Lynch, and since 1970, it has hosted meetings for former and current black residents of the town to reunite and honor the contributions of black coal miners. As many as 1,500 people come to the annual meetings, held in Lexington. Above, a sign hangs outside of the club in Lynch.
Lynch’s schools and entertainment venues were segregated until the late 1960s. Black and white miners worked together, but until a 1970 lawsuit, only white miners could be promoted to managerial positions.
Morning in Lynch, Kentucky.
Karida Brown, a sociologist at UCLA and descendant of black coal miners from Lynch, Kentucky, has spent years conducting oral history interviews with black residents and former residents of Lynch and the surrounding area. Her father Richard Brown attended the Lynch Colored Public School, pictured above, up until 10th grade, when the Lynch schools integrated. Two years later, in 1966, he graduated from Lynch High School.
When Hoskins was there, the church was celebrating the anniversary of the pastor at the Greater Mt. Sinai Baptist Church, and she shot the celebrations that took place.
"There’s been so much talk about—oh is everyone jumping in here and showing all these disparaging places and people," Hoskins says about national press coverage of Appalachia. "The people I met—the former miners—they were pumped up with pride when they talked about their work."
Above, Deacon Benny Massey and others pray for Rev. Hampton before the reverend’s knee surgery. Hoskins was struck by the pride of the former coal miners like Massey she met while she was visiting for her project. "The first thing he said was he’d worked in the mine for 28 years and only two people had died in the mines," she says.
Lynch is located near Black Mountain, the highest point in Kentucky. The view from that mountain is pictured above.
Between 1950 and 1970, the population of Lynch dropped by about half as the biggest coal companies left town and jobs declined. Today, there are no working coal mines; the only mines still there are used as exhibitions. Like many coal towns across the region, Lynch and the two former coal towns nearby, Cumberland and Benham, is trying to chart a path forward that might include tourism.
Trump has made repeated promises to bring coal mining communities like Lynch back to their former glory. After signing legislation earlier this year that repealed regulations that protected waterways from coal mine waste, Trump promised the miners assembled around him that it would save thousands of jobs, "especially in the mines." While she was there, Hoskins got the impression that no one in Lynch actually believes coal mining jobs are coming back, despite those promises. "I mean, has Trump ever visited Lynch, Kentucky?" she asks.
Sarah Hoskins is an independent photographer based in Chicago and Lexington.