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Memoir Depicts Thriving Black Community In Harlan County, KY. And Investigation Explores Flaws In W.Va.'s Foster Care System

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Benny Becker/ WMMT
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For years, Derek Akal wanted to leave his home in Kentucky, but a football injury forced him to return home.

The downturn of coal in Harlan County, Kentucky has led to an exodus of Black residents in search of work. This week on Inside Appalachia, we speak with William Turner, whose new book looks at growing up in a vibrant Black community during Harlan’s boom years.

“We’re so accustomed in Appalachia’s coal camps to booms and busts,” Turner told co-host Mason Adams. “And while it may never come back with a capital B, I think people will survive, and more than that, I think they will thrive.” Turner’s new book is called “The Harlan Renaissance: Stories of Black Life in Appalachian Coal Towns.”

And a new investigation by Mountain State Spotlight and GroundTruth finds that West Virginia’s foster care system sends kids to often abusive, out-of-state facilities. The state’s Department of Health and Human Resources has identified some of these facilities to have issues with sexual assault, forced labor and more. We talk with reporters Amelia Ferrell Knisely and Molly Born about what they learned during their yearlong investigation.

The Struggle to Stay

Derek Akal is a young Black man who grew up in Harlan, Kentucky. For years, he wanted to leave. Derek got a college football scholarship and thought that was going to be his ticket out, but a serious neck injury led him to drop out of school and return home. Reporter Benny Becker spent a year following Derek’s story for our Struggle to Stay series which aired back in 2017. Warning: This story contains racial slurs.

In the past four years, a lot has changed in Akal’s life. He did leave Kentucky, and briefly moved to California: Those plans didn’t stick, in part because it cost so much to live there. He moved to Atlanta, Georgia for a while, but eventually made his way back to Harlan County. Today, Derek is the father of five children and works as a full-time cook at a restaurant in Harlan County.

 

New Book Explores Black Experiences in Appalachia

William Turner is one of the most prolific historians of the Black experience in Appalachia. His 1985 book, “Blacks in Appalachia,” co-authored with Edward J. Cabbell, is considered a landmark work in the field. Turner’s new book, “The Harlan Renaissance: Stories of Black Life in Appalachian Coal Towns,” includes his memories of growing up in Lynch, Kentucky.

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Courtesy West Virginia University Press
William Turner's new book, “The Harlan Renaissance: Stories of Black Life in Appalachian Coal Towns,” includes his memories of growing up in Lynch, Kentucky.

When Turner was a child, coal was still in its post-World War II boom years, and Lynch was a bustling company town run by U.S. Steel — one of the most powerful companies in the country in that era. This week on Inside Appalachia, co-host Mason Adams talks with Turner about his new book.

Investigation Shines Spotlight on W.Va’s Foster Care System

We’ve heard that West Virginia’s foster care system is in crisis. We’ve reported on this issue several times on Inside Appalachia. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice found that West Virginia institutionalizes too many foster children with mental health conditions — and it often sends them to out-of-state facilities. Now, a new investigation by Mountain State Spotlight and GroundTruth goes deeper. It found that West Virginia has identified some of these facilities as abusive — accused of sexual assault, forced labor and more. Yet the foster care system continues to leave youth in these abusive, out-of-state centers.

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Duncan Slade for Mountain State Spotlight
The campus of George Junior Republic in Grove City, PA on Sept. 14, 2021.

Our producer Roxy Todd sat down with reporters Amelia Ferrell Knisely and Molly Born to find out more about what they learned during their yearlong investigation.

Days after Born and Knisely’s reporting was published by Mountain State Spotlight, several West Virginia lawmakers announced that they would be looking into the allegations raised in the articles. Senate President Craig Blair of Berkeley County told Mountain State Spotlight in a text message, “We have shown commitment to solving the state’s foster care issues and we aren’t going to stop until we do.”

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Our theme music is by Matt Jackfert. Other music this week was provided by Amythyst Kiah and Jarett Pigmeat, courtesy of Appalshop and June Appal Recordings. Other music was by Wes Swing, Blue Dot Sessions, Jake Schepps, and Dinosaur Burps.

Roxy Todd is our producer. Jade Artherhults is our associate producer. Our executive producer is Andrea Billups. Kelley Libby is our editor. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. Zander Aloi also helped produce this episode. You can find us on Twitter @InAppalachia. You can also send us an email to Inside Appalachia@wvpublic.org.

Caitlin Tan is working as Inside Appalachia’s folklife reporter, as part of a Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies grant. The goal of her reporting is to help engage a new generation in Appalachian folklife and culture.
Mason Adams grew up near the Virginia/West Virginia border in Clifton Forge, Virginia. He’s covered mountain communities and the issues affecting them since 2001. His work has appeared in Southerly, Daily Yonder, 100 Days in Appalachia, Mother Jones, Huffington Post and elsewhere. He lives with his family and a small herd of goats in Floyd County, Virginia. Follow him on Twitter @MasonAtoms.
Roxy Todd joined West Virginia Public Broadcasting in 2014 and works as the producer for Inside Appalachia. She's the recipient of a National Edward R. Murrow Award for "Excellence in Video," for a story about the demands small farmers face in West Virginia. She also won a National PMJA Award For "Best Feature" for her story about the history of John Denver's song "Country Roads." You can reach her at rtodd@wvpublic.org.
Jade Artherhults is the associate producer for Inside Appalachia and is based in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at jartherhults@wvpublic.org or @JArtherhults on Twitter.