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The Harlan Renaissance Wins Weatherford Award, And Foster Care In West Virginia Is Still Broken, As Lawmakers Fail To Pass New Legislation

Derek Akal
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 listen back to our conversation with William Turner, whose book about growing up in a vibrant Black community in eastern Kentucky just won the Weatherford Award for nonfiction from the Appalachian Studies Association.

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, listen back to co-host Mason Adams speaking with Turner about his book after its release last September.

“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 book is called “The Harlan Renaissance: Stories of Black Life in Appalachian Coal Towns.”

We’ll also give another listen to a conversation we did last year with reporters with Mountain State Spotlight and GroundTruth, about West Virginia’s foster care system. We’ll hear from reporters Amelia Ferrell Knisely and Molly Born about what they learned during their year-long investigation.

After their reporting, lawmakers vowed to make changes to the foster care system. But the 2022 West Virginia Legislature adjourned, and no legislation passed that made any improvements to foster care in the state. What could be done to fix our state’s failing foster care system?

In This Episode:

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 it would 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. As a 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.

William Turner’s Book Wins Weatherford Award

Turner author photo.jpg
Courtesy West Virginia University Press
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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.

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 latest book, The Harlan Renaissance: Stories of Black Life in Appalachian Coal Towns includes his memories of growing up in Lynch, Kentucky.

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

Slade_GeorgeJuniorRepublic_1200px_21.jpg
Duncan Slade/Mountain State Spotlight
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The campus of George Junior Republic in Grove City, PA on Sept. 14, 2021.

We’ve reported on the crisis in West Virginia’s foster care system on Inside Appalachia. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice found that West Virginia is institutionalizing too many foster children with mental health conditions — and often sends them to out-of-state facilities. Last year, we aired a conversation we recorded with two reporters with Mountain State Spotlight and GroundTruth. They found that West Virginia has identified some of these facilities as abusive — accused of sexual assault, forced labor and more.While some of the children are back in West Virginia, the foster care system continues to leave many kids in these abusive, out-of-state centers. Last fall, our producer Roxy Todd sat down with reporters Amelia Ferrell Knisely and Molly Born to find out more about what they learned during their year-long investigation.

 

Our theme music is by Matt Jackfert. Other music this week was provided by Amythyst Kiah, Jake Schepps, and Jarett Pigmeat, courtesy of Appalshop and June Appal Recordings and Dinosaur Burps. Roxy Todd is our producer. Our executive producer is Eric Douglas. Kelley Libby is our editor. Alex Runyon is our associate producer. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. Zander Aloi also helped produce this episode.

Email us at insideappalachia@wvpublic.org. Tweet us @InAppalachia.

Stay Connected
Inside Appalachia Co-Host/Folkways Reporter, ctan@wvpublic.org, 307-231-9865, @miss_ctan
Inside Appalachia Co-Host/Folkways Reporter, mason.j.adams@gmail.com, @MasonAtoms
Reporter/Producer for Inside Appalachia, rtodd@wvpublic.org, 304-556-4936, @RoxyMTodd
Alex Runyon is a proud Huntington, West Virginia native. She attended Marshall University and earned degrees in creative writing and literary studies, dabbling in journalism, photography and women’s studies along the way. She worked as a freelance photographer and social media strategist before joining the Inside Appalachia team as Associate Producer. Alex enjoys writing and performing stand up comedy, hiking, screenwriting and playing board games. She lives in Huntington, West Virginia with her cat, Waylon Kittings. Follow her on Twitter @_AlexRunyon.