This is chapter two of Derek Akal’s Struggle to Stay. In the first chapter, we met a young man from Harlan County, Kentucky, who thought a college football scholarship was going to be his ticket out. But a serious neck injury led Derek to drop out and move back home.
Strange Names of Derek’s Home
Generation after generation, people in Derek’s family have felt pressure to move away from home. The struggle to stay is a central part of Derek’s family history and the history of his hometown, a little place called Lynch. Derek told me he wishes the town had a different name, but it doesn’t bother him much.
Lynch wasn’t named for a historical lynching, it was actually named after Thomas Lynch. He was an executive at US Steel— the company that built this coal-camp town back in 1917. At the time, it was the largest company-owned town in Kentucky. Today, there are yard signs posted all around Lynch to let everyone know that the town is celebrating 100 years of existence, here at the foot of Kentucky’s highest peak, which also happens to be named Black Mountain.
“Black mountain, live in Lynch, in a black community,” Derek mused. “What can you say?”
Memory and the African-American Experience
I asked Derek if he knew much about his family’s history, and how they’d come to live in Lynch. He told me that his grandma and his mom don’t talk about it much. He said I should instead ask his cousin, Karida Brown.
Karida, is a visiting professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and full-time sociology professor the University of California at Los Angeles. She’s done a lot of research about how generations of African-Americans have moved in and out of coal towns like Lynch— she’s actually writing a book about it.
Here’s how Derek describes her: “She does a lot of interviews around here. Everybody knows who she is. One thing that everybody loves about her is her hair. It’s like really poofy and curly, just beautiful. I love it. I’m trying to get my hair like hers — big and natural.”
Karida told me she’s not surprised that Derek hasn’t heard much about how his family first came to Lynch because as she said, “Memory is a very complicated thing with the African-American experience.”
Karida explained that talking about history can be really sensitive if it means you have to think about slavery— “a historical catastrophe, a shattering of who you are and where you come from. You don’t always want to be remembering that.”
Karida told me that for her and Derek’s family, “origin stories started in Kentucky….parents weren’t necessarily trying to tell...what they endured to get there.”
Even though it’s not something Derek’s talked about much, I think that if you want to understand Derek’s struggle to stay, you have to understand that many parts of his struggle are forces that his family has been dealing with for generations.
“This has been a story of African-American struggle and striving that we can trace through American history, because we’re always getting kicked out or moved from where we settle down,” Karida said.
So, now we’re going to speed through a hundred years of Derek’s family history.
The Origin Story
“How the hell did all these black folks get to Harlan County, Kentucky?” Karida asked rhetorically, before she started to answer. She explained that as the U.S. became involved in World War I, there was a huge need for steel. To make steel, you need hot-burning coal like the kind found in Harlan County.
Once railroad companies pushed their way into eastern Kentucky, mining started to boom and companies desperately needed more workers than they could find living here in the hills. So, mining companies like the one that owned Lynch sent labor agents far and wide to recruit coal miners. One place where they recruited was Alabama, where Derek’s great-granddad came from.
Karida explains that for African-Americans living in Alabama, the early 1900s were a tough time.
“Leaving Alabama,” Karida said, “was more of an escape.”
Slavery had technically been abolished, but many African-Americans were still trapped doing forced labor in abusive conditions. Some were stuck in unfair farming contracts, and others were arrested, often on flimsy charges, then sold to industries that needed workers. Many of these leased convicts ended up working in coal mines, where about one in 20 workers would die each year.
It was dangerous to stay in Alabama, but it was also dangerous to leave. Derek’s great-granddad used to tell a story about one scary encounter that happened while he was traveling to Kentucky. As Karida understands it, “he was unsure if they were going to kill him right there.”
Karida has heard the story a number of times, and she shared with me a recording of Cynthia Harrington, a daughter of Derek’s great-granddad, recalling how her dad used to tell the story:
“He used to get drunk, and he basically told us the same story, about how he hoboed — we call it hitchhike — from Alabama because he heard about the jobs in the mines. He was walking and these white men saw him. They said, hey n----, where you going? So he told them that he was going to Kentucky to get a job. They said, we heard that n---- can preach, so they said to him, n---- preach…. he said he had to do it because he was a little ‘fraid, and after he preached they said well we heard n----- like to dance, they said, n----- dance…. . And once he danced, and they taunted him some more and let him go… that’s what happened, so he used to tell us this story when he got drunk."
Cycles of Boom and Bust
In Lynch, Derek’s great-granddad started a large family — 14 kids, including Derek’s grandma (who asked that I not use her name). There was decent-paying work for a while, but then the coal industry hit a bump due to some forces that might sound familiar to people watching today’s coal downturn. Coal was losing ground to competition from another fossil fuel, and coal miners were being replaced by fancy new mining machines.
Karida Brown said that by the mid-1940s, “the country is transitioning its dependence from coal to oil, and the mining industry began to mechanize heavily. There was not such a need for all of that manual labor. As quickly as they pulled these people in, they shut them out. I know in the case of Lynch, that African-Americans were the first to be cut out of the labor economy.”
Many folks in Lynch moved away. Karida Brown told me that Harlan County lost 70 percent of its African-American population between 1940 and 1970. “That is an extreme outmigration.”
Derek’s grandma was part of that wave of people who left Lynch. She followed some of her older siblings to New York City. There she met her husband, Derek’s granddad, who’d come from Trinidad. Then in the 70’s, her husband lost his job, just as the coal industry started to bounce back. Mines in Harlan County were hiring again, and Derek’s grandma wanted to get her kids away from the Heroin epidemic that had arrived in New York. So, they moved to Lynch.
“When drugs started getting bad,” she said, “I came back to raise my kids. And I’ve been here ever since.”
Derek’s grandma actually worked in the mines, too, for a year around 1979 — partly because she wanted to see what it was like, and partly because her husband had told her not to.
“He would always tell me, ‘You ain’t going in no mine!’ so I went in there. I worked close to a year on a beltline, and I enjoyed it, it really paid good. But I needed to be home, that’s my job -- be home with kids.”
This boom, like the last one, turned into a bust, and once again, many folks in Lynch moved away. Among them was Derek’s mom, Katina Akal.
“When the coal mine shut down here,” she told me, “everybody had no choice but to move.”
Katina and Derek
After high school, Katina Akal moved to Lexington, where she attended the University of Kentucky, but she dropped out after she gave birth Derek. She sent Derek back to live with her mom in Lynch because, she said, she was working nights and didn’t have anyone in Lexington who could watch him.
Katina Akal says she stayed in Lexington for about 10 years, when she had her second son, “I decided to come back home, and — best decision I ever made.”
At first, she got a job at a factory. Then she went back to school, and she’s now managed to get a job close to home that she loves, as a counselor working with at-risk youth. “I feel like this is what I was meant to do,” Katina Akal said.
Many Only Come Back to Visit
Derek’s mom and grandma both found their way back to Lynch, but they were the exception. Katina Akal told me that in their neighborhood, it used to be that every house had someone living it. These days, she said, “You live here then there’s three houses empty. There’s the next house then there’s three houses empty. It’s just terrible now.”
Derek’s cousin Karida Brown is from one of those branches of the family that didn’t move back. She grew up in New York on Long Island, but her family visited Lynch at least once a year, and Karida thought it was a magical place. She told me that, because the town had been segregated, “all I knew was that it was this black world. I thought everyone was black. Not only Lynch, but all Appalachia in my mind was black.”
Where Derek Grew Up
When out-of-town folks would visit, Karida and the rest of the family often ended up gathering at the house that Derek lives in with his grandma and his mom.
“The best food is going to be there. The biggest laughs,” Karida said.
The house, she said, is also iconic because it’s at the same intersection as two of Lynch’s most iconic locations. Across the street to one side is a big, grassy field tucked behind chain-link fence — the ballpark, which Karida says is “where everything went down.”
Across the street, on the other side of Derek’s house, is a big brick building engraved with the words Lynch Colored School.
“Up until 1963, the schools were racially segregated in Harlan County and it was the premier black school,” Karida said. “And the building is now owned by the Eastern Kentucky Social Club, so that building has so much symbolic meaning to the black community and it’s still a gathering place.”
Because the social club is so symbolic, it has sometimes been a target. Derek told me a story that his granddad used to tell him, about an event that’s something of a town legend. About 40 years ago, members of the KKK threatened to come into Lynch and tear down the social club. Derek remembers his granddad told him “everybody was sitting there ready on their houses, guns out, loaded up, ready for them to show up.”
Derek told me can really picture the scene: “My granddad just pointing his gun ready for something to happen, but you know they never showed up, so.”
Dereks says he thinks that his community has a reputation that “people around here don’t play around.”
He said he feels like the reputation helps to keep the community safe.
“I believe that there’s some racist people around here,” he said. “But they’re not brave enough to show up in Lynch, because Lynch has a history.”
‘Fight For My Life’
Lynch’s reputation has made Derek feel safer, but the reputation alone hasn’t always been enough to keep Derek safe. Derek told me a story about one time when he had to fight for his life.
As Derek told the story, it was 2015, and he was at a house party with the girl he was dating at the time. He was underage, and also a designated driver, so he wasn’t drinking.
After Derek’s girlfriend got into an argument with her sister, she left the party and started walking up the hill nearby. Derek followed behind her, and then, he remembers “there were these guys jogging behind me, just screaming the n-word like crazy.”
Derek says one of the guys had a knife on him, and flicked it out. “He just sitting there holding it, just looking at me. My life flashed before my eyes, I was like, ‘These guys are probably gonna try to kill me or something, so I’m probably have to fight for my life.’ ”
Derek remembers he looked at his girlfriend and saw her shaking. He says he felt like he was fighting for both of their lives. “I was just ready to go.”
First, Derek says he punched the guy holding the knife. “Boom. Knocked him out first hit.”
The other guy, Derek says, punched him, but he didn’t even feel it because he was in a full adrenaline rush. Derek kept fighting back.
“Boom, knocked him out. Next thing you know, the guy with the knife, I kept going after him, started beating him half to death, you know, going crazy, beating up these two dudes. You know it looked like I’d just basically liked killed ‘em, you know, two bodies on the ground, that’s what it looked like.”
The Next Morning
Derek told me, he came home around 7 in the morning. “I had a blue hoody on, and I had blood all over my hoody, my pants, the white part of my shoes, all around here was covered in blood.”
Later that day, Derek says he got a phone call from the police. “They were like man, you probably have to go to jail for assault or almost attempted murder because the guy that had that knife apparently had a really bad concussion.”
So, Derek told the police what had happened.
“I was like listen dude, he had a knife on him, so I’m fighting for my life. You know he could’ve stabbed me in my neck or something, and I wouldn’t be here, you know.”
The police, Derek says, dropped the charges and asked if he wanted to press charges against the guys who attacked him. Derek said no.
“You know, I felt bad for what I did.”
Derek says the fact that he almost killed someone spread quickly.
“That was like the biggest talk for like almost three months, and usually l didn’t like step out the house,” he said. “I was so embarrassed at what I’d done to that man. I broke his jaw in two different places, and fractured his skull with the kick that I gave him.”
Two months after the fight, Derek says he went to another house party, and ran into the guy who’d pulled a knife — the guy he’d nearly killed.
“He had scars all over his face, he had one scar on his forehead. He came up to me and he was like, ‘Man I’m really sorry for what happened. I was drunk. You really beat me up, and you made me realize, I don’t need to be doing that.’ ”
Derek said he forgave him, and asked for forgiveness in return. Then, they hugged. “Me and those guys we’re cool now, so everything’s cool.”
I asked Derek if that experience had made him feel less comfortable in Harlan County, or had pushed him more toward wanting to leave.
He didn’t seem totally sure how much it had affected his thinking.
“I mean — it can happen anywhere…. I was so friendly with everybody around here, I didn’t think it would happen toward me but it did… It didn’t push me to move, but it did push me to start looking somewhere else.”
Looking turned into planning, and then one morning, planning turned into action.
“I walked downstairs, had my bags and stuff, I told my family, 'I’m going to the beach. I’m going to California.'”
Derek doesn’t have a car, or an airplane ticket. How is he planning to get to California? Will he find more opportunities, or more of the same struggles? Find out next time, as we continue to follow Derek Akal’s struggle to stay.