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Corbin: The former sundown town works toward diversity

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Posted at 7:58 PM, Jul 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-07 19:58:43-04

CORBIN, Ky. (LEX 18) — A quote coined by Appalachian artist Lucy Hale embodies changing perspectives about inclusion in a small town.

In southern Appalachia, communities nestled in a small valley between mountains are often referred to as a holler. For Corbin native Lisa Garrison, "No Hate in My Holler" became more than just a phrase on her t-shirt; it's become a rallying cry for change in her hometown.

Corbin, Kentucky, is a small town formally known as a sundown town, which is an area once considered to be unwelcoming to Black people after dark.

Garrison is a native among those who have fought the label as a part of the Sunup Initiative. In 2019, the city recognized 100 years since the racial cleansing incident that expelled most Black people from the city. In 1919, an armed white mob rounded up between 200 and 300 Black people and forced them out of town on rail cars. Even though one person faced jail time because of it, racial tensions connected to what happened back then stuck with the community.

Since 2019, there have been several events in Corbin promoting diversity and racial justice. City officials even created a proclamation acknowledging the incident that led to the town's old label and committed to change.

In 2020, the Sunup Initiative participated in protests and vigils in honor of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. They also held movie screenings and town meetings.

"We heard stories about interracial couples experiencing prejudice of their grandchildren being looked at or shunned at the city pool," said Garrison.

Since that time, Garrison feels like the city has created a different environment and has been more open to change.

"I think Sunup Initiative lit the spark and other people blew onto that spark to become into a flame," said Garrison.

So has Mayor Suzie Razmus.

"I think your past is your past. I can't do anything about my past, you can't do anything about yours. It just is what it is. What we can do is we can do better," said Razmus.

With a population of around 7,000, there are still less than 19 Black people living in Corbin, according to U.S. Census data.

That number represents less than 1% of the population.

Mayor Razmus is working to attract more economic development and opportunity to the town, believing it will attract more people and diversity.

"We are much more diverse than we used to be. We're making some inroads there, but I think that a lot of the problem is that, people do move for better work opportunities," said Razmus. "We've not been able to entice a Toyota or a battery plant or one those real high-paying industries to come into our area."

Razmus grew up in Corbin and took on the job as mayor seeing the untapped potential and knowing she had to do something to prepare the city for the future.

"I do think people get a little nervous when things change, but I think a town of our size, you either grow or you die," she explained.

Razmus expects Corbin to grow over time, especially with the development of the new horseracing facility "Cumberland Run". The city has also put a major focus on tourism efforts.

"It's a small town that is welcoming. It's vibrant. It's growing," said Razmus.

Down the road in London, Kentucky, Wayne Riley, historian, and founder of the Laurel County African American Heritage Center agreed that Corbin has gotten better.

"I think Corbin got a bad rap," said Riley.

As one of the few Black people left in his town, Riley says over time the population in the Appalachia area, in general, has been shrinking. He believes one-factor keeping people away are old stories that lost their merit being passed down generations, affirming fear. Another reason he also believes is the lack of jobs.

In his center, he collects the history of African Americans who were there and hopes that one day they'll return. Riley keeps copious records and takes extra care in a keepsake.

"I think in time it will change and maybe we- hopefully see that change in more African American people in Corbin and in London," said Riley.

Although the Sunup Initiative hasn't had any events so far this year, Garrison says members are still working in the background. The group holds monthly zoom meetings.

"We're still planting seeds we're still watering them, but when the time comes for harvest or celebration or grieving, we're gonna be there to help do that," said Garrison.