February 13th, 2008 by The Lexington Herald-Leader

LYNCH -- You feel an apology coming on even before you get there. It's about the name. About the fact that this is a story about a historic black community in Kentucky and that this distasteful word -- "lynch" -- is going to be uttered with some kind of deep civic pride.

But it is. Because nobody here apologizes about the truth about this Eastern Kentucky town. They shouldn't have to. It was built by U.S. Steel in 1917 and it was taken apart by U.S. Steel in 1962 and, in between, black men from other parts of the South proved that they were good enough to go into the ground and yank out coal as deftly as any white man. And that they could work cheek to jowl with white men in necessary commerce, they could live with them as neighbors and the world would not end.

Which makes the proximity of Kingdom Come State Park just five miles to the north and east mighty ironic, but still.

It was a social experiment without all the fuss that comes from social experiments. U.S. Steel dictated everything. You lived where they said, used company scrip to buy the food in their stores, and if they wanted to name a town after a Mr. Thomas Lynch, a recently deceased president of U.S. Coal and Coke, they had every right.

Bennie Massey, the unofficial greeter to all wayward visitors to Lynch, explains all this and says he doesn't mind the name. He was born here, raised here, his daddy worked coal here, he himself worked coal for 38 years here, was on the safety committee for 28, is the president of the all-black Eastern Kentucky Social Club here and is on the city council here, and a deacon at Greater Mount Sinai Church here and sings in a gospel quartet here. So if it doesn't bother him, it shouldn't bother you.

It was, after all, refuge, honest work and worth to black families in the early part of the 20th century who were plucked -- by U.S. Steel, International Harvester and a guy named Limehouse -- out of the poorest reaches of the South and transported to the relative safety of this hidden pocket of seemingly equality. (Which is not to say that black miners were always treated the same; they often got shorted on load weights and given some of the worst, most treacherous jobs until the union helped, but not always, with that.)

And yet here, in this hidden pocket enveloped by a mountain, families were bound by coal and America needed coal. Together the former sharecropper and the immigrant white man worked three continuous operating shifts to help win the Great War by shipping out 1,243,000 tons of coal in the first good year of production.

And because the coal did not play out, neither did the town.

The coal camp of Lynch now is a long avenue of buildings banked in a wide hollow and onto which all the main businesses -- the 120-room hotel, the bathhouses, the depot, the stores, the schools and the churches -- are still situated. Most of the brick edifices are empty, but still show the raw beauty of the sharpened tools of the Italian stonecutters who came to build them.

But not everything is set in stone. What was one time the largest coal tipple on the planet does not command a second look.

What is left in Lynch is a monument to the area's black coal miners, the promise that fruitful Portal 31 will again be open for public viewing in April. A the word on that street is that the Harlan seam may have another 50 years of coal in it though, that's not going to mean new jobs in Lynch.

Massey unlocks the door of the Eastern Kentucky Social Club, a place that has, since 1970, hosted dances and barbecues and holds most of Lynch's black community's memories on its poorly lit walls.

He points to the aged photographs and tells the story of the school here. You did notice the "Lynch Colored High School" chiseled into the building's exterior? He laughs that some folks wanted that covered over or removed.

"Why do that?" he asks. "It's a mark. It's history. We've come too far to be like that now."

Dispersed far and wide

So there on the walls -- of the only building in Kentucky with the words "Colored" still intact, says Massey -- are all the teachers, principals, cheerleaders and graduates of the school, going back a ways. There are Inez Snowden and Dip Baskin, 1943 homecoming royalty from the Lynch Colored High School. There are two claims to fame, two bona fide Harlem Globetrotters from Lynch, autographing best wishes to all back home. There are the 1968 Bulldogs and No. 62, a young Bennie Massey who made All-State tackle that year.

But the legacy of black coal miners fills the hall as well. There's pictures from the early days and much pride that, as the notation says, from 1956 to 1957, 6,292,712 tons of coal left the Lynch depot for points beyond.

And behind the bar are colorful banners from the 37 chapters of the Eastern Kentucky Social Club that reach from New York to Long Beach, from Atlanta to Detroit, a conglomeration of clubs of people who used to be from or were tied to this town and left -- but only because the work was better elsewhere.

It was not because of race trouble, says Massey, who says that even in 1963 when school integration went forth in Lynch, "we did fine."

It was still a place where if a house burned, everyone rallied.

There was that one time that the Ku Klux Klan threatened a march, but when the appointed day arrived no one showed for the rally. That might have had to do with the power of U.S. Steel or with the fact that the town was built along a single main thoroughfare down which any parade of hooded Klan would have marched. It was also the lowest point of town so that every house was built upon an incline that rose up on either side of the surrounding hills.

"Ninety percent of us had guns," says Massey, "and we could have just laid on the roofs of our houses and" -- well, the Klan would have been fish in a barrel.

For that and a lot of other reasons, he says, this was a town was always a place where a black family could raise children and be safe.

Annual reunions

People still hunger for that kind of thing. Shoot, they still hunger for Lynch. Every Memorial Day, as many old-timers as can make it meet in Lynch to "basically to keep up with each other," says Massey. On Labor Day, the 37 far-flung chapters of the EKSC gather in some more sparkly locale -- such as Las Vegas -- to basically do the same thing. Thousands are expected this year in Detroit.

Bennie Massey turns to lock the back door of the Eastern Kentucky Social Club. He looks out at the low-hanging sky that touches the mountain that rises up around him and this town. It is called Black Mountain, though don't make too much of that, either.

The sun has come out and the mountain has taken on dizzying light.

"It looks," says Massey by way of understatement and benediction, "like the Lord just paints."

Amy Wilson can be reached at (859) 231-3305.

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