By Jennifer T. Allen
“The Harlan Renaissance: Stories of Black Life in Appalachian Coal Towns” by UK alumnus William H. Turner has been nominated for the Book of the Year Award by the Museum of African American History in Cambridge, Mass. The Museum of African American History (MAAH) Stone Book Award is an annual prize that encourages scholarship and writing within the field of African American history and culture.
“Pulitzer Prize winner Alex Haley (Roots) used to say, ‘If you ever see a little frog up on a 6-foot fence, somebody picked it up and put it there.’ Dr. Larry Tarpey (economist), Dr. John B. Stephenson and Dr. Doris Y. Wilkinson (sociologists) were my teachers at UK between 1966-1968. Each affirmed for me what they called ‘the unique -- but universal -- experience of Blacks in Appalachia,’” Turner said. “I came to UK as a junior from the Southeast Community College in Cumberland, Kentucky; then a UK junior college, where I had been mentored by Lee Pennington, the 1984 Kentucky Poet Laureate who urged me to write, following an invaluable education at the Lynch Public Colored School. I was affiliated with the UK Appalachian Center from its inception (1979) and I thank all of the UK teachers, administrators, researchers and writers for their encouragement and peership. I hope some will say about my book: ‘Bill's done good by his people in the Harlan Renaissance.’”
“The Harlan Renaissance” is an intimate remembrance of kinship and community in Eastern Kentucky’s coal towns. Turner reconstructs Black life in the company towns in and around Harlan County during coal’s final postwar boom years, which built toward an enduring bust as the children of Black miners, like the author, left the region in search of better opportunities.
Turner was born in Lynch, Kentucky, in Harlan County. He received a bachelor’s degree in sociology from UK and a doctorate in sociology from the University of Notre Dame. He also attended the Foreign Affairs Scholars Program at Howard University and did postdoctoral work at the University of Pennsylvania and Duke University. He also served as the vice president of multicultural affairs at UK. The Appalachian Studies Association honored him for a lifetime of service to the region, and he was inducted into the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame in 2007. In 2020, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of North Carolina Asheville. In 2021, he was inducted into the UK College of Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame.
Turner has spent most of his career studying and working to help marginalized communities create opportunities in the world without abandoning their cultural ties. He has produced groundbreaking research on African American communities in Appalachia. He has also studied economic systems and social structures in the urban South and burgeoning Latino communities in the Southwest. He co-edited the textbook “Blacks in Appalachia” and thematic essays on Black Appalachians in the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture and the Encyclopedia of Appalachia.