Pennington Gap native, Ron Carson, attended the one room Lee County Colored Elementary School from 1958 until local schools integrated in 1965. His great-great-grandmother, Rachel Scott, a large landowner and popular barber who “amassed a small fortune,” funded the school’s construction in 1939 “so that black children would have some type of a decent roof over their head for an education.” Ron’s mother was among the first group of approximately 40 students.
In 1965 the building became part of the Lee County School System and over the years was used as a kindergarten, Head Start, and as a school for students with special needs. The building finally closed in 1986. “The Lord works in mysterious ways,” says Ron, because that same year, he and his wife Jill moved back to Pennington Gap from Boston.
When they learned the school was to be razed, they immediately petitioned the Board of Supervisors to allow them to purchase the building. They gained the support of the nearest local NAACP chapter in Bristol, Virginia, and from the Highland Education Research Center in New Market, Tennessee – the same organization that trained prominent civil rights leaders such as Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. After winning the fight to save the school building, the couple opened the Appalachian African-American Cultural Center. Virginia Organizing, one of Virginia’s leading statewide, grassroots community organizing groups, was founded in the Center.
Living in the mountainous, Virginia coal fields has been an incredible cultural change, says Jill, a New Englander. When they returned to Pennington Gap, there were about 70 African Americans living in the county of nearly 24,000, she recalls. “For most people, Virginia ends in maybe Bristol, or Roanoke.” Lee County is the farthest southwest county of Virginia – or “extreme Southwest Virginia,” says Ron. It’s directly south of Detroit. Eight other state capitals are closer than Richmond.
“It’s beautiful country,” says Jill. She’s also seen poverty like she’s never seen before, she adds. “There are a lot of challenges here, but there are a lot of really good and interesting things here. The history is very rich and very deep, and that’s one of the things that drives what we do.”