This Labor Day weekend, people with strong ties to a small Kentucky town will gather in a far-off city to celebrate their connection to a place and a culture. The annual reunion of the Eastern Kentucky Social Club continues a 44-year-old tradition.
This weekend, two residents of the small town of Lynch, Kentucky, will travel to the other side of the country to help celebrate connections back home.
The Eastern Kentucky Social Club holds its annual reunion on Labor Day weekend. This year, the event is in Burbank, California, 2,300 miles from Lynch, where the headquarters of the club is housed in the town’s former black high school.
But covering a lot of miles is nothing new for members of the club. In fact, that’s the whole point of the group, which formed in Cleveland around 1970 as a reunion of people who had moved away from Lynch.
For nearly 45 years, the Eastern Kentucky Social Club has provided a connection among Lynch residents and thousands of African Americans from Eastern Kentucky who have migrated to other places. The story of the social club is a prominent thread in the history and fabric of Lynch.
Lynch was established in 1917 in Harlan County by U.S. Coal and Coke Company, which built schools, churches, hospitals and houses. At its peak in Lynch, U.S. Coal and Coke employed 4,000 people and owned 1,000 structures housing people of 38 ethnic backgrounds. By 1945, Lynch and the nearby coal town of Benham had a combined population of nearly 10,000 people, according to the 2004 book African American Miners and Migrants: The Eastern Kentucky Social Club by Thomas E. Wagner and Phillip J. Obermiller.
Today, Lynch has about 750 people and is still one of the most racially and ethnically diverse communities in eastern Kentucky. The town is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and many of Lynch’s original structures remain.
After mining’s peak in the 1940s, people began to leave Lynch to find work in cities to the north: Indianapolis, Detroit, Cleveland. But for many, Lynch would always be home.
In 1969, two men were having a drink in a Cleveland bar and started talking about pulling together a reunion of people they grew up with in Lynch. In 1970, the first reunion was held in Cleveland.
Over the decades, thousands of African Americans with ties to Lynch have been involved with the Eastern Kentucky Social Club. Now the club has about a dozen chapters all over the country, from California to Milwaukee to Dayton. It recently reinstated the Texas chapter and gained a new one in St. Louis. Members include people who grew up in Lynch and the next generation who have never lived here.
A document called “The Most Noteworthy Characteristics of the Eastern Kentucky Social Club Cleveland Chapter” states that the central objective of the EKSC has been to “stay together.”
Sitting in club headquarters at the old high school in Lynch, with banners of EKSC’s chapters and hundreds of reunion pictures on the walls, Rutland Melton and Bennie Massey talk about the social club.
In addition to serving as the physical headquarters for the club, the Lynch chapter caters local events, opens its doors for reunions and meetings, and hosts the Lynch homecoming on Memorial Day weekend.
“That’s what I think really kept the chapter together, us working together as a community and staying in touch with each other,” Massey said.
And once a year, members travel to the annual EKSC reunion, which has been held each Labor Day weekend since 1970. Both Melton and Massey plan to attend this weekend’s event in Burbank.
The reunion is held in a different city each year and usually includes a gospel fest and a lot of reminiscing. “Really, it’s just getting together to talk about old times,” Melton says.
“You had a lot of people who had to leave here to get jobs, but every year we come together and we get to see each other,” says Massey, who joined the club in 1972. “That’s what I like about it. Still get to see some of the older people who used to live here and the young people coming on.”
Melton, who joined the club in 1978, points to a picture from 1984. “See that picture back there on the wall? That was in Connecticut. That was over 3,000 people.”
Reunions today don’t draw quite as many, but Melton and Massey expect 300 to 400 people for the Burbank reunion and more for next year’s reunion in Indianapolis.
Massey and Melton are active in the Greater Mount Sinai Baptist Church, the Mount Sinai Spirituals gospel group and social club. They are also members of the grassroots social justice organization Kentuckians For the Commonwealth. The social club collaborated with KFTC last year to host the Appalachia’s Bright Future conference in Harlan County. The weekend-long conference brought together 200 people to begin developing a shared vision for a new post-coal economy in Appalachia.
Melton’s and Massey’s ancestors came to Lynch from Alabama and Mississippi, where a man named Limestone recruited black families to work in the coal mines. Both were born in Lynch, raised their families here, and both worked in the mines.
They have stayed in their hometown and worked to keep it viable. Massey says he feels “blessed to be here,” and both men mention people they grew up with who would like to come back to Lynch if they could.
“When they come home, they just feel like they’re at home,” Massey says. “They feel good. They walk the streets. Everybody has a good time.”
Massey was recently named an Appalachian Hero by the Appalachian Community Fund for his work to protect his community from the impacts of surface mining.
Melton and Massey understand that building a bright future in Lynch will take work and time. They want to renovate the spacious old high school and open the upstairs rooms for community use. “It is a landmark here,” says Massey. “We’re trying to get people to invest in it so we can keep it.”
They’d like to see many of the old houses renovated so retirees can return to Lynch or people visiting for reunions can have a place to stay. They think the pure waters of nearby Looney Creek could supply a water bottling plant. And, most of all, they want young people to stay and keep their town and the social club alive.
Dr. Frank Callaway of Houston is a member of the Eastern Kentucky Social Club. He and some other eastern Kentucky natives in the Houston area formed a chapter there and hosted the Labor Day reunion in 1988. He was born in nearby Benham and recently went back home for his 50th high school reunion.
Callaway compares the importance of the annual reunion to that of a family reunion – multiplied. “You get to see people that when you were little bitty – you get to see them once again. And our legacy, our heritage, our history, as it was in Africa, is orally passed down and we get to know what happened.”
Like Melton and Massey, Callaway speaks of the importance of the next generation. Most of the founders of the social club have passed on. “And so it’s been passed down generation to generation, and now a new generation is taking it on.”
Callaway, whose family had 15 children, left Benham at age 17 to attend Kentucky State University, joined the Air Force and eventually went on to earn a doctorate. Like many who grew up in Benham and Lynch, his home community is still dear to him, even though he has not lived here in decades. “The house that I was born in is still standing.”
But Callaway worries that mining in the area will compromise the community’s water supply and its future. “Years from now this won’t be here.”
But if Melton, Massey and the Lynch chapter of the Eastern Kentucky Social Club have anything to say, young people will stay around because they have good jobs and opportunities for their families. And retired people will come back to Lynch because it’s a good place to live.
“Whatever we can do to keep the heritage here, that’s what we’re trying to do,” Massey says.
Amy Hogg is a program associate of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.