Appalachian Hillsides as Black Ecologies: Housing, Memory, and The Sanctified Hill Disaster of 1972Roundup
tags: racism, housing, geography, ecology, Appalachia
Jillean McCommons is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of Kentucky. Her research explores the history of Black Power in Appalachia through the history of the Black Appalachian Commission. She will join the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia as a predoctoral fellow from 2020-2022.
“‘What is that immediate need of your people?’ There can only be one answer. We WANT HOMES! PERMANENT HOMES!” 1
– Mattye Guy Knight
On Wednesday, December 14, 1972, one hundred and fifty people were ordered to evacuate their homes on Sanctified Hill in Cumberland, Kentucky. Four days prior, the topsoil beneath their homes began to slide downhill. As the soil moved, so did their homes. Walls buckled, foundations cracked, and widening fissures in the earth caused chimneys to implode. Newspapers reported two weeks of heavy rains as the cause of the slide, and by Friday, city officials estimated the slide was “continuing to move at that rate of about a foot a day.” 2 The city and state declared Sanctified Hill a disaster area. While some residents were able to return to their homes, the homes of seventeen families were declared permanently uninhabitable. As the slide destroyed their homes, the response by federal officials threatened to dismantle their status as homeowners. Instead of providing federal disaster relief directly to disaster victims, local and federal agencies attempted to use the opening of the disaster to turn Black people who had previously owned their homes into permanent renters.
The community on Sanctified Hill was predominantly Black, low income, retired, and elderly, yet most of the families owned their homes. Neither the city or state immediately offered disaster relief in the form of payment for their lost property, and due to the city’s earlier refusals to install basic city services on the hill, including fire hydrants and sewers, Sanctified Hill residents had been refused housing insurance. Governor Wendell Ford petitioned the federal government to declare a national disaster in an attempt to secure federal funds, declaring that the state had done all it could, but the Office of Emergency Preparedness (OEP) determined that the disaster did “not appear to be of such severity and magnitude to warrant a major disaster declaration.”3 It seemed that the disaster victims would receive no relief.
Sanctified Hill residents called the Black Appalachian Commission (BAC) for help. The BAC was a Black-led grassroots organization created to address the specific needs of Black people in Appalachia. Active from 1969 to 1975, the organization worked to develop a regional Black consciousness and solidarity across thirteen states. Developed during the aftermath of Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, part of its strategy was to push federal agencies to distribute anti-poverty funds directly to Black communities who were some of the poorest in the region, a fact the BAC argued was obscured by the federal focus on Appalachia as a white region. The BAC did not just ask for a portion of federal funds to combat poverty. They sought the power for Black communities to decide how those funds would be used. The case of Sanctified Hill was an example of what happened when federal agencies did not put funds under Black community control. Soon after the slide began, the United States Office of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), and the Harlan County Community Action Agency made an arrangement with a local white contractor of an unfinished housing project. When the OEO granted $10,000 to go towards community relief, the money went to the Community Action Agency to cover rent in the housing project without input from the community.
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