Meet The Teen Leading This Kentucky Town’s Discussion Of Racism In Appalachia Tuesday, Jun 23 2020 

The courtroom was silent as 19-year-old Dayjha Hogg approached the lectern at a Letcher County fiscal court meeting, stared down a panel of county magistrates, and spoke. 

“I know COVID’s going around right now, so just imagine, there’s no COVID, normal society, and imagine you walk around and it’s like you have the plague.”

Hogg is biracial, and her entire county leadership is White. The Berea College student gripped the lectern to steady herself, and continued. 

People look at you and it’s almost as if, if they stare too long, if they breathe the same air, they’re scared that they’re going to catch the plague. That is just a small, small glimpse of what it was like growing up here in eastern Kentucky as a minority.”

Conversations about police brutality and racial equity are happening across the nation, and rural communities are no exception. 

In Letcher County and Whitesburg, its county seat, a racial reckoning is unfolding that is at once peculiar to this rural Appalachian community and inextricably tied to the one unfolding across the nation. 

This reckoning came after a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in Whitesburg. 

Hogg helped organize the protest, and she had been a little afraid not many people would show up. But roughly 200 people attended in a town of just 1,800 —  in a county where 80% of the vote went to Donald Trump in 2016. Democratic State Representative and U.S. Senate candidate Charles Booker visited from Louisville to speak at the Friday evening event. 

“It was amazing before and afterwards,” Hogg recalled. “We were like, ‘Oh my gosh, we pulled it off, we really did it!” 

But the following Sunday, the county’s highest elected official, Judge-Executive Terry Adams, posted on his personal Facebook page denouncing the local event and the national Black Lives Matter protests. 

“This is a strange new world we live in today!!!” the executive wrote. “You have a small group of far leftists who want to stir the pot on racism that rarely exists anymore but in their minds. Then you have the majority of the people that have common sense that get pushed into a corner on these nonsense issues.” 

“I believe the ones that are always pulling out the race card are the racists,” he said, comparing those who wanted to remove Confederate statues to Hitler. 

Dozens of people commented on the Facebook post, defending Black lives, defending Confederate statues, debating whether looting was justified. 

When Hogg saw the post, her heart sank. She wasn’t surprised, she said — she had lived with racism all her life. But this time, something was different: Her White friends, even White people she barely knew, stood with her.

At the regularly scheduled fiscal court meeting the next day, about 20 Letcher Countians filed into the bare and echoey courtroom. For a local governmental body that primarily concerned itself with paving roads and repairing water lines, it was an unprecedented crowd, and it touched Hogg that they had shown up in her defense. 

The soft-spoken judge-executive looked uncomfortable as he brought the meeting to order. 

“I suppose you all are here because of the Facebook post I posted,” Adams said. “I’m sorry if anything I said offended you. I’m just one man.” 

And he ceded the floor. 

“This is my hometown, so all my life I’ve always empathized with everyone around me,” Hogg said. “I’ve always understood, they’re just uneducated, this is how they were raised, this is how they grew up. But today I have these people here supporting me and wanting me to speak up. And for years, me and my family, and so many people in the Black community, have had to hear these derogatory terms and take them, and accept them, and lay down with them, and day by day it belittles you until you feel less than anyone in your community.” 

Hogg shared the daily discrimination she faced in school, saying that her mother always tried to speak to the principal about it, but Hogg wouldn’t let her. Hogg knew that if she was seen protesting the abuse she faced, she would be accused of playing the race card to get special treatment. She said whenever the cafeteria had watermelon, she never took a slice, because it wasn’t worth the taunts she would receive. 

“If I have to rip open a scab, dig into an old wound because my friends are here to support me and that’s what it takes to prove that there is racism in Letcher County, then that’s what I’m willing to do.”

Sydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

Letcher County Judge-Executive Terry Adams faced criticism after a Facebook post that was critical of Black Lives Matter protests.

Letcher County is 98% White, according to the 2018 American Census Survey, but art and media about Appalachia too often erases the experiences and contributions of Black Appalachians and Appalachians of color. It’s too easy, Hogg said, for racism and discrimination to be swept under the rug. 

Tanya Turner, a local White resident and a co-host of the popular Trillbilly Workers Party podcast, also spoke, asking the court to remedy the damage caused by Adams’ post. 

“I think since words have been used by people on this court to divide people, I hope that there are some real solid actions taken by this court to change that narrative,” Turner said. “This court could release a statement of solidarity in support of Black lives. That is the minimum that we could do.”

The court has not yet released such a statement. 

Small-Town Policing 

Turner also raised concerns about the police presence, a touchy topic in the small community. 

“This is a town with six police officers, yet there were probably 20 police officers downtown Friday night [at the protest,]” Turner told Adams and the other magistrates. “Now, I don’t know why that was, or what the expectation was, but that did not make people feel safe.” 

While protestors in many cities, including Kentucky’s largest city of Louisville, have been met with tear gas and rubber bullets, the Whitesburg protest was held with the blessing of local police chief Tyrone Fields, who is biracial.

Still, heads turned when Turner finished speaking and Fields stood up from a bench in the back of the courtroom. “May I follow up, please?” he asked the judge-executive. 

Whitesburg had four police officers, actually, he corrected Turner, and he had called in help from other local forces to make sure all the streets to downtown were blocked off after other peaceful protests in Kentucky and around the country faced aggression from right-wing counter protesters. 

But Fields also wanted to take a stand. 

“It’s safe to say that George Floyd was ⁠—  and I’ll say this as the chief of police ⁠— it’s safe to say that he was murdered. We do know that. They might as well have hung him from a tree. Any police officer that thinks he was not murdered should immediately turn their badge in.” 

Adams Responds

Following nearly two hours of comments from the community, attendees reiterated their demands for a statement in support of Black lives and for members of the court to denounce the words of their superior. One by one, each magistrate said he or she disagreed with what Judge-Executive Adams had written. 

Adams finally responded with “I’m sorry if I offended you.” 

One woman, who had been silent for the duration of the meeting, interrupted. “I’m sorry, I just have to. You’re saying you’re sorry if you offended anyone, but are you sorry for what you actually said?”

Adams repeated the same statement, so I pushed him on it in his office a few days later, on Juneteenth. 

He chose his words carefully. 

“I’ve got a son that’s got Down Syndrome,” he explained. “And after I get to thinking about that, people say things that sometimes bother me because of him. And I could see the same thing in racism now.” 

He became emotional, swallowing back tears. 

“If I’ve hurt people’s feelings, I’m sorry. I should not have brought what’s national, going on nationally, and combined it with people wanting to speak out locally.” 

Hogg doesn’t think Judge Adams really gets it, but she says the conversation was productive. For now, Hogg says, that feels like justice. 

“This little town is making big moves, just like all these other places,” she said. 

Behind This Story

Sydney Boles produced this story as part of the America Amplified initiative using community engagement to inform and strengthen local, regional and national journalism. America Amplified is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. 

Q: What did the people you talked to say about the experience of being interviewed for public radio?

With the exception of Judge-Executive Adams, who seemed very uncomfortable having me in his office, everyone I spoke to for this story was elated to share their experience confronting racism in their hometown. Dayjha Hogg, the protagonist of this piece, said something that stuck with me: “I never thought my experience was that important or interesting, but now with all these other people listening to me, I guess it must be.” 

Q: What surprised you about this type of community engagement?

It was joyful! The majority of the stories any journalist writes are negative— which makes sense. It’s our job to make sure people know what’s going on in their communities, whether it’s political corruption, environmental harms, or any number of things. But when the status quo is the silent tolerance of injustice, joy becomes newsworthy.

Q: What lessons do you have for others who want to do the same?

Local governance meetings remain a timeless method of taking the pulse of your community.

Small Towns Host Black Lives Matter Marches As Movement Spreads Beyond Cities Tuesday, Jun 9 2020 

IMG_0921 2By now it’s become a familiar scene: Marchers fill the streets with placards proclaiming “Black Lives Matter,” and chants fill the air as the demonstrators recite the names of those lost. 

But there’s something different about some of these protests around the Ohio Valley in the past week. They’re not just happening in the larger cities such as Louisville, Lexington, Columbus and Cincinnati. Smaller college towns such as Athens, Ohio, and Morgantown, West Virginia, have seen marches. Communities in Kentucky farmland and the heart of Appalachian coal country, such as Hazard and Harlan, Kentucky, have seen people protesting against racial injustice and police violence. 

“Because prejudice here is as old as our dialect here for some people, and it’s inherited,” Bree Carr said. The 18-year-old from Harlan, Kentucky, said she protested to be an ally for people of color so they will know they have support. “There are so many other people behind them that support you, and hear you, and want to see you.” 

Sydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

A Black Lives Matter demonstration in Harlan, in eastern Kentucky’s coal country.

Bowling Green, Kentucky, has seen consecutive days of protest, drawing up to a thousand people at one event. Civil Rights activist Charles Neblett sang with the Freedom Singers in the 1960s to fight segregation. Neblett said he was thirteen when Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi. He told protesters at the Warren County Justice Center that prejudice and injustice have persisted for too long.

“When is it gonna stop? I’m tired. And more people got to step up and do this thing,” he said. 

The protests in smaller cities and towns have been overwhelmingly peaceful. But they have not been without confrontation. A protest planned for Charleston, West Virginia, was postponed after organizers said they received threats, although a smaller group went ahead with a demonstration. Carr said she received threats over the demonstrations in Harlan, and in western Kentucky marchers have faced assaults.

A video from a march on June 2 in Murray, Kentucky, showed a white motorist using pepper spray on marchers as he drove by. The man, who was from Paducah, Kentucky, was arrested. Another white man was later arrested for pointing a weapon at demonstrators in Murray.

Courtesy Audrey Elizabeth Kellett

A Facebook video shows a man assaulting marchers in Murray, KY, with chemical spray.

The marchers in Murray invoked the names of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, both killed by police. But another issue is animating the protests here as well. Demonstrators are calling for the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee next to the Calloway County courthouse, spurred by an open letter issued by a football coach at the local university.

As in other places, the protests here are reviving older debates about statues and memorials dedicated to the Confederacy. Louisville officials on Monday removed the controversial equestrian statue of John B. Castleman, a Confederate officer, something city leaders had proposed years ago. 

It remains to be seen if the same will happen in small towns like Murray. On Monday, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear called for Murray’s statue to come down after being asked a question about it during a press conference.

The calls to remove Confederate memorials in rural communities are also part of a larger theme of confronting a history and stigma of racism in some smaller towns.

In Marshall County, Kentucky, where the population is nearly 98 percent white, more than a hundred people marched on Friday around the courthouse square. Only a few months earlier the county’s judge-executive had allowed a confederate battle flag to fly at the courthouse before a backlash forced its removal.

Liam Niemeyer | Ohio Valley ReSource

A protest in Marshall Co., KY, where a confederate flag recently flew over the county courthouse.

Malique Humphries, a 23-year-old black man from neighboring county, says he was afraid to protest in Marshall County after being in other protests because of the county’s perceived racist reputation.

“I have a six-year-old daughter,” he said, “and I felt uncomfortable to come here, you understand that?”

Yet he came anyway to join other Marshall County residents to start a larger conversion about racial injustice, police accountability, and loving one another.

“We should feel comfortable anywhere we want to go, we should be allowed to go anywhere we want to go, it shouldn’t matter if the majority is white or not, we should feel comfortable anywhere on this earth.”

Humphries said he hopes protests like these will start to bring change where it is needed, at the local level.

Claudia Cisneros, WOUB

Demonstrators in Athens, Ohio.

ReSource reporters Sydney Boles, Brittany Patterson, Aaron Payne, and Becca Schimmel contributed material for this story.

Ohio Valley Facing Pandemic With A Health System Hollowed Out By Hospital Closures Thursday, Mar 26 2020 

Clendenin Health Center Triage TentAs new cases of coronavirus mount in the Ohio Valley, health officials are bracing for an onslaught of patients and what could be unprecedented demand for beds, medical staff and specialized equipment.

Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia have disproportionately high rates of people vulnerable to serious illness from COVID-19. But the region’s capacity to treat them has been sharply reduced by the closure of some 21 hospitals over the past 15 years. An analysis by the Ohio Valley ReSource shows some of the communities where hospitals have closed have some of the nation’s poorest health outcomes, making them especially vulnerable.

Still more hospitals in the region are being closed now, even as the pandemic unfolds.

Tiffany Wilburn-Meeks has lived in eastern Kentucky’s Greenup County for most of her 38 years. And the hospital her family has always relied on is only a five-minute drive away.

Courtesy Tiffany Wilburn-Meek

Tiffany Wilburn-Meek and her child Darian.

Our Lady of Bellefonte Hospital is where she would go if she was sick growing up, and it’s where she was considering taking her 23-month-old daughter Darian for speech therapy. It’s also where her mom, Judy, would go if an asthma attack turned for the worst.

“But I think if she’d had to go to King’s Daughters [Hospital], I don’t know that she would have survived the drive because it’s 10 or 15 more minutes down the road.”

But by May, her family won’t be able to rely on Our Lady of Bellefonte anymore. The 220-bed hospital with more than 1,000 employees — started by a congregation of Catholic sisters in 1953 with the blessing of the pope via telegram — will close its doors.

That would leave 35,000 people in Greenup County without a hospital, forcing those who need intensive medical care to drive to King’s Daughters Hospital in Ashland. This comes as many Ohio Valley public health officials are bracing for the coronavirus to reach their communities.

While the number of confirmed cases in her region have not reached levels in larger cities, she knows the number will grow.

“If it does, there’s no way that King’s Daughters is going to be able to handle that,” she said. “It is terrifying, and I’m afraid that people will die as a consequence of the hospital closing.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for King’s Daughters Hospital said they were working daily with Our Lady of Bellefonte to potentially expand the capacity of King’s Daughters if patient needs surge due to coronavirus.

Wikimedia Commons, KCompton

The entrance of Our Lady of Bellefonte Hospital in 2009.

Wilburn-Meek started an online petition to try to call attention to the situation and save the hospital, but she isn’t optimistic she’ll be successful. And more than a dozen communities across the Ohio Valley are facing a similar situation.

Our Lady of Bellefonte will join at least 21 other hospital closures in the Ohio Valley within the past 15 years. The Ohio Valley Resource estimates those 21 closures represented more than 1,000 hospital beds in total.

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

Some shuttered hospital sites are now vacant parking lots. Some have been turned into addiction rehab facilities or urgent care facilities, but those often have limited or no in-patient services.

These closures have left a hollowed out healthcare infrastructure in the Ohio Valley, and leading healthcare professionals worry that the loss of hospital beds, skilled staff and equipment — combined with a population that is especially vulnerable to COVID-19 disease — could hinder how well the region can respond to the coronavirus.

Running Out

For 15 years, Marlene Moore was lead nurse of the intensive care unit at Ohio Valley Medical Center in downtown Wheeling, West Virginia. She would make determinations about who would be admitted and who would be discharged, who would be transferred to other departments and hospitals, and helping younger nurses with questions and assistance.

That time came to an end when the company that owned OVMC and another hospital in nearby Martin’s Ferry, Ohio, announced last year both hospitals would close. Along with Belmont Community Hospital also closing, three hospitals in total last year shuttered in the Wheeling metropolitan area.

East Ohio Regional HospitalGlynis Board | Ohio Valley ReSource

East Ohio Regional Hospital in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio, one of three hospitals that closed in the area last year.

“It was just devastating, because especially at our smaller hospitals, the employees know everybody. I mean, from housekeeping, to dietary to the lab, to all the departments,” Moore said.  “It affected the whole valley.“

Moore started working last month at what is now the only hospital in town, Wheeling Hospital, where a coronavirus patient is currently being treated.

She said because Wheeling Hospital often has many beds filled with patients having other needs, those needing a bed for coronavirus treatment may have to travel a half-hour or more to hospitals in Steubenville, Ohio, Columbus or Pittsburgh.

And it’s the kind of people her hospital tends to serve that has her particularly worried.

“We have such an older population here. And if you get several that come in at the same time with severe respiratory distress, you’re going to run out of ICU beds, you’re going to run out of ventilators, you’re actually going to run out of places to treat these people,” she said.

A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study found West Virginia led the nation in how vulnerable its population is to coronavirus because of old age and preexisting conditions. More than half of all adults in West Virginia and more than 45% of all adults in Kentucky were at high risk of serious illness from coronavirus because of advanced age, pre-existing conditions, or both.

A report from Kaiser Health News also found there are only 325 ICU beds for more than 12,000 people over the age of 60 in Ohio County, where Wheeling is located. People over the age of 60 make up 28% of the county’s population.

According to an Ohio Valley Resource data analysis, 4 of the 18 counties that lost hospitals over the past 15 years also have some of the worst health outcomes in the nation. Those counties have some of the country’s highest rates of chronic respiratory disease deaths, cardiovascular disease deaths and diabetes prevalence.

Amid closures, remaining Ohio Valley hospitals are reinforcing their capacity for beds, equipment and personal protective equipment for worst case scenarios.

A statement from the West Virginia Hospital Association said hospitals are canceling or rescheduling elective surgeries to free up more beds, in compliance with a state emergency order. Hospitals are converting different departments into infectious disease units, and developing “alternative treatment sites.” One hospital in Athens, Ohio, has now set up a triage tent to treat potential patients outside.

Rising Costs

Even if Ohio Valley hospitals are able to accommodate a surge of coronavirus patients, the financial toll it could take could devastate rural healthcare providers.

A report last year from Navigant Consulting showed that 16 rural hospitals in Kentucky —  about a quarter of all rural hospitals in the state — were at high risk of closing due to unstable financial situations. Some of the reasons cited for financial struggles include population loss with fewer people to serve, and more patients insured through Medicare and Medicaid, which often undercompensates hospitals for treatment.

Those ongoing challenges will only be made worse by the pandemic.

“The payment mechanism for treating these patients is not clear at this point. The unusually long length of stay I think is a concern with the very sick of these patients who typically end up, or have ended up, on ventilator care, which is very expensive and resource intensive to deliver,” said Bud Warman, Kentucky Hospital Association Vice President and former CEO of Highlands Regional Medical Center in east Kentucky. “They haven’t always had potentially this much volume of wants to deal with.”

The American Hospital Association is asking for $100 billion from Congress to offset anticipated coronavirus costs, while some rural hospitals struggle to ration protective medical supplies. A bill being considered by the Kentucky Senate would also provide a loan program for struggling rural hospitals.

Warman also said when hospitals have closed in Appalachia, there are often few options remaining for the people the provider served.

“In some cases, they just don’t have adequate transportation to get them that longer distance,” Warman said. “If they’re deciding between food on the table or traveling 50 miles to see a doctor or to seek health care, oftentimes, they make the choice for food on the table. It sounds dire, but the fact is in many parts of our state, many parts of Appalachia, that is the case.”

What’s Left

In central West Virginia, Michael Brumage is leading one of the remaining options for those without easy access to a hospital.

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

As Chief Medical Officer of Cabin Creek Health Systems, he directs several Federally Qualified Health Centers that provide preventative care and substance abuse treatment, often for people who are low-income or uninsured. His experience also extends across multiple organizations: Brumage serves as director of the Preventative Medicine Residency Program in the WVU School of Public Health, was former executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, and former health officer for Kanawha County and Putnam County, West Virginia.

His staff is preparing to treat patients who have respiratory symptoms outside of the centers in order to prevent the spread of the virus inside their buildings, and they’ll also have curbside service for those with respiratory symptoms.

Michael Brumage

A triage tent set outside one of Brumage’s community health centers in Kanawha County, West Virginia.

“Our public health system has been underfunded for many, many years, at the federal, state and local levels,” Brumage said. “So we’re fortunate, I think that there are federally qualified health centers, that there are free and charitable clinics that are able to pick up the slack.”

But even with his centers, there are still intensive, in-patient services that he can’t provide, that a hollowed out healthcare infrastructure has left lacking.

Brumage was born in Fairmont Regional Medical Center in Fairmont, West Virginia. So was his sister. He’s had several relatives who’ve been hospitalized there over the years. The hospital is set to close this week.

“It’s befuddling to me how they can close this hospital during a pandemic, when there are going to be so many more beds that need to be filled. It staggers the imagination,” Brumage said.

While a hospital is being built to replace Fairmont Regional, Brumage is worried that it will be too late  for the demand for hospital beds, ventilators and skilled staff needed to respond to the pandemic.

“There will be many competing economic priorities once this clears to restore the American economy,” Brumage said. “But shame on us if we don’t invest in our public health infrastructure, and if we don’t invest in our overall health infrastructure, and if we don’t look for ways to make health care equitable for all Americans.”