A new African-American history book by a College of Southern Maryland (CSM) professor will be released by the University of Illinois Press this spring. “Black Huntington: An Appalachian Story” is the first book by CSM Professor of History Dr. Cicero Fain III. In the book, Fain tells the story of the African-American experience in the West Virginia city of Huntington from the post-Civil War era through the early part of the 20th Century.
Huntington is particularly interesting, Fain said, because it is located on the Ohio River at the point where West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky meet — just over the line from a slave state and just far enough away from communities that were far more restrictive to their African-American residents.
“It gave them a unique circumstance,” Fain said of the Huntington residents. “And black people in Huntington used the autonomy they had to move forward.”
Fain described that growth as “emblematic” of the American story. “You start with nothing, and then you build,” he explained.
On a more personal note, Fain already knew quite a bit about Huntington because he was the third generation of his family to live and work there.
“I remember sitting on the front porch and hearing people talking about Huntington,” Fain said recently from his office at CSM. “It laid a seed of latent interest. It gave me an appreciation of the contribution of African-Americans to that community.”
He followed up on that interest in graduate school where he began pulling together additional information as he worked on his master’s and then his doctorate degree from The Ohio State University, making Huntington’s African-American history the focus of both.
During his close to eight years of research and writing about the city, Fain culled stories and information from personal interviews, court and church documents, school yearbooks, newspaper archives, personal diaries and family histories that related to the city. His book uses that research to tell the story of how Huntington’s booming economy and relatively tolerant racial climate attracted African-Americans from across Appalachia and the South. “Black Huntington: An Appalachian Story” describes how their relative prosperity gave these migrants political clout and allowed them to confront institutionalized and industrial racism on the one hand and the white embrace of Jim Crow on the other.
“I think it’s a story worthy of being told,” Fain said.
As Fain was writing his book and conducting research, he said he was struck by two things. The first was the “serendipity” of that research, how the connections between people and events were found in even unexpected places — how often he’d meet someone at a social function who just happened to have key information that related to his research. The second was “the richness of the stories,” he said, describing the compelling memories people shared with him over the years. Fain’s research was timely in that it captured those critical first-person accounts while they were still available.
“I couldn’t do it now,” Fain said of his book’s first-account stories. “People have passed on.”
Early reviews of the book praise Fain’s contribution to regional African-American history.
“Fain’s account of this group of blacks’ migration and their efforts to build community and combat the ravages of racism and Jim Crowism is exceptional and matchless,” said Dr. William H. Turner, a pioneer in the study of the important role of African-Americans in Appalachia who, among other positions, worked as a research associate to “Roots” author Alex Haley.
“This book not only broadens our understanding of the process of modernization in Appalachia by bringing black Appalachians onto the historical stage, it also casts light on the experience of development in Appalachia’s urban places and demonstrates how an essentially rural people shaped their own meaningful communities in a new environment of both opportunity and repression,” said Ronald D. Eller, author of “Uneven Ground: Appalachia since 1945,” in his review of Fain’s book.
Fain has been on the faculty at CSM since 2011. Previous to that position, he worked as a visiting assistant professor at Niagara University in Niagara, New York; assistant professor at Ohio University, Southern Campus, Ironton, Ohio, and assistant professor at Marshall University in Huntington, where he was the recipient of the Carter G. Woodson Fellowship.
Fain just completed a semester-long sabbatical, which allowed him to research Charles Ringo, a Buffalo Soldier with a larger-than-life story who had a passing connection to Huntington. Fain plans to tell Ringo’s story in his next book.
To learn more about Fain’s book, “Black Huntington: An Appalachian Story,” visit www.press.uillinois.edu/books/catalog/89rgn5gn9780252042591.html.