Home Historical art Climate change has just erased the past in Kentucky. Where will it be next?

Climate change has just erased the past in Kentucky. Where will it be next?


Tina A. Irvine is a 2022 ACLS Fellow and Visiting Scholar at the Center for Research on Race and Ethnicity in Society at Indiana University.

Hindman Settlement School Grounds and Troublesome Creek, Knott County, KY, ca. 1950

In the early morning hours of Thursday, July 28, rising floodwaters from Troublesome Creek in Knott County, Kentucky breached Hindman Settlement School records. Within fifteen minutes, the small room – which housed handmade dulcimers, century-old journals, letters to the school’s early workers and hundreds of photographs, account books, family Bibles and rare logs, including other historical artifacts – was filled with muddy water and mud. Hindman’s staff did their best to stop the flooding, but it was an impossible task. What happened to an employee’s wife, who fell and broke her leg as she tried to escape rising waters, is testament to that, as is the horrific news of a family who lost her four young children in the flood.

As a historian who has spent weeks in these archives – an essential source of information for my forthcoming book – I know better than anyone what was damaged in that flood. I could tell you about the few newspapers I found that helped me piece together a narrative that challenges stereotypes about the region as illiterate and ignorant. I could tell you about the diaries of Northeastern college girls who came to Appalachia at the turn of the century to work at the Hindman Colony School, founded in 1902. (Some of them let their experience change them – change their preconceived ideas about the people they worked with – and some not.) I could tell you about hundreds of photographs: of people, railroad trestles, coal dumpsters, and treeless landscapes at cause of overexploitation; photographs of hundreds gathered by a stream for a christening, or gathered on a mountaintop for the funeral of a little baby.

I could go on and on. Any historian or archivist knows what a treasure these little pieces of the past are. And I want to think that people who aren’t trained that way do it too. But we must realize that irreplaceable pieces of history have been lost forever. Volunteers moved as quickly as they could in the aftermath of the flood to salvage what they could, but even though they manage to salvage some of the materials that were sent last night to the Appalachian Archives of the ‘Eastern Tennessee State University for cleanup and preservation, there are hundreds more pieces of the past that have been lost forever. We have to stop saying “we could lose the story” and admit that we have already lost it.

We will continue to lose important chunks of the past if we don’t take climate change seriously. While it’s undeniable that more preventative work could have been done to protect the Hindman Archives from flooding, it’s also true that places like Knott County are increasingly exposed to climate emergencies due to warming temperatures. Climate change is making flooding worse, and a disproportionate share of that flooding is expected to affect Appalachia. Located in one of the poorest regions of the country, institutions like Hindman simply do not have the financial resources to protect their equipment against these kinds of natural disasters. Even better-known regional arts and cultural hubs, like Appalshop in Whitesburg, Kentucky, cannot escape this reality. They too were affected by the rapidly rising waters and suffered substantial losses to their collections of over 20,000 items. Many of them were decades-old sound and film recordings, including records filed by Harlan County’s Pine Mountain Settlement School for safekeeping.

External assistance to flood victims was prompt. The region desperately needs it; As Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) explained, it will take years for small towns like Hindman and Whitesburg to rebuild. This process will be an uphill battle to say the least, especially for families who lost everything – loved ones, cars, homes, savings, belongings – in the flood.

But we all lost something in that deluge, and we would do well to remember it. It’s easy to overlook climate change when it’s happening in someone else’s county. It is relatively easy to send money or cleaning supplies to ease their pain. And it is impossible to recover the pieces of the past washed away in these waters. These pieces of history belong to all of us and tell us a story of America’s history at large. Appalachian history is American history, even though contemporary perceptions often cloud our interpretation and lead us to regionalized and racialized assessments of “us” and “them.”

So what do we do now? Beyond the obvious and frustrating oft-repeated exhortations to call lawmakers, I’d like to see people who are invested in preserving the past pour their money into digitization efforts in these small places. Every historian can tell you that some of their most exciting and rare finds come from remote or unlikely places – from untreated collections, from shoeboxes in an attic, or from a folder in the basement of a courthouse. As climate change and extreme weather conditions continue to affect us, we will continue to see these types of records disappear forever.

We cannot afford this loss, which will disproportionately affect the historical record of the poor and people of color. Historical analysis has traditionally overlooked these groups, especially when these categories overlap. Climate change related disasters like this will only further erase the narratives and histories that these people have left behind. So it’s not too dramatic to say that inaction on climate change is erasing our collective past and erasing the histories of marginalized peoples with particular vigour. Black Appalachian scholars and activists, like Emily Hudson, who runs the Southeastern Kentucky African American Museum and Cultural Center in Hazard, Ky., and Dr. Enkeshi El-Amin and Angela Dennis, who host the podcast ” Black in Appalachia,” are doing what they can bring visibility to African Americans in Appalachia. But they need funds and resources to continue this work, just like Hindman and Appalshop. It is time we did something about this funding, because it is almost too late.

Editor’s Note: The Hindman Settlement School has a fundraising page for donations specifically to support the restoration and protection of its archives. It also raises funds to meet the dire need for food, shelter and sanitation for people displaced by flooding in eastern Kentucky.