Home » Kentucky » Corbin

James W. Loewen (1942-2021)

We mourn the loss of our friend and colleague and remain committed to the work he began.



Basic Information

Type of Place
Independent City or Town
Metro Area
Politics c. 1860?
Don’t Know
Unions, Organized Labor?
Don’t Know

Sundown Town Status

Confirmed Sundown Town?
Was there an ordinance?
Don't Know
Perhaps, Some Oral Evidence
Year of Greatest Interest
Still Sundown?

Census Information

The available census data from 1860 to the present
Total White Black Asian Native Hispanic Other BHshld
1910 2589 61
1920 3406 2
1930 8036 20
1940 7893 23
1950 7744 8
1960 7119 8
1970 7317 14
1980 8075 3
1990 7419 4
2000 7742 6 14 25
2010 7304 19 23 47

Method of Exclusion

  • Unknown

Main Ethnic Group(s)

  • Unknown

Group(s) Excluded

  • Black


email 1/2008

About 10 African Americans live in Corbin as of 2008, including 1 Katrina refugee. — NPR clip, c. 1/2008.

email 1/2008
I, along w/ a few others, have been trying to organize an event in town but have been unsuccesful so far. The city goverment has shut us down repeatedly. They even went as far as to have a city-wide history series but forbid the professor doing the series to speak about the Race Riot in 1919!

One former resident who ran an international program at Union College in Barbourville claims that many students would arrive through the bus station at Corbin. People “would always warn me not to let them be there after sundown.”

One man remembers playing sports at Corbin in 1969 or 1970, at Danville KY HS. “They would cut the bus tires and the car tires, especially if we were winning.” “They turned the lights out…” [in the stadium]

“The [blacks] have chosen to live in either Barbourville, Williamsburg, or north of Clarenton-Corbin … but their reasons for that decision, I have no knowledge of that.” “I don’t feel there is any more prejudice in Corbin, KY, than you’ll find in any other community in the country.” [That’s part of white rhetoric. He surely knows the attitudes about to be exposed in later footage. But he also knows not to talk about such things with outsiders; it’s not good for Corbin’s image.]
White CSX man: “The railroad is the only reason Corbin is here.” “At the start of the First World War, the railroad began to hire black workers.” Indeed, blacks built the railroad. White historian: blacks constituted a “reserve army of labor.” 200 black men worked for the railroad. And then white men returned from WWI. While blacks were building the “East Yard,” they lived in shacks over by the creek. Two white switchmen lost all their money in a poker game, and they came back to Corbin and said colored folks robbed them. Danville black, Rev. Hill: whites had bass drums, knocked on your door, “marched them to the train … shipped them out.”
A white woman says, four black men were lynched for attacking a white woman. White man says: “I have heard that story a hundred times, since I’ve been in Corbin, and it’s been told to me about a hundred different ways, so I really don’t… I do know one thing for sure: there was a racial incident…”

“Lexington Herald 11/1/1919:
“”Negroes Driven from Corbin by Mob of Whites.””
“”The mob formed last night and searched the city for Negroes. The Negroes who felt the fury of the mob in the greatest degree were a gang of about 200 Negroes working on the Louisville and Nashville grade for ten months at South Corbin, where the railroad company is making big improvements. Crowds went to restaurants and other public places, caught all the Negro employees they could, and drove them singly or in gangs at the point of guns to the depot. Many Negroes were beaten, and 200 were driven out of town.”” They were taken to Knoxville, TN.
“The legacy of all this still lives right on, in the community of Corbin.” %u2014 black woman. Today Corbin has just one black resident.
Sign: “”Corbin leaders stand up against racist label.””
They interview white male youth: “”I don’t” think it would be a good thing for blacks to move into Corbin. Another white male youth: “Black people should not live here. They never have and they shouldn’t.”
White female: calls Corbin “closed-minded.”
Whites cruise cars around and around on the weekend.
White Presbyterian minister: “I would disagree with those who think that Corbin is more racist than other communities… Sometimes I think Corbin would have more the mentality of white suburbia that’s around big cities where there are blacks in the area but they’re really not in your neighborhood.” [Important point!]
Kids graduate HS, attend Eastern KY University or the University of KY.
Black woman: Corbin is a window through which we can understand racism.
Black male, former football player in nearby town: “We went in there to play; we were scared to death.” “When we’d come out we’d get rocked %u2014 they’d throw rocks at your buses, they’d throw big cinderblocks. We had a couple of times where they would throw through the complete windshield…. And we had to drive back one night, this is when I was a sophomore, and this is a basketball game, and they crashed the whole front window and we had to drive home without it.”
School supt.: “”It’s a good place to rear our children.””[!]
White young man: “”We go down and visit Knoxville and … I’ll see blacks, and after a while, you live here long enough, and you’re uncomfortable [around them].””
Corbin still has “Nigger Creek Road.”
Blacks in Williamsburg think “cops in Corbin will pull you over.” They don’t want to be there after dark.

A black male, 1982, moved to Corbin to play football. Practiced with the football team, and “most of the kids were pulling for it,” but Mom received death threats for her son. So they left.
McDonald’s hired a black manager from Somerset, KY. “”A cross was reportedly burned in his yard and he left Corbin.”” A white man agrees: “”He tried to boss the people that was building McDonald’s.”” The crew got him out.
“”Forgetting just continues the wrong,”” says a white man.
[Robby Heason, Trouble Behind (Cicada Films, 1990).]

Re Corbin, c. 11/1/1919: More than “150 heavily armed whites ventured into the black neighborhood, forced more than 200 black railroad workers to the train depot, and then ordered them to leave town on a train bound for Knoxville, TN.” A few months later, in Ravenna, whites forced more railroad workers out. L&N RR yielded in both cases, “never returned black workers to other areas.”
[George C. Wright, A History of Blacks in Kentucky 2 (Lexington?: KY Hist. Soc., 1992), 14-15.]

According to a member of the KY Historical Society: “At least two of the areas you mentioned were notorious for anti-black feelings (Corbin and Rockcastle County), but by no means ever legally kept people of color out of the confines of their communities.”

One U of IL professor has a student “who is doing a paper on how Corbin kicked the Blacks out. He has found out that before WWI the railroad hired only whites, but so many whites went to war that they hired blacks. When the whites came back from the war they couldn’t find work,so on Halloween night of 1919 they put the 200 black railroad workers and their families on the southbound train to Knoxville and told them not to come back. He has heard rumors of a rape and of a theft, but he does not think a particular incident was instrumental. He also heard rumors that the theft was perpetrated by whites in blackface.
He has found that all the newspapers that cover the period are missing from all the area libraries and historical societies, so he thinks there was a deliberate cover up.”

Another Corbin researcher writes: “I have been researching and writing an article on Corbin: 1895-1930. It is an anomaly and I have disproven several sacred historical myths about it. Although the 1919 deportation of 300 black Alabama railroad workers made the place notorious, and although its racist attitudes have long been significant, it has never been devoid of black people. Several black pioneer families of the 1890s stayed in Corbin after the 1919 incident. Corbin blacks were different from outsider blacks! (In fact, Corbin Jews, Corbin Catholics, and Corbin Ethnics were loved as individuals and interacted with the larger society). Corbinites objected to outsiders. The 1930 and 1940 City Directory continued to list black residents, home addresses, occupation and include asterisks by their names. They all lived within a three block radius of Main Street or Center Street and Howard Nolan and the Woods family lived there when I left Corbin in 1953. Nolan died in his home in 1980 and was about ninety years old at the time. Only the new cemetery of 1942 included a provision forbidding burial of people of color! Although the KKK had its heyday at this time, there is no proof of its existence in Corbin. There are only a few African American railroad officials living in Corbin today and so it remains an “almost lily white” town…
Corbin has been painted in far stronger racist terms than it deserved, especially in the early period, as it was my good fortune to know several older people who had little if any prejudice. I do agree many rednecks continue to be intolerant there today.
Henson’s documentary ignored sources he should have consulted for a more accurate or balanced account. My research does not go beyond 1930, even though I heard there was a sign on the edge of town in the early 1950s. I think your conclusion that it became more racist later is very logical…
Corbin definitely was closed to “new” blacks after the deportation of the 300 Alabama railroad workers. You are correct on that point. Henson erred in the fact that most of the Alabama workers were experienced railroad construction workers and I have talked with older Corbinites who laugh at his idea that they were sharecroppers. I don’t know where he got that idea. You asked about a sign or photo to indicate the sundown status. I remember hearing of a crude poster but have never seen a picture of it. You are certainly welcome to use anything you see in the article. I will note your research, probably in the text as well as the footnotes, to show that Corbin was not unique in its racism. I would appreciate any information on primary sources you are aware of, although my research is geared toward diversity in the early society, and the 1919 incident is secondary.

[Hank Everman, “Corbin, KY: A Socioeconomic Anomaly (Richmond, KY: Eastern KY U Dept of History, typescript, 2002).]
“For decades, a fine cook, laundress, and cleaning lady, the beloved ‘Aunt Emma’ Woods, worked for the L & N. She lived in her Laurel Avenue frame house … into the 1940s. Her daughter , Clara Woods, served as matron of the depot from the 1920s into WWII… ‘Nigger’ Denis, possibly Aunt Emma’s son, was the Mershons’ ‘man’ and maintained several stables on the Center Street hill… During the tragic 1919 incident, the Mershons and Dr. Siler hid him for several days while other blacks fled Corbin.” “Some blacks remained in Corbin as late as 1940.” In 1919, Eady’s Louisville Construction Co. brought in 40 black street pavers. Then L&N RR brought in 300 ‘Alabama Negroes’ to build new yard. “Although 25 African Americans had lived in Corbin for decades, the new racial mix was unprecedented.”
“Some of the AL blacks even won money in the crapshoots near the railroad bridge, further antagonizing whites. On Wed. night, October 29, two white men carefully blackened their faces and robbed and stabbed A. F. Thompson, a white railroader, as he passed the Fairgrounds…” A mob gathered the next night. “An L&N brakeman, ‘Pistol Pete Rogers, the primary instigator of the mob which gathered near the boxcars that evening, organized a brass band to parade with the angry crowd. Several shots were fired in the air as 100 whites, armed with guns, sticks, and clubs, shouted at, searched, manhandled, and sometimes forced half-naked ‘Negro men’ from tents, ramshackle cabins, or boxcars, and escorted them to the depot. Many ran down the tracks, their fear obvious. The mob loaded about 200 black males on a ‘special train’ with extra cars, and told the engineer not to stop short of Knoxville. Police searched and reportedly protected others who left on the 2:15AM train.” “Forty street constructors departed the next day.”
“On October 31, most Negro women and children sat or stood in the ‘colored waiting room’ at the depot, or anxiously waited on the platform for the first trains departing southward. Sadly, one woman waded into the middle of a shallow pond during the night and froze to death in the icy water where she was found the next morning. After this mass expulsion, no new African Americans moved into Corbin for over half a century. The legal consequences were insignificant.” “In 1921, two of the leaders were convicted and sentenced to two-year terms in prison.” “May Minstrel Festival was especially popular during the 1920s. The ever popular ‘black-faced comedians’ presented a colorful program of Negro songs and gags to the delight of contemporary audiences.” Hardly different from other KY towns, however.”

7/2007 – One source reports that as late as 1986, African American students at Cumberland College were warned not to go to Corbin after dark. “My sister attended Cumberland College during the years 1985-1988 and was the one who originally relayed the info to me. (Among other things, she had also claimed there was a sundown sign on some of the back roads into Corbin, but I never have seen evidence of this–certainly no sundown signs on the main drag, at any rate. According to her, she had an African-American friend who had been warned of the fact Corbin was a sundown town by police.)”

A Southern native traveling through Corbin as a child remembers: “Our family travelled […] to Cincinnati to see my sister, and her family. This was prior to the interstate. As a child I noticed a billboard in Corbin. It clearly stated, ‘Don’t let the sun set on you, nigger.’ I never will forget that.”