Harlan County Spotlight: Roy Silver

Hazel King, former Harlan County community activist, and an inspiration to Roy Silver. Photo courtesy of Roy Silver.

Who are you, and what role do you fill in your community? 

My name is Roy Silver and my primary role in Harlan County is as a professor of sociology on the Cumberland campus of Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College. I have served our students and community since 1989. During my 28 years in Harlan County, I have been engaged in numerous community development activities and worked with others to preserve our mountains from the forces who – if left unchecked – would have allowed the strip mining of Black Mountain – Kentucky’s tallest mountain. In my early years in Harlan County, I worked with residents, former residents and workers in Dayhoit, Kentucky. In the early 1990s, this community was declared one of the most toxic areas in the U.S. and listed as a federal Super Fund site because of industrial pollution poisoning.

Most recently, in my capacity as a special projects coordinator for the City of Benham, we have worked to provide solar power to offset the costs of electricity for the city, the Benham School House Inn and the Kentucky Coal Museum. While my roles have been varied, I have grown into an appreciation for the human resources we require to create a more just and sustainable way of life. In this capacity, it is important to connect local, regional, national and international groups. This is done with the knowledge that those who experience the greatest impact of our inequities are in the best position to devise appropriate and maintainable solutions.

What do you most appreciate about your community?

I value the humanity and resourcefulness of many in our community.  During my first 10 years in Harlan County, my mother would make an annual summer visit from our New York City home. She would always remark how everyone she met would remember who she was and communicate a genuine affection for her and me. In the fall of 1998, she was diagnosed with cancer. Until the end of that year, I lived with her while she underwent treatment. We returned to Benham for her final three months.  When she passed, at the urging of many in our community, I held a visitation at the Benham School House Inn. More than 100 participated.  The concern and love exhibited was overwhelming, and the number that expressed their appreciation for her and me was five times greater than the service we held in New York.

Despite the challenges many face in our community, it is remarkable the way so many respond to the variety of crises that are visited upon them. For every family that been stricken with drug addiction, there are grandparents who have taken on the responsibility of raising their grandchildren.  Historically, Appalachian people, like so many others, have banded together in a struggle to create a better way of life. In Harlan County, evidence of this is abundant from at least the early days of unionization to numerous contemporary struggles.

What’s your vision for your community, and what’s a community project you’ve been a part of that makes strides towards that vision?

Like many communities, Harlan Countians should have jobs that challenge their intellectual and creative potentials. These employment opportunities must provide a family with a living wage. We require a diverse economic base that ends our dependency on a single industry. It is important that we create a future that respects and sustains our human and natural environment.

The solar project I have mentioned is one project that has the potential to create a way of life that is sustainable. It has engaged a broad cross section from our community.

Who is a member of your community that you admire and why?

The reverence I have had for many in our community has been grounded in their capacity to work with others to create a better Harlan County. One of the first community activists I met back in 1989 was Hazel King. Hazel had a deep passion for her mountains and people. Tom Fitzgerald of the Kentucky Resource Council wrote:

She was responsible for filing the citizen complaint that resulted in the first federal cessation order issued under the 1977 Act against a mining operation, and for hundreds of enforcement orders after that. Many community members, including miners concerned with problems at operations for whom they worked, would rely on her to be their voice – and she never failed to be that voice and to demand accountability from the mining operations and from state and federal regulators.

Hazel, through her lived examples, set the tone for many. She was a revered voice for social and economic justice.