The Black Community of Knox County
by Maggie Ahearn and Anne Smetak

Ruby settles back into her chair as she recalls the Mount Vernon of her youth. A wistful look comes into her eye as she tells of the annual Christmas church gatherings. "When they had Christmas programs, you had to say a piece at the Baptist Church at the morning program and then at the Methodist Church at the afternoon program. And you did that for Christmas, Easter, and Mother's Day. And every kid in town usually had two pieces to say." She drifts into another world as she remembers the lively days when the African American Church community was strong. "We had a wonderful attendance, and there were Sunday schools…"

Mount Calvery Baptist Church, one of three Black churches in Mount Vernon

That was forty years ago. Today the three Black
churches in town struggle to stay alive. There are no longer children involved in Sunday school or Christmas programs. The church congregations of all three; the Baptist, Methodist and Apostolic, are aging and each typically consist of less than ten people.
Ruby Rouse Thompson was born and raised in Mount Vernon. She left the area in 1969 and has just recently returned to find a very different community: "The churches become a central nucleus when you're in a small town like this. The three Black churches are struggling to stay in existence, and that's the saddest thing. There are so few of us in each congregation that we all just go to each other's church. I mean if one church is having a function, they invite the other two and we do the best we can to always have a representative from the other churches at anyone's function." Lori Harris, who was also born and raised in Mount Vernon, has witnessed a decline not only in church attendance but in other aspects of the community. "I remember there were parties and picnics and church functions and just everything. But all of that's gone, I mean all of it, the clubs, the groups, everything is gone."

Graph of Black demographics of Knox County from 1920-1990

This once active and united community has dwindled and dispersed in the last twenty years. Only a small portion of the original Black community remains in Mount Vernon. Most of the younger generation has moved away for reasons such as employment and social considerations. In the 1980s, the number of Blacks in Knox County reached an all time low of 245 individuals. In the past decade the population has begun to experience a slight increase. This can be attributed to two factors; new people moving in, and former residents returning to the area. Despite the fact that the numbers are growing, the community is not growing in strength. It appears difficult for the new people in the area to make a connection with the existing Black community or even be aware of one. This seems to be due to the lack of community gathering places, as well as the small number of long time residents to welcome the newcomers.
The search for meaningful employment was a major motivating factor for the younger generation to leave Knox County. Ruth Akers, a long time resident who has recently returned to Mount Vernon, recalls leaving the community to find work. "It was hard to get jobs, when people got old enough to get jobs, they'd leave. Nobody would stay here." Ruby agrees. "A lot of the Afro-American kids in my age group left here because the job opportunities were not available in Mount Vernon." Much of the difficulty in obtaining jobs in the area was perceived by Black community members to be a form of discrimination. Several area residents recall that the type of jobs open to Blacks at the time were service oriented occupations. Ruby continues: "The jobs; the low paying jobs, or the service jobs, that's what they usually groomed you for here. So that's why a lot of us did leave." Addressing the contemporary employment situation in the area, Ruby states, "there are still not a lot of professional jobs in Mount Vernon for Blacks. I don't know if that's because they don't apply for them, or really I could truthfully say there are not that many people here to apply for them. I think the availability of jobs now effects everyone, I don't think it's limited by color."

In addition to the lack of employment opportunities in the area, social constraints drove people further away from the community. Many Blacks in the community found dating difficult. Lori recalls: "We had to import our men in, from the time I was old enough to sneak out of my parent's house in their car, I had to go somewhere to bring guys to me because it was never going to happen here." In Mount Vernon, where there were very few opportunities to date within your own race, interracial dating was often seen as a necessity. With such a small population of Blacks, the dating pool continues to be limited. Christy Brown, a newer member of the community, has noticed the effects of this on her high school age daughter. "She's never dated a Black guy, she's always dated White kids. It's sad in a way because there's no one, if you have a choice it's one person."

Dating in the community is a problem facing not only teenagers, but the older population as well. Nationwide Black men are more likely to interracially date than Black women. Mount Vernon is no exception. One is more likely to see Black men with White women than Black women with White men. It is the women of the Black community who are particularly isolated by this phenomenon. Lori notices this trend: "Any Black men that come into the community, I usually see them coming here because they are dating someone White who lives in the community." Her husband, Earl, a newcomer to the community, perceives this as well: "I feel bad for Black women in this town, I really do. You have to go out of town to find men and that's ridiculous, but that's the way it is." Some believe that this issue has affected the cohesiveness of the Black community. Lori notes: "We started traveling outside of our race to marry, and I don't know if it was a way of getting away from each other, or if it was just trying out new things, and people just started drifting apart."

Some Black women remain in Knox County despite the social constraints. Family has traditionally been the strongest reason for people to return and remain in the community. Lori states, "I think family in the area is the only reason Black women feel halfway okay about being here." Ruby agrees; she came back to the community for family reasons as well. "I returned because my mother is elderly and widowed, and she and my sister needed me to kind of look after family things." The draw of family plays an important role in many people's decisions to return to Knox County, regardless of other hardships.

Growing up Black in Knox County has its advantages. Ruby recalls her experience as a positive one: "Having been born and raised in Mount Vernon was really a benefit. The one good thing I can say about being educated in the Mount Vernon school system, is you acquire a great vocabulary, you acquire a great rapport with all people because we really didn't have segregated groups of Black people in Mount Vernon." Because the Black community was so small, members experienced a level of integration, which is uncommon in more urban areas. As a result of this integration, some people feel they are better suited to adapt to outside communities. Ruby continues: "Every person here has so many Caucasian friends, I mean you were just so few and well integrated into the community; it's wonderful. Growing up in Mount Vernon has been very, very good for all of us, I can say that for all kids who have grown up here. When you leave and you go away, you don't have any problem with fitting in, with getting along with people, with succeeding." Though Ruby views these as positive attributes to growing up in Mount Vernon, some others have seen the level of integration as a drawback.

In Mount Vernon, where assimilation is a social necessity, race becomes less of a cultural issue. As Ruby notes, "you recognize there are differences in the races, but just the color of the skin. When you are raised in a community you don't have different habits, as opposed to people in the South." When people who were born and raised in the area attempt to leave and join more defined Black communities, they often have a great deal of difficulty. Lori recalls the hardships she encountered when she left the community to attend a historically Black college. "I think because I was born here and didn't really have access to any Black people, I thought the best way to remedy that would be to go where there's all Black people, but that was a disaster. They ate me alive, I wasn't Black enough for them. I didn't speak correctly, according to the way that they said I should speak. It was just weird, weird things I wasn't used to." Earl, who grew up in the South, recognizes the difficulties people born and raised in Mount Vernon face when attempting to assimilate into other Black communities. "Some Blacks in this town are naive to other Blacks out of this town. They put on a Black face when they've never been around Blacks and they go into the Black world, and it's a reality check. That's what you are, but that's not really what you are, because you weren't raised around them, you were raised here in Mount Vernon." Often Blacks from Knox County find themselves in limbo between the lack of community here, and the difficulty of fitting into stronger Black communities.

The number of Blacks in Knox County continues to grow as newcomers arrive. Many of these are people looking to get out of big cities, and relish the small town experience. Gary Akers, who moved here twenty years ago from the bustling metropolis of Los Angeles, enjoys the area immensely. He states: "I find it quiet and peaceful, there's nothing crazy about it. It serves my purpose." In addition to the peace and quiet, many newcomers believe that the Mount Vernon area is a nice place to raise a family. This is Earl's feeling: "I've seen so much wildness from where I'm originally from, that's not the place I want to have my kids." Knox County residents understand the draw for those from larger areas. Lori confirms: "I hear them all say the same thing: ‘It's a nice place to raise your kids and it's a relatively safe community,' and I guess if you're coming from a larger city where things are really going on, you would say that."

The local Blacks, who have been living in Knox County for decades are aware of unfamiliar Black faces in the area. It is difficult for new residents to become aware of other Blacks in town due to the lack of community gathering places. Newcomers, such as Christy, find this frustrating. "I don't know where they are. You will see another person of color in Big Bear or in K-mart and you'll look at each other and they're thinking: ‘Well where do you live?' and I'm thinking: ‘Well where do you live?' Because you never see anybody. So that's sad, very sad." Chuck Hogan, who returned to Mount Vernon after living in Detroit, notices: "When I got back things were a little more distant. There were a lot of faces that I had never seen and Mount Vernon isn't that big." Ruby laments the situation: "You just see them in the grocery stores and you know that they are strangers in town. They don't know anything about the community either. And I don't see it changing a lot, because there are not that many of us to go out there and make the change. So it's just by chance that you get an opportunity to meet them and make new friends."

The lack of cohesion within the Black community of Knox County can be compared to communities nationwide which are experiencing changes in group dynamics. Almost thirty years ago, it was common for individuals to be concerned with the community as a whole. Today people are more likely to focus on their individual needs. Chuck has noticed this within Mount Vernon. "Community here is nothing like it was. People are basically concerned about themselves and their families, and it's not anything like I grew up with." Small towns are becoming more like urban areas where people are less likely to know their neighbors. Unfortunately, this has begun to occur in Knox County. Chuck continues: "I grew up in a neighborhood where I knew everyone around the blocks, all four ways. Out here, I probably know maybe four people out of twenty different apartments." Ruby places the responsibility on the long time members of the community: "If the local people don't take the initiative to say: ‘Hello, are you new in town?' Then it just doesn't happen. Which is really a shame, because I think that if we had that, we could at least have one church or some other organization that wouldn't have to struggle so hard to stay in existence."

The Black community of Knox County faces a dubious future unless members reach out to one another and restrengthen their bonds. Ruby reflects on the original Black community's pride in their heritage: "The local Blacks feel that they overcame. We grew up with a great pride, very proud of the things that we accomplished." Lori wants people to get more involved and reinstill this pride: "We don't have anyone standing up, and being proud, and teaching our children. To think of all the stuff everyone has had to go through, and here we sit in Mount Vernon, and I do mean sit, doing nothing. I just wish that everybody would get together."

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