Blue Highways Journey – Episode 33 – Respect

Reginald (Reggie) Booker decided to take a blue highways journey through what many call the forgotten America. It was that part of the country that provided resources for a growing country. But when the coal and timber resources were exhausted, the region had fallen into decline. Younger people moved out, leaving only the older members of the community who didn’t want to start life over somewhere else. Reggie didn’t expect much joy on this tour, but he felt he needed to learn from those who remained.

What Reggie didn’t expect to find was a unique and diverse community living in harmony. He did expect to find what many called hillbillies, the white Americans who were the blue-collar coal miners and timber cutters/haulers. What he didn’t expect was a significant number of people with Eastern and Southern European heritage. And there was also a significant number of African Americans.

The second surprise was how harmonious these three population segments were. There were none of the isolated enclaves that were typically found in major cities. Reggie was intrigued by the sociology of the communities he visited, and it was an opportunity to sit down with Charity Givens, an African American elder of the AME Church, that gave him insight

“What I’m gone tell you I learned from my mother. The white folks settled here for the jobs in mining and timbering. These were tough, dangerous jobs, and they were being abused by their employers. When they formed a union and went on strike for better working conditions and pay, they were fired.” 

“The employers brought in a number of immigrants to take their jobs. The whites were ousted from their company homes and formed tent settlements in the mountains. You can imagine the hostility that existed between the Whites and the immigrants. But it didn’t take long for the immigrants to rebel against their employers. They too were fired and went to the hills to live.” 

“Then the employers hired African Americans. The same story repeated itself. Eventually the employers had to give in because they needed employees to serve the demand for coal and timber as America was growing.” 

“We just grew together as a community with common bonds. We grow to respect each other. We shared food to survive, and there is no better way to know your neighbor than to cook and eat together. We have three distinct religions, Baptist, Roman Catholic, and AME, but we can afford only one church. The Baptist have service one Sunday, Catholics the next Sunday, and our folks the following Sunday. But it’s funny, we all go to each other’s services. We worship the same God, no matter the label on our church that week.”

Reggie was clearly stunned. The divisiveness of American politics was not evident here. For a struggling community, they had something that other communities could only dream about – mutual respect for all. As Reggie reflected on the lessons from this blue highways journey, he began to see the importance of common values, shared faith, genuine kindness, struggling together, and a sense of belonging. All of these are critical to respectfulness.

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“Give the respect you want to receive; embody the grace you hope to encounter; and help others with no expectations whatsoever.”
– Cory Booker (U.S. Senator)

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