In early April, a crew of AmeriCorps and Rural Action staff from the Zero Waste, Sustainable Agriculture, Sustainable Forestry programs were tasked with clearing out a former dwelling in Kilvert (once Tablertown), Ohio, to make a designated space for historic preservation.
The site is the future location of the People of Color Museum, currently located in a former pole barn at the home of museum curator David Butcher, a Rural Action board member.
“I believe what we’re doing right now, historically, is really important,” Butcher said. “It’s mind blowing to me that there are people and organizations that would want to prevent us from telling our history — our history is American history. If our history was left out, you’re only getting half the story.”
Butcher’s award-winning work has been dedicated to preserving Black, Appalachian and American history, as well as his family’s legacy, in the village of Kilvert, near Stewart, Ohio. The People of Color Museum will relocate to Tablertown where some of Butcher’s enslaved ancestors settled after their emancipation.
“We purchased the property last year and we hope to make it the future site of the Tablertown People of Color Museum,” Butcher said. With the guidance of the Ohio University Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Service, “We hope to build a world-class museum for our world-class history.”
Rural Action Sustainable Agriculture AmeriCorps member Shane Benton said that in exchange for this special opportunity to learn more about Butcher’s family’s history, as well as the history of the town, “We offered our labor on any project that seemed particularly helpful to him.”
The property sits about 1/4 mile from the Kilvert Community Church. On it lies a collapsing, abandoned single-wide mobile home overflowing with stuff. Butcher referred to it as a landfill.
“There is an abandoned coal mine, an abandoned landfill — and I’m the proud owner of all of it,” Butcher said.
“It’s where the earliest railroads crossed Federal Creek — right behind that property, is where they came to get the coal,” he explained. “It’s also where the earliest Tabler-Jenkins reunions took place. And one of the original log cabins that Slim Tabler lived in was on that site. We’re still hoping to find maybe some remnants of the old log cabins.”
“And we have to go through every little item, because many of the items that we’re finding are historic documents, and artifacts.”
On the day of the April cleanup, Benton said the volunteers sorted the materials into piles of items that could either be salvaged, recycled, or trashed. “We found several old photos, sashes from long ago pageants of some sort, and a variety of old tools among the debris,” he added.
Butcher said finds that day were fruitful, as volunteers found a German knapsack — indicating that the former property owner, World War II veteran Eddy Flowers, had brought it back home from the war.
“I think that’s been one of the greatest finds so far,” Butcher said. “We also found his canteen, and we found some of his medals that he would have gotten during World War II.”
Also recovered from the site were books that Flowers authored, including cookbooks and some that document the history of Kilvert itself.
After a couple of hours of clean-up, Butcher took volunteers just up the road to the church, Benton said, where community members provided lunch.
“While we ate, we watched a documentary on the area’s past, viewed the Tablertown installation, and shared great conversations about David’s family history and the history of the Tablertown area,” Benton added.
Items recovered are also going to be sold at a yard sale, proceeds from which will go towards paying for the property, Butcher said. Family members of the Flowers will have the first pick of the items recovered.
The total cleanup of the future museum site was not completed that day. Butcher said the project is still years out from completion but is off to a great start.
“All in all, it was a good day of service learning,” Benton said. “We exchanged our labor and time for access to Butcher’s vast knowledge about the history and experiences of the people of color, who have a rich tradition in Appalachia. Having had an opportunity to be a part of the process that will see this dream come to fruition was a special occasion that I hope to participate in again.”
Butcher sees the museum, his work, and the future site of the museum as a testament to his lineage.
“We are blessed people,” he said. “And you know, I think about what my ancestors have gone through — the fact that my ancestors were enslaved people. And now I’m here to tell you this story, from the same land that they settled — it’s truly a testament to their will to survive.”