If you ever wonder how we might get along in this country when we have various points of view, worship in different churches, and come in all glorious colors, you may want to look at Big Stone Gap. I can’t speak of life before integration, but I knew it well afterwards. My friend Jane, who attended the United Methodist Church speaks of the seamless integration of the black church with hers. The leadership in the town included Talmadge Warren, an erudite and warm African American professional who was deeply involved in local government for the betterment of the people. He is one example of many, including our teachers, who by the time we arrived in Big Stone Gap in the late 1960’s had integrated the public school system. I never knew a time when I didn’t have African American teachers in the classroom. And you can bet my Italian American father and mother stood behind those in authority, including our educators of color.
I come from a peaceful place where folks got along for the most part- which is why the tragedy in my hometown this week is so devastating. Michael Chandler, a young police officer from Big Stone Gap, Virginia was shot in the line of duty. He struggled courageously to hold on to life for his wife, Natasha, his daughter and family, but he did not survive it. I know Michael’s uncle, Fire Chief Billy Chandler, who was helpful when we filmed Big Stone Gap in town. He was also wonderful when we returned for the premiere. As we say back home, these are good people- a good family. Our hearts are broken for our neighbors.
We struggle to understand why a 29 year old police officer, strong, courageous and well respected, lost his life on the job in such a callous way. The community came together to pay their respects, in a unity that defines Appalachia. It’s probably the best definition of the place itself- when you need them, the community rallies- it’s a way of life. WCYB-TV, the NBC Universal affiliate out of Bristol, recorded Michael’s funeral cortege through the region. The powerful images of Appalachians united in grief, their heads bowed in prayer for the Chandlers, will help you understand a place you may not have visited, and folks you have never met. But in fact, if you’ve ever walked with grief and had your heart broken, you understand. You too, are Appalachian.