Kentucky Historical Society

Interview with Wayne Riley

Date of Interview: 

Thu, 04/27/2017





African Americans, Community centers, Farming, Coal mining, Dairy farming, Food, Pool halls, Canning & preserving, Cemeteries, Urban renewal, Federal agencies, Federal employment, Churches, family, Preachers, Museums, Garden, Cooking

Call Number: 


59 minutes. Wayne Riley grew up in East Bernstadt, Ky. (Laurel County). He discusses growing up in the mid-twentieth century, including foodways and industry. Many of Riley's male family members worked in coal mining in Lynch, Ky. (Haran County), for U.S. Steel. His father, Charles Riley worked on a dairy farm owned by Boyd Boggs, a county judge executive in London.

Riley describes his family foodways, including fried chicken at Sunday dinners, chicken and dumplings, vegetables, and canning and preserving. The role of chili in eastern in Kentucky and his fmaily, according to Riley, is a fast and easy "calling card" for a small get-together. Chilidogs are served at Wayne's family homecoming on Labor Day weekend and Fourth of July picnic and cemetery fundraiser. Wayne describes the Pittsburgh integrated cemetery, the declining numbers at homecoming, and cemetery care. Riley describes the food for the homecoming celebration for each of the three days, and his family's meat curing traditions.

Riley discusses race relations in Laurel County, including segregated schools and problems with integration and backdoor entrances to restaurants - mentioning Weaver's Pool Room and House's Pool Room. There were two black-owned restaurant owned by Riley's uncles. Both were operated from the proprietor's' homes. Russ McKee cooked everything from turtles to groundhogs. Bill Word operated a club primarily for entertainment and served hot dogs, chili, and potato chips. His uncle owned Zinno's Place in Barbourville.

Riley worked for a HUD program in Washington, D.C. beginning in 1974, which included renovating homes for better sanitation and livability. He only worked about 4 hours in a coal mine - he left at lunch on his first day because of the confined feeling. He left Kentucky for job opportunities, following family members north. He came back to Kentucky in 1999, after living in Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati. He returned to Laurel County to help his brother with health issues - not intending to stay. While home for a visit from working in Nashville as a contractor, his aunt convinced him to come back to help the community, save the oldest Baptist church in the county, and educate the youth about their heritage. His dying aunt Letitia's conversation truly affected and influenced him to come home and fix the building. The project was gradual, and early on there was not even a bathroom - the kids had to line up and go to the gas station across the street. He explains how the vision of the museum and visitor's center came into place - with archives and artifacts. Riley discusses how he would take a scanner to family funerals to scan photos, which prompted people to send in items.

Riley describes the importance of the Mill Street Baptist Church, formerly First Colored Baptist Church, to the community (name change in 1965-66). Riley says the church was the first integrated church in London. "Even the bootleggers showed up to church to help in some kind of way." He discusses an influential preacher, Rev. Richard Hill from Jeffersonville, Indiana.

The garden program began as a "wild hair." Riley wanted to do a youth program, and he petitioned the London District Association (1897), an African-American Baptist Church association, and Bill Turner of Berea College. He found money through David Cook of Grow Appalachia. He describes how the partnership with Grow Appalachia through Berea College works. Riley says the garden is not the foods he grew up growing; they grow tomatillos, herbs, and other "new" items. Riley talks about learning how to make salsa from garden program participants from Mexico named Angelica. He made a meal out of the salsa and was worried about what his sister might think, because of their childhood food.

Riley's is referred to as a "foodways historian." He attributed that to his family home restaurants, celebrations, and church events. Riley talks about "fifth Sunday basket dinners" rotating from church to church in the region. He talks about hating chores like carrying water and coal and trading responsibilities with a cousin who hated cooking and cleaning. Riley describes items he likes to cook. He states that the garden program has expanded the items he cooks. He is known for his fish fry of Alaskan pollock and Basa catfish.

The center is planning to add a commercial kitchen, which is close to Riley's original vision of a soup kitchen. The kitchen will help entrepreneurs can and sell garden products to promote entrepreneurship among low-income people.

Riley recollects chili buns as quick-fix, hearty food in era when fast food restaurants weren't available. It gave families a break from cooking large meals on weekends. Ground beef and pork were more readily available in farming families than processed meats like hotdogs. Riley says it would be difficult to find black-owned businesses nearby that sells chili buns today.

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