Sunday, November 15, 2009

Just finished reading - Appalachians and Race: The Mountain South from Slavery to Segregation, edited by John C. Inscoe

After recently studying John Brown and his plan to end slavery, I wanted to get a firmer grasp on the slavery situation in the Appalachian Mountains that he anticipated using as a conduit of freedom. I had purchased this book shortly after moving to Kentucky back in May, but I hadn't taken the opportunity to read it until now.

Appalachia itself has only within the last 25 years or so received the scholarly study it so justly deserves, so it doesn't come as a surprise the subject of race in the region has received very little attention. Although African Americans have been a part of Appalachia since the earliest days of its exploration and settlement by white Europeans, their role has not always been appreciated; probably due
largely to their marginal status then and at present. When Appalachia became, by the written word in the 1880s, the stereotypical place of hillbillies, moonshiners, and feuding families, it was the place of the staid Anglo-Saxon. It was believed there was little foreign intervention or racial diversity in the mountain holds. Appalachia was seen by many as the last racially pure region in America.

These ideas of stereotypical Appalachia have been debunked by historians and sociologists, and thanks to works like Appalachians and Race, the work continues. Editor John C. Inscoe has gathered 18 significant essays to comprise this work. Some of the most well known Southern and Appalachian historians are included. Historians such as Richard B. Drake, Charles B. Dew, Kenneth W. Noe, Wilma A. Dunaway, Kathleen M. Blee and Dwight B. Billings, Gordon B. McKinney, Nina Sibler, and W. Fitzhugh Brundage, among others, give the reader a better appreciation for the role African Americans have played in Appalachian life.

Of course, of special interest to me were the articles on slavery in Appalachia. Cecelia Conway's article, "Appalachian Echoes of the African Banjo" explains the part that lowland and Piedmont slaves played in spreading the use of this now universally known mountain music instrument. Who can image Bluegrass music without a banjo? Well, due largely to travel and movement by slaves in the antebellum period through the Southern Appalachians, this instrument was learned by local populations and became the popular instrument it its today in the region.

Charles B. Dew's article "Sam Williams, Forgeman: The Life of an Industrial Slave at Buffalo Forge, Virginia" was taken from his larger work Bond of Iron: Master and Slave at Buffalo Forge, which is a book I highly recommend. It gives a vivid portrayal of life at the iron furnace operations at Buffalo Forge (just outside of Lexington, Virginia) through the accounts left by the forge owner, and later by its manager. For those who think that slavery would surely have died out with the mechanization of agriculture, Dew's article on industrial slavery will make you think twice.

John Cimprich's article, "Slavery's End in East Tennessee" is another example of the fine work that is contained in this book. His examination of the Freedmen's Bureau in East Tennessee is a real eye-opener. Political fights between Republicans and Democrats in Tennessee during Reconstruction often centered on what role freed slaves would play, and heavily Republican East Tennessee struggled with giving political rights to freedmen and keeping Democrats at bay.

As the title implies, the articles not only cover slavery in Appalachia, but they also cover the roots of segregation that emerged in Reconstruction and carried on into the early 20th century. I never knew there was a black missionary school at Elk Park, North Carolina; a little wide-spot-in-the-road-of-a-town that I often passed through on my way to and from graduate school at Appalachian State. I also was not aware that the lynching violence that so predominated in the South from the 1890s to the 1920s, was also being conducted in the Mountain South. Two well written articles also cover black coal miners. Ronald Lewis looks at "African American Convicts in the Coal Mines of Southern Appalachian" states of Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama; while Joe William Trotter, Jr. examines "The Formation of Black Community in Southern West Virginia Coalfields."

All of the article are relatively short and each can easily be read in a sitting. I believe that you will not be disappointed by the scholarship and content you will find here. The book is also available in paperback at low cost, so if you are looking for a fascinating group of essays on the diversity of Appalachia, be sure to pick up a copy.

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