Appalachians and Race: The Mountain South from Slavery to Segregation

By Higgins, Billy D. | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Autumn 2001 | Go to article overview

Appalachians and Race: The Mountain South from Slavery to Segregation


Higgins, Billy D., The Arkansas Historical Quarterly


Appalachians and Race: The Mountain South from Slavery to Segregation. Edited by John C. Inscoe. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001. Pp. vii, 330. Introduction, illustrations, notes, contributors, acknowledgments, index. $34.95.)

John C. Inscoe, professor of history at the University of Georgia, selected eighteen articles by twenty scholars to document an array of white and black interactions that occurred in Appalachia a century or more ago. Taken in sum, the essays jar common and long held assumptions about racial relationships in southern mountain societies. To emphasize the significance of the anthology, Inscoe writes in the introduction that "on no other aspect of Appalachian culture has opinion been so divided as on the question of how mountaineers regarded blacks."

Many scholars have insisted that slaves owned by mountain southerners were better off than those in the true plantation country, where the harshest work and the harshest attitudes existed. The first journals of Frederick Law Olmsted imprinted this idea of "kinder, gentler" treatment upon historians of the South. But in his article on Olmsted, Inscoe points out that the 1850s travel writer and future park designer finally concluded that mountain residents "had equal contempt for slaves, their masters, and the system itself." No less a keen observer of the South than W. J. Cash contended that mountaineers "had a dislike so rabid that it was worth a black man's life to venture into many mountain sections." Nevertheless, slavery in the foothills and valleys of Appalachia where ratios of blacks to whites were low seems to have been a less central constituent of white status than in lowlands areas thick with blacks and utterly dependent on slave labor.

Charles B. Dew demonstrates the value of industrial slavery to upland whites with his examination of Sam Williams, a Buffalo Forge, Virginia, slave. Amazingly, Williams, a master ironworker, maintained a bank account upon which he drew to finance his occasional sabbatical. Marie Tedesco focuses on legal actions against a white neighbor brought by Adam Westphal, a free black slaveholder and landowner. Cecelia Convy finds that Africans made a major contribution to mountain society when whites began to "catch" banjo styles from the slaves in the 1840s. Obviously, an appreciation by one culture of another's could sprout even if that enthusiasm lived only for a short time. Such interaction may have loosened protocols and joined with the oft-noted mountaineer proclivity towards social leveling to create a more humane ethos in which the peculiar institution could operate. This mountain-grown equality, if a reality, might support the thesis of Richard B. Drake, professor emeritus of history at Berea College, who traces the impetus of the American anti-slavery movement to eastern Kentucky activists such as John G. Fee, who established Berea.

The treatment of slaves, though, varied widely and depended on local customs and individual holders. Auburn professor Kenneth W. Noe found that while the building of a railroad in southwest Virginia gave slaves opportunities to improve their lives, "sale down the river," "miserable clothing," and hard drivers reminded them that slavery was, well, still slavery. Noe points out that the railroad physically linked plantation country to southwest Virginia, which became a Confederate hotbed during the Civil War.

Essays by David Williams and John E. …

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