Black in Appalachia – Living History

From the region’s historically black colleges and black cemeteries to community story circles, Black in Appalachia is using research and local narratives to raise the visibility of Black communities in the mountain South.

This growing media project visited Whitesburg, KY last month to commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr. Starting over a decade ago with VISTA volunteers at Cowan Community Center, Nel Fields coordinates Letcher County’s MLK Day annual celebration every January. The First Baptist Church of Whitesburg has hosted the breakfast event for several years and in 2018 Appalshop invited friend and fellow media-maker, William Isom II, to provide the event’s keynote address, spotlighting both the beautiful contributions of Black people in Appalachia, as well as the ugly history of oppression, segregation, and slavery in the mountain South. A history William pointed out is too often whitewashed and conspicuously absent from dominant narratives of the region.

William Isom II is the Director of Community Outreach at East Tennessee PBS in Knoxville, Tennessee. In that role he teaches an after school media training program with Knoxville high school students (PBS Newshour’s Smoky Mountain Youth Media), hosts free community screenings of Independent Lens documentaries and produces/directs the historical films for the Blacks in Appalachia project and provides overall coordination for the project.

William talking with Ben Fink, Bishop Willie Lamp, and Nel Fields.

While in Whitesburg, William recorded a WMMT Mountain Talk on “Reclaiming Black Histories”, spotlighting local work with Appalshop and others.  He joined Terran Young, Willie Dodson, and Marley Green to talk about their work to register, clean-up, and document Black cemeteries in Southwestern Virginia, and to counter the erasure of Black histories in narratives of Appalachia. He then hosted a free community screening of Birth of a Nation, an Independent Lens documentary, in the Appalshop Theater.

William Isom also met with local historian and journalist, Sam Adams, about Letcher County’s own Black history, including Black elected officials and local lynchings. Adams went on to cover William’s visit and the Black in Appalachia Project in the Mountain Eagle newspaper,

“Isom is working on a series of 30-minute television shows for East Tennessee PBS about black history, and lynchings will be part of the difficult history presented in the series. There are more uplifting stories as well, Isom said, such as the 8th of August, a holiday for African Americans that used to be celebrated in some parts of Appalachia, and is still celebrated in western Kentucky. The day is the anniversary of the date in 1863 when Andrew Johnson, then the military governor of Unioncontrolled Tennessee and later vice president and president of the United States, emancipated his personal slaves.”

Follow Black in Appalachia on Facebook for upcoming events and content releases. And look for William Isom to be back in Whitesburg to share his growing body of work and help Appalshop celebrate an upcoming 50th Anniversary in 2019.