At the tail end of Black History Month in 2020, Appalachia Bare would like to introduce you to an exciting historical preservation project in the Appalachian community.
Black in Appalachia is a community service and documentary series project aiming to exhibit and preserve the histories of African American communities across Appalachia. The documentary series is produced by the East Tennessee Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). William Isom II is the founder and director of the Black in Appalachia organization, as well as the documentary filmmaker director for the PBS series. I recently had a chance to sit down and talk with William about these projects and learn more about this remarkable work to preserve little-known histories and stories of Appalachia. Rather than a detailed account, this piece is an introduction to the tireless work they’ve done and continue to do. This will hopefully be the first in a series that delves more deeply into the vital stories Black in Appalachia uncovers.
William’s work began eight years ago with a documentary film project for East Tennessee PBS entitled, The Swift Story: The First African-American University (aired 7/29/19). Swift Memorial Institute, located in Rogersville, Tennessee, was established in 1901 after Jim Crow laws banned integrated classrooms in both public and private institutions. Its founder was William H. Franklin, the first African-American graduate of Maryville College (an institution that was racially integrated from its founding in 1819). Franklin was a Presbyterian minister and a pillar of the community who touched lives throughout the region. While working on this story, William and his team came into contact with people in communities who had bins and bins of Rubbermaid containers that included everyone’s history – documents, photos, historical artifacts, etc. The documentary crew recognized a whole other need. Helping people preserve their histories and stories – stories that went far beyond the history of Swift Institute – was of fundamental importance. William said, “it felt irresponsible to see that and just come in and make a documentary and say, ‘all right peace-out . . . that looks like a lot of work, see ya.’” This history needs to be preserved, collected, and exhibited. The question was how.
William explained there were really two motives in going beyond the documentaries. The first was how to help willing, enthusiastic communities and organizations preserve and exhibit their own history. The most important issue facing him and his group was how to use available resources to get this work done The second motivation was the broader need to counter the popular stereotype that no Black people – or relatively few – live in Appalachia. While disaffirming this misconception is certainly an important overall goal, for William, the primary motive was “to help these communities tell their own stories and preserve their own stuff.”
His next step involved approaching institutions in the region. He and the group spoke to institutions like East Tennessee State University, the East Tennessee History Center, and the University of Tennessee School of Information Sciences, the latter of which now provide them with graduate students to assist with the work. They’ve partnered with local libraries from Kingsport, Bristol, and Greeneville to learn how to properly preserve and digitize collections. The goal in this work is to elevate these collections, and, more broadly, this history, to the same level of the official archives and courthouse records.
Once invited (since they never go into a community uninvited), they work with local libraries, organizations, churches, and community members to organize “Community History Day” events. These events feature experts and volunteers setting up tables to preserve and digitize the collections folks bring. Often, those who show up are older people, and it’s clear they have more than just letters and photographs to share. They also have their own stories to tell. These personal histories will soon be lost if they’re not preserved. So, William sets up his camera in a separate space to record oral histories and preserve as many stories, histories that people are willing to share.
All this work has led to their creation of the Community History Digital Archive, “a public, searchable archive of digital materials related to African American history in East Tennessee.” This collection is a living, growing historical treasure of primary sources, rarely heard beforehand outside the towns and hollers where they were lived. But now these sources are available everywhere. Black in Appalachia uses current technology to preserve these stories in the most traditional way – by sharing them. So far, they’ve worked in Elizabethton, Bristol, Kingsport, Greeneville, and Morristown. They are looking to expand at a pace that allows then to do the work well.
The link between the PBS documentaries and the preservation work is the ability to identify and reveal untold stories – stories like the Swift Institute, the August 8th Emancipation Celebrations, the Tennessee Picnic, and the Knoxville Race Riot of 1919; and then engage with community members on a more personal level. “There’s plenty of stories,” William said, “but if you can identify something that allows for your capacity to really engage with it that [capacity] is also a determining factor.” Upcoming projects include pieces on Knoxville College and Morristown College, which round out the series on Historically Black Colleges in the area. And Black in Appalachia has started developing teacher’s guides to accompany the videos for use in the classroom. The first of these study guides is for a piece on the Erwin Expulsions of 1918, a particularly dark bit of the region’s history.
Long term, William sees this work continuing indefinitely. “There’s no end to it right now,” he says, “[Black in Appalachia] will try to identify different needs and try to be agile enough to address these needs as far as narratives.” A current project involves mapping Bristol’s old Black business district, an area now gone under the guise of “urban renewal,” and connecting historical locations to current ones. This means they had to find a person trained in GIS Mapping who also has a passion to support this safeguarding work for very little pay. No matter what formats or systems they may use, the ultimate goal does not change: helping communities tell their stories and preserve our past for future generations.
“Black in Appalachia is working to highlight the history of African-Americans in the development of our region and its culture. Through research, local narratives, public engagement and exhibition, this project aims to raise the visibility and contributions of the Black communities of the Mountain South. This project is a community service for Appalachian residents and families with roots in the region.”