William Isom II had been searching for his great-great-grandfather, Kelson Isom, for 20 years. He finally broke through the brick wall as a result of his work with the Black in Appalachia Project, researching a slave cemetery in Lee County, Virginia.
“I just so happened to find the record of my great-great-granddad as a slave in Scott County, Virginia,” Isom said. “He was listed as property in a will. The slave owner had died and listed him and his brothers as property in the will. Once you can find the slave owner you can find other records. For me, that was one of the most amazing finds that benefited me personally.”
At 7 p.m. Monday, Isom, director of community outreach for East Tennessee PBS and director of Black in Appalachia, will speak about the project at the Blount County Public Library’s next program in its Southern Appalachian Studies Series. Admission is free, and the public is invited to attend.
Digging for answers
Black in Appalachia gathers together local residents, academia and public media to work collectively to document, preserve and make available the historic narratives of black communities in the region. As project director, Isom coordinates locally-specific research, community data base development, documentary film and photography production, oral history collection and educational events with residents in the region concentrating on black history in the Mountain South.
Isom is a sixth-generation East Tennessean and is currently an Equality Fellow with the Open Society Foundation. He said, “In the program, I will talk about some of the things we’re working on, goals of the project, some of the things we found and we’re going to talk about some of the stuff we found from Blount County. I’ll also talk about the vast scope of the program, what we’ve done and what we’ve got coming up.”
Researching his own family history showed him how difficult it is to find records of black history via traditional sources. “I recognized how hard it was to research that stuff, also how many stories were available in our region but are not readily available,” he said. “You can’t go to the historic societies in most counties and find any substantial information about the black communities. If you dig a little bit and look, they’re there, and it’s a vast amount of historical information. You just have to dig for it.”
Black in Appalachia began as East Tennessee PBS created a documentary about the Swift Memorial Institute that was in Rogersville. “It was a historically black college, but that college was actually created out of Maryville College when the state of Tennessee forced Maryville College to segregate,” Isom said. “So Maryville College took a portion of their endowment and dedicated that money to the development of a black college for students in East Tennessee.”
Since 2013-2014, PBS has continued to build the project. “We’re trying to fill in the holes of some of the places that don’t normally get highlighted or talked about,” Isom said. “We want to try to find those geographic areas where there’s not been a lot done and flesh out those stories for community members.”
Keepers of community
Isom said when they began doing these documentaries, “We realized that the gap in these historical materials is not because the photos and documents don’t exist, it’s that they don’t exist in our libraries and our historic societies. They exist in people’s basements in Rubbermaid containers and shoe boxes.
“Oftentimes, it’s a woman in the community, an older woman, who is the caretaker of these things. In Blount County, that person for a long, long time was the late Dorothy Kincaid. You find those similar community members in every small community—there’s always at least one of those people that caretake and collect the history.”
East Tennessee PBS began to develop a community history database to make the materials available to the public for free. “The idea is to take these things that people have in their homes and their own personal family stories and raise them up to the importance of academic study or formal historic records,” Isom said. “These stories and documents that people have in their basements are just as important … You can’t have formal records, like courthouse records and census records, without having the oral histories from people and the family stories. If you have one or the other, you don’t have the complete story.”
For more information about Black in Appalachia, or to share your own stories, email Isom at firstname.lastname@example.org