Dedicated to preserving and highlighting black history, a Knoxville-based initiative is on a mission traveling up and down the corridors of the “Mountain South” and unraveling a tangled but important past.
Monday night, the PBS Black in Appalachia project came to Blount, set on adding energy to a conversation that is already thriving.
Led by William Isom II, the meeting at the Blount County Public Library focused on the need for a community of researchers. Isom is the director of Black in Appalachia and East Tennessee PBS community outreach. His presentation shifted gears from informational to anecdotal and from local to regional.
But despite the wide swath of land, people and culture Isom has worked with in curating this project, he started off his presentation by celebrating the icons of Black historical preservation in Blount, people like Shirley Carr Clowney and the late Dorothy Mitchell-Kincaid.
Clowney, author of “Our Place in Time: Blacks in Blount County” and her husband Cato were in the audience. She recalled a youth in which she had to walk a mile to get to her school where they had to use secondhand books.
“I walked to school for 14 years,” she said. “Except my dad would take us when it was raining.”
Times may have changed since Clowney’s youth, but her desire to preserve and maintain the memories of black families has stayed strong.
An analysis of that strength and its staying power were the driving forces of Isom’s talk.
History from ‘the holler’
“You’ve got two mountains, right?” Isom said to the crowd of around 70 by way of illustration. One mountain he labeled as the “official narrative” of history, documents one might find at the courthouse. The other mountain was the “vernacular history,” stories told by the community.
But the dip between the two is what Black in Appalachia hones in on.
“Where two mountains come together is the holler,” Isom said. “In this analogy, by holding up these two things as valid, we can get to the closest thing that you can get to that may be considered the truth.”
That belief is what lead to the project’s community history days and even to Isom’s Blount visit. He looked out over the audience at one point and said he knew he was standing in a room full of research experts.
Black in Appalachia is on the front lines of harvesting fertile information from “the holler” and giving communities the kinds of vast database research information they need to tell their own stories about African American experiences over the years.
PBS specializes in collecting and coalescing narratives to create both short and long-form documents under the Black in Appalachia moniker.
But at the soul of the project, there’s another intention that acts as an adhesive for the projects, the people, and the counties that are pushing for a more thorough enumeration of black history.
“I have done research and tried to go out and speak to (people of color) at churches and organizations ... so that they will get involved,” Clowney said in an interview after the event. “Basically, it’s so the young people will have this information to pass onto their generation.”
That’s what brought Clowney to the event, but she said it is a struggle to get people to attend events or even care about preservation and archiving in the way that she and Kincaid did.
“It’s important to understand where we’re at in time,” Isom said after the event. “I’m the first generation of my family that never lived under segregation.”
That’s the good news. The bad news, he explained, is that his generation of historians has not done a great job of supporting the next generation in their search for the past.
“I would encourage them: you’ve got to talk to your grandma. You’ve got to talk to that weird uncle,” Isom said.
Without those conversations, African American communities are in danger of having their history erased or forgotten.
For example, one thing many Blount Countians may have forgotten? There were around 1,380 enslaved people in 1860 — 10.6% of the population — according to Isom.
“That erasure is so comprehensive, that when you see a community that has done anything, it’s like a beacon. It’s like a shining light,” Isom said. “I think so far Blount County is, like, you can see it, outside of the county, what people have done.”
Between its cooperation with Berea College to archive interviews, Maryville college archival projects, local history celebrations and a wealth of other efforts, Blount continues to fill in the lines of public record and local legend with vibrant shades of truth.
“But you’ll never run out of work to do,” Isom said, moments after reflecting on the work of black leaders the county has lost. “I knew Dorothy,” he said. “I traveled with her, so I know that loss.”
Fighting those kinds of losses and the rolling tide of erasure many black communities throughout the U.S. face, Black in Appalachia is trying to get a snapshot of history before documents are lost and stories can no longer be told.
Even Clowney said she has boxes of documents in her home that still need research and archiving.
For the time being, recognition is a top priority, and Isom said his project may return to the area this March if there is viable enthusiasm for the kind of work they are doing.
Meanwhile, Black in Appalachia is taking the presentation to other Eastern Tennessee counties, hosting community history days, doing mobile black history displays and mapping projects and even starting a podcast for PRX.
All of this centers around the mission of bringing unheard voices out of the woodwork, the paperwork and the moments of just listening.
“When you’re wrapping up an interview you say ‘Is there anything you want people to know?’” Isom reflected at the end of his talk. “And one time this lady in Cocke County said, ‘Yeah. We just want people to know that we’re here.’”