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"Black hands building the south:" William Turner discusses important role of Appalachia in black history

Brandon Paykamian • Updated Feb 12, 2019 at 9:17 AM

The experiences of people of color in Appalachia are often overlooked in many historical discussions about the region, which usually focus on the Scotch-Irish settlers who came to define understandings of contemporary mainstream Appalachian culture.

But William Turner, a Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame inductee and one of the first scholars and writers to thoroughly study and explore the important role of African-Americans in Appalachian studies, came to East Tennessee State University Monday to teach that Appalachian history isn’t “monochromatic.”  

In his presentation “Blacks in Appalachia: Southern Appalachia and the Modern Civil Rights Movement,” Turner spoke of how integral Appalachian, or “Affrilachian” figures, were in the civil rights movement and in black history as a whole. He set out to teach about the “black hands building the South.” 

“The academic gatekeepers always thought that there was nothing to know about black people in this region,” he said. “In fact, in the 1960s, someone wrote, ‘The number of negroes in this region is so small that their social consequences are of no significance.’” 

But Turner said black Appalachians and others from the region played a huge role in the ongoing fight for racial equality since the days of slavery and early America.

As Turner pointed out, Jonesborough was the home of “The Emancipator” — the first American abolitionist newspaper founded in 1820 by Elihu Embree. It was this publication that partly influenced Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” as well as the writings and work of Frederick Douglass, who founded “The North Star.” 

Turner’s presentation also touched on the places in which civil rights fighters like Martin Lither King Jr. and Rosa Parks came to learn more about activism — the Highlander Center in New Market. 

“All of the civil rights leadership in that era led to one place, which is roughly two hours from here in New Market, Tennessee,” he said. “Everybody thinks, for example, that Rosa Parks — who I had the pleasure of taking a picture with a few times — that Ms. Rosa Parks just one day said, ‘I’m tired. I ain’t getting up out of my seat.’”

But that’s not how it happened, Turner said.

“They met at the Highlander Center — they rehearsed it,” he pointed out. 

In the course of his presentation, Turner also touched on how the whitewashing of Appalachian civil rights history plays into mainstream understandings of black history as a whole.

Turner even set out to correct some perceptions of black nationalism, which he said is different than white nationalism because it “never focuses on other people’s inferiority" — taking jabs at President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech along the way. 

“Nobody celebrates Malcolm X’s birthday. They go out here every January and have this ‘Disneyfication’ of Martin Luther King,” he said. “Actually, Martin Luther King was a lot more revolutionary than you think he was. In fact, he was going for the same kind of socialism in America that Donald Trump was talking about in his speech last Monday night.” 

Turner’s presentation was part of a string of Black History Month events at ETSU and was sponsored by the ETSU Center for Appalachian Studies and Services.

After his presentation at Reece Museum, Turner also participated in a Black and White dialogue event at Carver Recreation Center, where he accompanied Ron Carson, who spoke about his experiences growing up black in Pennington Gap, Virginia.

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