ISC hopes to ensure 'Affrilachian' heritage isn't forgotten or erased

Jonathan Roberts • Updated Aug 20, 2019 at 10:05 PM

Four hundred years ago, Africans were first brought to the New World as slaves. Some were enslaved in Appalachia, and their descendants can trace their roots back to the mountainous region.

Starting in October, the International Storytelling Center will begin a years-long project to ensure those stories are not only remembered, but brought to the forefront of public discourse, especially as it pertains to “struggles for freedom, equality and justice.”

“This is a project I’ve been wanting to do, but really this is a project that’s emerged from this community,” said Storytelling Center President Kiran Singh Sirah. “You look and unpack the histories of what’s important locally, and then you go and create programs that can have a national or international resonance.”

The project, “Freedom Stories: Exploring the African American Heritage of Appalachia,” will feature a series of 12 public discussions in East Tennessee, Western North Carolina and Southwest Virginia beginning at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough in October. The remaining 11 events will take place between May 2020 and August 2021, and will include other multimedia resources to widen the project’s impact.

2020 discussions will focus on 18th and 19th century “Affrilachian” history, with 2021 focusing on 20th and 21st century history.

A $200,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities will help fund the project, something Jonesborough Alderman Adam Dickson, who’s also the supervisor for the Langston Center — a partner of the program — views as a catalyst for greater understanding of African American history in the region.

“This grant really allows individuals, specifically African Americans, to showcase their perspective of the Appalachian Highlands,” he said. “It gives us an opportunity to highlight the stories, yes, but also show the outside world the wonderful experiences of people in the area.”

Both Dickson and Singh Sirah said they felt Jonesborough was the perfect place to host the program, pointing to its rich legacy of inclusivity and pro-abolition movement during the Civil War, though Dickson was careful to note that non-inclusive, pro-slavery and racist stories are just as much a part of the town’s history.

“You’re not glossing over the past or certain realities, but what you’re showing is that this town of 5,500 people, when the Ku Klux Klan wanted to come to Jonesborough, there was a broad community effort to say ‘no, not here’,” Dickson said. “Those stories are important because they show that even in rural America, the stereotypes are not what they seem.”

“Jonesborough is the best place for this,” Dickson added.

Singh Sirah, meanwhile, views the project as an opportunity to build peace, and facilitate a larger, national movement of empathy and understanding — the bedrock of peace, in his mind.

“To build a sense of pride, we have to come to the table, we have to explore our stories — learn more about one another,” Singh Sirah said. “When we learn more about each other’s stories we build empathy, and when we build empathy, that’s the foundation for peace, understanding and intercultural dialogue — that is the foundation for what storytelling is based on.”

“I want East Tennessee to be a pioneer and a showcase for that,” he added.

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