Unraveling the Hidden Black History of Appalachian Activism

Demonstrators of the Poor People’s March on Washington, 1968. Public domain image via the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division.

From the late-nineteenth century to the present, the most popular stories of Appalachia have been simplistic tales of white mountaineers. Those stories have infused everything from culture to politics and media. Despite important counterexamples, these stories continue to be the starting place for most Americans’ understanding of Appalachia — one that erases a complex history of race, racism and Black resistance. Placing Black people in Appalachia’s history is not simply a matter of recognizing diversity. Rather, it forces a different angle, a truer way of seeing the region and its relationship to the South and the United States.

If Black people have been difficult to see in Appalachian history, Black women have been virtually invisible. They can be hard to find in institutional archives that, until the 1970s, did not preserve the history of Black Appalachians with any consistency. And they have been marginalized in a region defined historically by its relationship to whiteness and embodied by white men.

Mary Rice Farris, a Black woman who lived her whole life in Madison County, Kentucky, where the knobby hills meet the bluegrass, worked much of her life to demand that Black Appalachia be seen and heard. Her story, preserved in oral history interviews and other documents at the Berea College Special Collections and Archives, reveals the intersections between African American, Appalachian and women’s history, and how one Black woman from Appalachia fought for Black civil rights and economic justice.

Slavery and Emancipation in Appalachia

In 1914, Mary White, a Black midwife, caught Mary Rice Farris at her birth. Mary White was a former slave who built an illustrious career after Emancipation. Calling her generation the “second after slavery,” Farris narrated her historically Black community’s history through the story of Mary White.

White was born in 1835 to the enslaved couple Metilda Elder and Mitchell Walker. The man who owned the family sold infant Mary White to slave owner Wash Mopkin.

When White was 11 years old, Mopkin sold her for $14 to Durke White, who placed her in a cabin behind his house before “he took her to the big house as his mistress,” according to Farris.

Farris used the coded language of her day — “took her … as his mistress” — that made clear the reality of the stealing Black women’s bodies. This white man bought a girl named Mary and raped her. She bore two children, raised them and kept Durke’s house. Historian Shannon Eaves has called this confluence of reproductive, domestic and emotional labor “sexual servitude.”

Durke died at the hands of “night riders,” the term given to vigilante groups. Farris guessed that they disliked how he carried on with a Black woman. White ended up in another slave cabin on the estate of Robert Cochran. He soon “took her as his mistress” and “after slavery, kept her on as his mistress,” according to Farris.

In 1880, White headed her own household and raised her eight children. At some point in the late nineteenth century, Robert died, leaving his estate to Mary White and her children.

At that point White fashioned a new identity, one staked on freedom. She chose her own profession, adopted a little rat terrier she named Ruth (her “constant companion”), and placed a white picket fence around her house.

White entered a nursing program at Berea College, where in 1855 the abolitionist John G. Fee had organized an interracial community and opened the doors of the college to Black and white students. Carter G. Woodson is among the most celebrated alumnus. “An intellectual pioneer in Appalachian studies,” as Cynthia Greenlee recently argued, Woodson, who hailed from West Virginia, would go on to attend the University of Chicago and Harvard.

White also had an illustrious career. She graduated and became a midwife in the region. According to Farris, “Most all of the Black and many of the white babies in and around southern Madison County and around Berea were delivered by Mary White.”

Embodying a story of resistance and resilience, White delivered babies and cared for families up until the day before her death in 1924, when Farris was ten years old.

The Second Generation Since Slavery

Mary Farris. Photo courtesy of the family.

White’s story was evidence of what Black women could do and achieve despite a state of deprivation, as Farris called slavery. Growing up during the nadir, when white southerners restricted Black civil rights and terrorized Black communities, Farris would face a different kind of deprivation.

As a child Farris grew up near Berea College’s campus and knew that community leaders like Mary White had been educated there. She desired what it had to offer. But in 1904 Governor J. C. W. Beckham had signed the Day Law, “An Act to Prohibit White and Colored Persons from Attending the Same School.” She would attend the Lincoln Institute, an all-Black boarding school created in the aftermath of the Day Law.

Farris remembered, “I walked through (Berea) as a little girl, barefooted and dusty, and sold blackberries and bought me some cheese and crackers and sat on that campus and watched those girls, hopping and skipping, and looked at those buildings and wished and prayed that I might be able to prepare myself for a better life. But I wasn’t able to because I couldn’t go there because of the Day Law.”

Neither could her own children. And her husband, Moss, could not get a job there, even though he was as qualified, often times more, than the poor white people who were hired.

Farris married the farmer Moss G. Farris and had four children with him. She helped her husband in the tobacco fields and, when her family needed more income, worked as a hotel maid, a packager at a munitions factory and as a cosmetics saleswoman.

Farris emerged as a leader in the First Baptist Church of Berea, where she served in a variety of capacities and became a well-known speaker throughout Kentucky and Ohio. She joined and was elected vice president of Church Women United of Madison County, an inclusive Christian women’s movement that worked to improve the lives of women and children.

Understanding the importance of political power in the quest for full civil rights, Farris rose in the ranks of the Republican Party of Madison County and became the area coordinator, running the local polling booth. She became so well known in Madison County that white politicians began courting her for endorsements. Her granddaughter, Ms. Cheryl Farris, recalls watching her grandmother go head-to-head with politicians at her dining room table. “She could talk to anyone,” she said.

By the late 1960s, she sought full-time work that brought together her interests in politics and improving her community.

The Struggle for Civil and Human Rights

“All my life done political and community work,” Farris wrote in a 1967 application for a job in a War on Poverty program. “The people have been deprived of what they should have received, and I would like to see that something is done for them.” Like many middle-aged Black women across the country, she saw federal resources as a right of citizenship, a way to enact freedom.

War on Poverty programs relied on networks that women like Farris had been building for years. Farris used the too-often scant resources to expand programs in her community: cultural and social programs for African American youth, information sessions on welfare for poor people and events for senior citizens. She helped to organize a library of 2500 books for local kids to use. She took one group of youth for a tour at Berea College, where African American students were finally admitted, and she took others to Frankfort, the capital of the state, for protest marches.

In February 1968, Farris took her political skills to a new arena when she went to the heart of Appalachia to confront Senator Robert F. Kennedy and Congressman Carl D. Perkins.

Vortex was the first stop on Kennedy’s eight-stop tour of eastern Kentucky. On the verge of announcing his presidential campaign, Kennedy was there to document the effectiveness of President Johnson’s War on Poverty programs and whether citizens had “enough to eat.”

Farris arrived at a one-room schoolhouse in Vortex. Inside, almost solely white people crowded the building. They were there to testify about their lives, to tell an Appalachian story before powerful white men who seemed to care.

Farris was prepared to tell a story of Appalachia, too. A story of Black Appalachia — and Black America — at an event that recreated the story of Appalachian whiteness, a cornerstone myth of white America.

Congressman Carl D. Perkins, who represented the eastern Kentucky district, joined Kennedy. Both men gushed about how much they loved and admired the people of Appalachia, and when they said “people,” they meant “white.” They are the “best people in the world,” Perkins exclaimed, before identifying himself as one of them. “We love our country.”

Five other people besides Farris testified that day — two white men, three white women, all of them identified by the conveners as Mr. and Mrs. except for Farris, despite her decades-long marriage.

Farris testified last, and her words packed a punch. “I am Mary Rice Farris, representative of a delegation of Madison County,” she began.

Perkins’ embrace of white Appalachia wasn’t simply semantics but had real consequences in policy decisions. The War on Poverty programs in Appalachia flowed mainly to white people in Appalachia, despite the fact that Black people were disproportionately poor and, of the impoverished population, were the poorest. Farris noted this when she pointed out that white communities throughout Appalachia had begun to get food stamps, which allowed people access to a wider range of foods, while Black communities continued to have access only to commodities food programs, in which foodstuff was rotting or full of worms.

Farris then articulated the connection between racism, injustice and poverty:

(Why are we) spending $70 million dollars a day in Vietnam, plus loss of life, when (there) are millions of people in our area hungry, without homes and decent housing, or without clothing. And we would also like to know why the Negro is having to fight for a decent place in society as a rightful citizen? Why we, as American Negroes, are having to fight and speak out for a right to take decent responsibility in this great nation?

Her line of questions raised the hackles of Perkins, who refused to address her by name, instead referring to her as “this lady here.”

Kennedy and Perkins stalled and blurted out hollow statements.

Farris asserted, “I want an answer.” While they could not answer, that wasn’t the point; her statement underscored that the crises of the moment would demand an answer. And by her presence, she insisted on telling a story of Black Appalachia.

With Eyes Open to the Future

Farris continued community work when she returned home. In 1969, she attended the White House Conference on Food and Nutrition, and she supervised the emergency food and medical services of the Kentucky River Foothills Development Council in the late ’60s.

She also joined the board of the prominent reform organization Council of the Southern Mountains. For most of its history, it had ignored the needs of Black Appalachians. Farris was part of a group of leaders who led efforts to make the council more inclusive, including establishing a Black Appalachian Commission that, in the words of one of its members, Jack Guillebeaux, “was the first recognition of the fact that the plight of black people is an integral part of the definition of Appalachia and its problems.”

Farris wrote of the new Council, “It has condemned second-class citizenship and deepened its fellowship with all the people. I have confidence and hope that the Council now has a new opportunity to serve Appalachia in the coming years with eyes open to the future.”

Farris’s reference to the “future” was no coincidence. The common perception of Appalachia as a white enclave and a place of nostalgia had erased the complex histories of Black men and women and had led to a false history of Appalachia. She understood how incomplete histories cut off paths to the future. Lacking a true history, policy makers and activists would continue to ignore the experiences of Black Appalachians. The council’s transformation signaled the possibility for new understandings of the region and a new frontier in the struggle for democracy.

We remain far from Mary Farris’s future. Stories like hers continue to be erased every time Appalachia is cast as a region of poor whites. Bringing her story to light, and others like it, is necessary in order to fully reckon with our history and to imagine paths toward a more just future in Appalachia

In 2016 the Richmond-Madison County branch of the NAACP recognized Mary Rice Farris for her commitment to civil rights, nearly forty years after her death. Her legacy continues, and her words — spoken in 1973 as the backlash to the Civil Rights Movement gathered steam — still carry power today: “Because we still have people … who would like very much to put us back. Of course that will never happen. We’ll never stand for that.”

Jessica Wilkerson is an assistant professor of history and Southern studies at the University of Mississippi. She is currently completing her first book, To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice (forthcoming, University of Illinois Press).

This story has been corrected to identify Jack Guillebeaux’s role as a member and eventual director, not the founder, of the Black Appalachian Commission.

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