Slavery in Appalachia: The untold stories of Black Appalachian history

Published: Feb. 1, 2023 at 5:11 PM EST
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NEW RIVER VALLEY, Va. (WDBJ) - The topic of slavery in Appalachia is a subject that is hard to discuss, and not well known.

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Some people believe slavery did not exist in the Appalachian or Blue Ridge Mountains. However, from the earliest years of European settlement, slavery has been part of the fabric of the region.

The New River Valley was no exception. According to local historians, the number of enslaved people in the area grew in the years leading to the Civil War.

One woman named Sarah Carter spent years digging into this moment in time, learning just how connected her family is to this region.

“In 1984, my grandmother passed away and my mother and a cousin of hers wanted to start a family reunion that Fall. So my mother’s cousin kind of backed out, but my mother went ahead and did it. So she had the reunion that year. And so my mom said, I’m not doing this. This is too much work and that’s it. You’ve already started so I will do it,” said lifelong Radford resident Sarah Carter.

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“I started out thinking it would be interesting to find something that the family could look at, you know, like, marriage licenses and find out who was who. what was what. I can appreciate Virginia’s marriage license because I have a lot of information that you can work on.”

It was then, she traced her family‘s history all the way back to 1792.

“It just sort of just latched on to me and it hasn’t let me go since,” said Carter.

Carter is one of a handful of descendants who are living proof that slavery did exist in Appalachia, and it birthed some of the most influential people in parts of the New River Valley.

“A lady by the name of Mrs. Mary Kegler put together a book called ‘Free People of Color’. She had no idea that she had my family’s court cases in there and to find out that actually my family my grandfather’s people were here in 1792,” said Carter.

“I try to think – to of think how they felt. And what were they thinking when they were brought down the road – the rock road and had no idea where they were going or what was going to happen to think how they felt, knowing that they didn’t own their own life.”

Howard Eaves, Sr. was born and spent his early years in the community of Wake Forest (Montgomery County) and attended the former all-Black high school, Christiansburg Institute, now known as a grassroots cultural heritage and historic preservation non-profit organization.

Eaves also serves as the president of the Wake Forest Community Action Club and overseer of the slave monument located on Kentland Farms, now owned by Virginia Tech.

“When you present the population of this county in 1860, there were enslaved individuals. There were almost two dozen full-blown plantations. Wake Forest, for example, many of the enslaved people who ended up in Wake Forest, they were on the plantation of J.R. Kent,” said Dr. Daniel Thorp, an associate professor of history at Virginia Tech.

“James Kent, gave his daughter, he gave her 8 slaves – she freed them and gave them the land in Wake Forest,” said Howard Eaves Sr. “It showed the sufficiency and how the communities thrive after being enslaved people.”

Many descendants of these slaves now live in the local community of Wake Forest. There is also a local cemetery where some of the descendants of the unknown slaves are buried.

Historians have found communities like Wake Forest, New Town, and Nellie’s Cave (among others) are all in Montgomery County and have rich legacies yet to be fully explored.

Dr. Daniel Thorp is an associate professor of history at Virginia Tech and continues to uncover forgotten histories. He is the author of four books and nearly two dozen articles --- including two books called Facing Freedom and In the True Blue’s Wake – which have focused on the history of African Americans in Montgomery County during and after the era of slavery.

“In A True Blues Wake, I decided to look at one very small location, but for a more extended period of time. So I had come across in my research for facing freedom the inventory of a man, James Patton Preston, who was one of the owners of Smithfield Plantation. When he died, they inventoried all of his property, and that included 91 human beings who were enslaved on the plantation,” said Dr. Thorp.

“And so I started with that list and I thought, ‘Okay, I want to identify who these people were, where they came from, how they got here, what they did while they were here as enslaved individuals, and then what happened to them afterwards?’ And so that, and building on some of the work I had done before, I was able to identify about half of the 91,” he said.

Dr. Thorp says uncovering this kind of history can be a challenge.

“Just knowing the names of their ancestors is a challenge. Because even though every one of those 91 people were on that inventory, every one of them had a last name. They knew their last names. They could tell you their genealogy. The people [white] who wrote down the record didn’t put any of their last names. Last names didn’t matter,” Dr. Thorp said.

“I think a lot of white Southerners are ashamed or embarrassed that their ancestors owned human beings. And so, there’s a desire to make it go away. Just sort of ignore it. And in this part of the country, that was relatively easy to do. Because there was such enormous out-migration.”

According to the Montgomery County Census, between 1880-1890 the county was 20% to 22% Black -- by 1960 it was about 3% Black.

“If you’re, if you read a lot of the local histories that were written in the past about Appalachia, whose story is --- ‘oh, these were Yeoman farmers, lots of Scots, Irish, and Germans. They didn’t have slaves. Some of them didn’t believe in slavery. It was never an issue here.’ That’s simply not true,” said Dr. Thorp. “But they were allowed to continue believing that because if you looked around Montgomery County in 1960-1970 and 1980, ‘Oh, yeah there are no Black people here, there must’ve never been slavery here’.”

Dr. Theresa Burriss serves as the director of Appalachian Studies and the Appalachian Regional & Rural Studies Center at Radford University. She picks up on the story when she began her research on Affrilachians, a word coined by Frank X. Walker.

“I think that there was a movement. I don’t think ---I know – there’s a movement to divorce ourselves, or an attempt to divorce ourselves from the realities and obviously plural realities of many people’s experiences,” said Dr. Burriss.

She has published numerous articles and book chapters on the Affrilachians. Her research shows that even beyond slavery, the small Black communities of Appalachia thrived but often went overlooked.

“And Frank was basically tired of people of color being absent from literature --from the history books,” said Dr. Burriss.

However, the descendants are working to make sure the visible landscape of what’s left of their ancestors will not be completely erased, by recording and preserving their legacy at local historical sites.

“I’ve learned more about Black history with my work with the project—the Calfee project and a lot of it has been uncovered,” said Dr. Michael ‘Mickey’ Hickman, the president of the Calfee Community and Cultural Center board of directors.

Dr. Hickman also serves as the chair of the Calfee Community Center museum and history committee.

After attending the former Calfee Training School and Christiansburg Institute, he graduated from Pulaski High School, Wytheville Community College, Virginia Tech, and Radford University. He retired after 42 years with Pulaski County Public Schools, where he worked as a principal, high school history teacher, and coach.

“People need to be reminded of that, because that it did exist at the --we did happen, segregation happened, and those are two ugly systems and I still have hope for people and I am living proof,” said Dr. Hickman.

People like Sarah Carter, Howard Eaves Sr., and Dr. Hickman all simply hope and wish for their family’s legacy to be remembered, although it is a history that is at times hard to discuss.

“Nobody’s passing the torch along-- not necessarily, not necessarily passing the torch. I don’t like to use the terminology, ‘passing torch a long about Black History –light a blaze to the next generation and figuring out to understand,” said Eaves.

“I’m ashamed of slavery. But I just never ever will be ashamed of my family being slaves,” said Carter. “I get emotional when I find these things, and you—we were never told them. And to think that you’re here because of them. I’m glad that didn’t die at that particular time. Ruth didn’t get to live to get out of slavery but her son did.”

The Glencoe Mansion, Museum, and Gallery’s exhibit ‘Slavery in Appalachia’ will be open for the entire month of February. The exhibit has been made possible through a grant from the Virginia Humanities.

To learn more about the museum and its stories, visit the museum’s website.