Va. Tech Sociologist Explodes Myths About Appalachia

In early 2003, Cambridge University Press will publish two myth-busting books written by Virginia Tech sociologist Wilma Dunaway about slavery in Appalachia: Slavery in the American Mountain South and The African-American Family in Slavery and Emancipation.

“We do a lot of historical lying in this country,” Dunaway says. In these books she intends to set the record straight.

Conventional wisdom says there were few slaves in Appalachia and those who were here were treated better than their counterparts in the deep South.

Dunaway says she has completed an exhaustive study of slave narratives, slaveholder records, census and tax records from 215 Appalachian counties in nine states from western Maryland to northern Georgia and Alabama. She concludes that, not only was slavery common in the mountain South, but it was also more brutal than the slave systems in the Deep South.

In fact, Dunaway says much of the conventional wisdom about Appalachia is just plain wrong. Popular belief holds, even among Appalachian scholars, that the mountain South was full of isolated, landholding farmers. But Dunaway says her research proves that 50-60 percent of rural Appalachian dwellers never owned land.

The idea of Appalachia as isolated from the influence of global markets is also misguided, Dunaway says. In 1820, the market for Appalachian-grown tobacco was weakening and slaves became the cash crop, she says. According to census records, by 1860, three-fifths of the Appalachian slave population had been sold to Deep South plantations. Slave narratives and slaveholder records agree that the number one reason slaves were sold was to make a profit, Dunaway says.

The common image of slavery is the male slave working in the fields, but many Appalachian landholders were also involved in commerce or industry.

“Probably one-quarter to one-third of their slaves were employed outside agriculture,” Dunaway says. Enslaved workers were often hired out to build roads, railroads and buildings and were used as miners. Many of the slaves working in the fields were women, Dunaway says. “But slavery studies have been very male-dominated.”

Among the many myths is the idea that Appalachian slaveholders treated slaves more like extended family members. But Dunaway says slave narratives backed up by census and other records paint a darker picture.

The Christmas season was a particularly desperate time for families living in slavery in Appalachia. Between October and December, enslaved men were hired out for the year, sometimes sent to work hundreds of miles away from their families. Many slaves were sold outright. One of every three Appalachian slaves would likely be sold away from their families by age 40, Dunaway says.

In an article titled “Put in Master’s Pocket: Interstate Slave Trading and the Black Appalachian Diaspora,” Dunaway quotes an ex-slave interviewed in Jackson County, Alabama: “de speckulaters was white men dat sometimes comes around buyin’, sellin’ or tradin’ slaves jest lak dey do cattle now…Dem speckulaters would put de chilluns in a wagon usually pulled by oxens and de older folks was chained or tied together sos dey could not run off and dey would go from one plantation ter another all ovah de country.”

Dunaway argues that this forced mass migration of enslaved African-Americans destroyed families and left enslaved women without any protection from predatory white owners or any help raising their children. Enslaved women were also subjected to a systematic breeding program, sometimes beginning as early as age 15. More often than their Deep South counterparts, Appalachian slave women were forced to bear more children more often to feed the slave trade, averaging one pregnancy every 18 months.

“Slavery was more violent in the mountain South,” Dunaway says, especially for enslaved women who often intervened when plantation owners punished slave children. “The smaller the plantation, the more brutal the treatment of slaves,” she says. Many Appalachian plantations were small, averaging about nine slaves per farm.

For children, Appalachian slavery was particularly deadly. Only about half of enslaved children lived to the age of 15. Of those who survived, many were sold away from their families by the age of 15, Dunaway says.

In fact, she points out, Harvard professor Orlando Patterson has found that slaves held in small groups all over the world were more mistreated because they had closer contact with slaveowners. This proximity, Dunaway asserts, resulted in more stringent racial boundaries on the part of owners and more social infractions on the part of slaves.

“The United States had the largest domestic trade in slaves that has ever existed,” she says. “The whole national economy was based on slavery; no one existed outside the slavery system.”

Dunaway has won much praise and controversy for her work. In reviewing her first book, The First American Frontier, University of Southern California economic historian Edwin J. Perkins said, “I suspect historians of all ideological stripes will be irritated by Dunaway’s preachy, condescending tone, and her aggressive style. Her revisionist thrust is repetitive and redundant.” But he goes on to say that “there is much truth revealed in the data that Dunaway has carefully marshaled. While heavy-handed in her revisionism, she has struck a neglected chord.”

Another reviewer called her work “dogmatic” on the issue of agriculture in Appalachia, but conceded that her analysis of both the causes and the consequences of Appalachia’s economic decline was “brilliant.” He refers to her as “the amazing, if contentious, Wilma A. Dunaway.”

Dunaway says up front that “probably half” of the Appalachian Studies Association disagrees with her, but she pulls no punches in her criticism of Appalachian scholars she faults for ignoring slave narratives and extrapolating to the entire region studies of isolated counties. Worse yet, she says, some Appalachian scholars have perpetuated the “hillbilly” stereotypes they rail against by creating an imaginary “folk culture” based on middle class experiences.

“You don’t ask the kind of questions I ask unless you grow up seeing the world from the bottom up,” Dunaway says.

Born in 1944 to East Tennessee sharecroppers, Dunaway grew up poor and hated, the daughter of a white mother and a Cherokee father. The lightest-skinned of six children, she was the only person in her family to graduate from high school. She won a scholarship to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

In her first college English class, she says she learned that she spoke pidgin English — a combination of proper English, Appalachian dialect and Cherokee words. A professor there helped enroll her in a speech class for the deaf, and, she says, changed the course of her life.

When she was 24, Dunaway dropped out of a Master’s degree program and took a job with the Urban League in Knoxville to help support her family. As a young Civil Rights activist, she was targeted by the Ku Klux Klan, but she continued to work with urban and rural minority communities for 20 years.

She returned to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville to finish her graduate work in 1988 and won fellowships from Berea College and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. She earned her Ph.D. in sociology in 1994. Since then, she has taught at Colorado State University, State University of New York and Virginia Tech.

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