Southern People’s History

The South has a rich history of communities coming together to fight for justice and equality. While there are those that still cling to the belief that they can fly the Confederate Flag and claim “heritage not hate”, we know there is another history of the South that has nothing to do with worshiping the symbols of slavery or the elite plantation class that oversaw it. There are other kinds of rebels throughout the South that rarely get celebrated, ones that fought against the Confederacy, organized slave uprisings, and took part in some of the largest labor rebellions in US history. Here we celebrate that history with a monthly Southern People’s history column.

One Head and One Heart: 300 Years of Resistance in the
Great Dismal Swamp

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Though it now occupies only 10% of its original size, the Great Dismal Swamp once covered over one million acres of land, reaching from what is now Norfolk, Virginia to Edenton, North Carolina. That vast expanse of forested wetlands holds a secret history, the story of resistance to the violent economy of the colonies and the nation they became. In this morass, people of different origins and ideas came together to create a life outside of and in refutation of the plantation system that came to dominate the surrounding region. …READ MORE

In 1975 Women Revolted at a North Carolina Prison

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During the US civil rights movement of the 60’s and 70’s, oppressive prison conditions began gaining more attention from human rights advocacy groups and media. Forced sterilization (predominantly of young, poor women), unsafe working conditions, rape, unexplained deaths of prisoners of color, and medical neglect inspired a new movement of human rights campaigns. Advocacy groups began holding demonstrations, mediating with prison administrations, and providing general support for prisoners’ rights.

In North Carolina, this national atmosphere of revolutionary activity manifested in a number of groups and a broader counter-culture, especially in the triangle area, that played key roles in supporting a civil rights movement at a Raleigh women’s correctional facility. Organizations like the Black Panthers, Action for Forgotten Women, and Triangle Area Lesbian Feminists got wind of medical neglect and dangerous working conditions suffered by the prisoners at the North Carolina Correctional Correctional Center for Women (NCCCW) and allied themselves with prisoners to help them demand better treatment. …READ MORE

The Daughters of Mother Jones

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The year was 1989 and the miners in southwest Virginia had only been on strike for a couple of weeks. A group of 40 women walked into the headquarters of Pittston Coal Company, sat down, and refused to leave until the company signed a new contract with the striking miners. They occupied the offices of the coal company for 36 hours before being removed. When talking to media and police they refused to give their names, responding only that they were the Daughters of Mother Jones. Mary Harris Jones, fondly referred to as Mother Jones was the famous radical labor organizer who was a critical part of many of the early 1900’s largest and most militant miners strikes in the Appalachian coalfields.

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Remembering the Rosenwald Schools

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by Laura Keyes
The Rosenwald schools were one room schoolhouses built to educate black children in rural communities during the early part of the 20th century. These schools were the brainchild of Booker T. Washington, a prominent educator, author, orator, and an advisor to multiple presidents. He was also a founder of Tuskegee University in Alabama, a school that was started with the principles and intent of providing higher education for the black community. During his time at Tuskegee, he came to realize that there was a severe lack of quality primary education available in the rural South for black children. He partnered with the philanthropist Julius Rosenwald to build schools in rural areas with the help of matching community investments.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy Recreate Ancestry in the Image of White Supremacy

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One of the most impacting reminders of the legacy of white supremacy in the South is the historical tourism of memorialized colonizers, plantation slavery, and the Confederacy. For instance in Franklin, Tennessee, the Civil War and plantation tourism is a multi-million dollar industry. One main attraction is the Carnton Plantation which boasts the largest privately owned Confederate cemetery in the South, with dead interred after the bloody “Battle of Franklin”. The large plantation house operates as a venue rentable for weddings and parties, a walking park, a gift shop, and is in close proximity to one of the most polluted rivers in Tennessee. The 1,400 acre plantation owned by John Mcgavock (close friend of the perpetrator of the “Indian Removal Act”, Andrew Jackson), was also a place that enslaved many African-Americans, a piece of history which is far removed from the efforts of the plantation’s management to glorify an elegant and tragic Southern past, evoking the bravery of Confederate soldiers and more particularly the McGavock Family who were elite white slave owners.

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In Fight for Better Conditions Louisiana Lumber Workers United Across Racial Lines in Jim Crow South

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In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s timber barons turned their attention towards the vast native forests of the South, buying up millions of acres and quickly laying waste to the region’s diverse forested habitats. It is estimated that these lumber companies were responsible for clearing 90% of the South’s native forests. Logging these forests at such a quick rate required a massive labor force. By 1910 260,000 people toiled on behalf of these wealthy lumber empires and about half of these workers were black.

In addition to wages for Southern lumberers being 15-20% lower than the rest of the country, timber workers lived in feudal-like conditions in poverty stricken company towns reminiscent of the mining camps in the coalfields. One worker remarking on the conditions of the time said, “The timber and lumber workers … are being practically held as peons within barbed wire enclosures; where there is no law except the will of the Lumber Trust’s imported thugs and gunmen.”

Conditions reached a breaking point for timber workers in 1907 when the companies simultaneously lengthened the work day and cut wages by 20% making an already hard life intolerable. In response timber workers in eastern Texas and western Louisiana rose up and launched a series of crippling wildcat strikes that closed hundreds of sawmills. This wave of strikes was ultimately crushed, but out of the ashes came a new union for workers to organize for better work conditions in the mills and forests of the South. …READ MORE

 

Nina Simone’s Radical Roots are in the Mountains of Western NC

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Today we celebrate one of Appalachia’s finest musicians, and no we aren’t talking fiddles and banjos. We are talking about civil rights icon and piano extraordinaire Nina Simone. On February 21st 1933 Nina Simone was born in the small mountain town of Tryon, NC.  The sixth child of a poor family, Simone, whose birth name was Eunice Kathleen Waymon cut her teeth playing piano at her local church. It’s clear she had the rebel spirit from an early age. During a recital when she was just 12 her parents were told  they could not sit in the front row of their own child’s performance because they were black. In response Nina refused to play until her parents were allowed to sit up front.

Recognizing her talent, Simone’s piano teacher started up a fund to send her to the Allen High School for Girls an African American private school in Asheville, NC where she could further her musical skills. When attempting to attend college, Simone again ran up against the Jim Crow attitudes of the time, but this time north of the Mason-Dixon in Philadelphia. Despite what was said to be a glowing audition, Nina Simone was denied admission to the Curtis Institute of Music in 1950. Undeterred by the act of institutional racism she continued her musical studies with private tutors. …READ MORE

Southern People’s History: Miners Freed Convict Laborers in the Coal Creek Wars

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The Coal Creek War was an armed labor uprising that took place primarily in Anderson County,Tennessee, in the early 1890s. The struggle began in 1891 when coal mine owners in the Coal Creek watershed attempted to replace free coal miners, many of whom were white, with convicts leased out by the state government. Convict-leasing was a system of forcing prisoners, many of whom were former slaves, to work for free after the abolition of slavery. All convict-leased miners in Coal Creek were black. Over a period of just over a year, free miners continuously attacked and burned prison stockades and company buildings and freed hundreds of convicts were freed. Dozens of miners and militiamen were killed or wounded in small-arms skirmishes. One historian describes the conflict as “one of the most dramatic and significant episodes in all American labor history.” …READ MORE

 

High School Students Led the Fight for Desegregation in Asheville, NC

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On February 5, 1960, four black college students in Greensboro, North Carolina sat down at the lunch counter of a “white-only” Woolworth’s department store. They returned five days in a row, occupying the same seats, asking to be served. Each day, a crowd of supporting protesters grew, reaching the hundreds, until the store was forced to close due to public outcry. This sparked a wave of similar actions helping to desegregate lunch counters and other white-only places across the South in the years to come.

The students who took action in Greensboro were part of an organization called the Committee of Racial Equality (CORE). Their main strategy involved organizing college students because “they had fewer financial responsibilities than their older counterparts and they were interested in forcing change more immediate than that promised by the legal reform advocates” [1].

Around the same time, a group of students at Asheville’s all black Stephens-Lee High School formed calling itself the Asheville Student Committee on Racial Equality (ASCORE). They began by holding meetings at Asheville Interfaith Youth Council where they discussed  how to close the gap between facilities at their school and the all white Lee Edwards High School. …READ MORE

Jonesborough, TN Home of the First Abolitionist Newspaper in the US

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Many of us were taught that the abolitionist movement of the 1800’s was by and large an effort led by Northerners living far removed from the Southern plantation states’ slavery driven economy. While the abolitionist cause was certainly stronger in the North, there was indeed a Southern led movement to end slavery. In fact, the first newspaper in the US solely dedicated to the abolitionist cause harkened from a small town nestled in the foothills of the southern Appalachian Mountains.

In 1819, Elihu Embree, a Quaker living in Jonesborough, TN published the first copy of the Manumission Intelligencer to spread the cause of abolition in the region. Within a year he changed the papers name to The Emancipator which proclaimed in its first issue,This paper is especially designed by the editor to advocate the abolition of slavery, and to be a repository of tracts on that important and interesting subject. It will contain all the necessary information the editor can obtain of the progress of the abolition of slavery of the descendents of Africa.” …READ MORE

 

Dixie Be Damned: Madison County, NC VS. the Confederacy

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The Confederate flags that you see flying around Madison County these days would have been an uncommon sight in the Civil War days. In fact, flying that flag could have got you killed.

What was different back then?

Aside from a few wealthy slave-owning families that owned land along the French Broad River, the white residents of Madison had no use for the Confederacy. As poor, self sufficient farmers their survival did not depend on slavery and the plantation system, so they resisted being drawn into a rich man’s war that had nothing to do with them …READ MORE

 

 

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