The African American experience in Appalachia: Books, events, and articles from WVU Press

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Appalachia tends, for a variety of complex reasons, to be conflated with whiteness, and especially poor whiteness. But the region has a significant nonwhite presence and tradition — one celebrated at this parade commemorating John Brown’s raid in Charles Town, West Virginia (from our Marked, Unmarked, Remembered), and an important aspect of WVU Press’s overall publishing program. With Black History Month starting next week, it seemed like a good time to look at several books, events, and articles from the press that explore Appalachia’s diversity, and particularly its African American heritage.


In 1930 Union Carbide had black migratory workers dig a tunnel near Gauley Bridge, West Virginia; 764 of them died of silicosis. Muriel Rukeyser traveled to Gauley Bridge in 1936 to investigate, and her poems about the disaster, collected in The Book of the Dead, are now available from WVU Press. Our edition includes photographs by Nancy Naumburg, who accompanied Rukeyser to Gauley Bridge, and an introduction by Catherine Venable Moore, whose writing on the topic has been anthologized in Best American Essays. Publication of the book – a rare engagement with the overlap between race and environment in Appalachia – was supported by a grant from the West Virginia Humanities Council.

You can learn more about The Book of the Dead at three Black History Month launch events featuring Moore. On February 1 she’ll be joined by WVU faculty members Johanna Winant, Bradley Wilson, and Hal Gorby for a discussion cohosted by the WVU Humanities Center in Colson Hall 130. Moore and West Virginia Poet Laureate Marc Harshman will read from the book at the First State Capitol building in Wheeling on February 2. And on February 3 White Whale Bookstore in Pittsburgh will host a “Muriel Rukeyser night” including Moore and other guests.

The African Americans who worked in Gauley Bridge were part of a larger tradition of black migration to Appalachia examined by Joe William Trotter Jr. in his contribution to our book Transnational West Virginia, edited by Ken Fones-Wolf and Ronald L. Lewis. Trotter’s study of African Americans who moved to the southern Appalachian coalfields in the early twentieth century is part of a collection of essays that also considers Italian, Irish, Jewish, Belgian, Swiss, and Welsh migrants to West Virginia.

West Virginia History: An Open Access Reader includes several articles about the state’s African American heritage, including Cicero Fain on the post-emancipation black community in Cabell County, Tim Konhaus on lynching in southern West Virginia, and Sam F. Stack Jr. on the state’s reactions to Brown v. Board. All are available in free digital editions.

Writers of color are a significant part of Appalachia’s literary scene, and WVU Press’s anthology Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods includes work by a number of black writers, including the Affrilachian poet Crystal Good.


Our West Virginia Classics series, copublished with the West Virginia Humanities Council, includes A. B. Caldwell’s History of the American Negro: West Virginia Edition, a collection of biographies of African American men and women at the beginning of the twentieth century.

And while its boundaries extend beyond the region, be sure to have a look at WVU Press’s series Regenerations, edited by John Ernest and Joycelyn K. Moody. It features authoritative editions of important African American texts that either have fallen out of print or have failed to receive the attention they deserve.

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