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Virginia Tech Professor’s Books Challenge Appalachian Myths

Virginia Tech Professor’s Books Challenge Appalachian Myths


According to conventional wisdom, residents of Appalachia had few slaves, and the slaves who did live in the region received better treatment than their counterparts in the Deep South. Virginia Tech sociologist Dr. Wilma Dunaway says much of this conventional wisdom is plain wrong.

“We do a lot of historical lying in this country,” she told The Roanoke Times. In her new books, Slavery in the American Mountain South and The African-American Family in Slavery and Emancipation, she intends to set the record straight.

Dunaway said she has studied slave narratives, slaveholder records and tax and census records from 215 Appalachian counties in nine states, including Maryland, Georgia and Alabama. Not only was slavery common in the mountain South, it was more brutal than the slave systems in the Deep South, her research concluded.

Among the ideas Dunaway addresses in her new books is the thought that Appalachian slaveholders treated slaves like extended family members. She said slave narratives paint a darker picture.

Between October and December, enslaved men were hired out for the year. One of every three Appalachian slaves probably would be sold away from their families by the age of 40, she said. The author argues that this forced migration destroyed Black families and left women without any help in raising their children and without protection from predatory White owners. Only about half of the enslaved children lived to the age of 15, another factor that led to the destruction of enslaved families, Dunaway says.

Appalachian State University historian Dr. John Williams said other Appalachian studies always conjured images of a “golden age of small backwoods farmers, and before that a heroic age of hunters, explorers and Indian fighters.

“Dunaway stripped away the gold and the heroism, exposed the heroes — or many of them — for the land thieves and jobbers that they always had been,” Williams says.

Dunaway’s first book, The First American Frontier, shocked many scholars in her field, but it won the Weatherford Award for best book on Appalachia in 1996. The book is a revisionist study of White settlement of Appalachia and the depopulation of American Indians there.

She has earned both praise and controversy for her work.

Virginia Tech Appalachian studies director Anita Puckett said it’s hard to accept all of Dunaway’s conclusions because few people in the field can even agree on the exact boundaries of the region called Appalachia.

Dunaway herself said “probably half” of the Appalachian Studies Association disagrees with her. That doesn’t stop her from criticizing scholars she faults for ignoring slave narratives and extrapolating to the entire region studies of isolated counties. She added that some 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.

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