Unearthing New Histories of Black Appalachia (Review)Historians in the News
tags: books, African American history, Appalachia
“Depending on the ‘truth’ of the alternate versions, Liberia’s founding may be seen as a white kindness or as a black protest.” This quote could describe a history of the American Colonization Society in Liberia, West Africa. Instead it describes the contested memories surrounding the history of a rural Black community in Pickens and Greenville–both Appalachian counties in the Oolenoy River Valley of upstate South Carolina. In Liberia, South Carolina: An African American Appalachian Community, anthropologist John M. Coggeshall traces the history of Liberia from its founding by freed Black families during the period of Reconstruction to the present day. He tells the story primarily through the life of Katie Owens, a formerly enslaved woman, and Mable Owens Clarke, her great granddaughter, Liberia resident, and Coggeshall’s principal informant.
According to Black residents, Liberia was founded by freed people during Reconstruction who purchased the land from white landowners. In contrast, white residents insist that Liberia was founded by a group of generous white landowners who gave land to formerly enslaved people in good faith. It is this tension between Black and white memory that drives Coggeshall’s study. He offers histories of Black resistance as a countermemory to histories of white benevolence, arguing that the history of Liberia as told by Black residents constitutes an example of what James C. Scott termed “hidden transcripts.” Liberia as a hidden transcript is the first and most prominent theme of the book. Coggeshall asserts, “The dominant, public white memory of the region has been one of peaceful coexistence and minuscule black numbers, but the countermemory of local black residents has preserved a story of inequality and resistance for a much larger historical community” (6). Thus, “Conceiving of Liberia as a hidden transcript also explains why some whites have tried so hard to destroy it over the decades, and why blacks have struggled so hard to prevent that from happening” (24). To demonstrate this, Coggeshall begins the story with the 1967 burning of the Soapstone Baptist Church by the Ku Klux Klan and the Black community’s immediate response to rebuild it.
Liberia, South Carolina ultimately adds to a growing body of literature on Black Appalachia that refutes the pervasive myth of the region as wholly white. Coggeshall asserts that the book, “Helps confirm the presence of otherwise ‘invisible’ blacks in the southern Appalachian region” (ix). He also connects the history of Liberia to broader discussions of power. He writes, “Moving beyond the hidden transcripts of life under slavery, Liberia’s story expands the application of Foucault’s concepts of power and resistance to examine personal stories of the hidden transcripts in African American life under Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, and the dawning of the civil rights movements” (24). Ultimately Coggeshall concludes that, “The story of Liberia transcends Pickens County and even South Carolina, becoming not only a case study of an Appalachian African American community but also an opportunity to apply an array of theoretical perspectives to that case study” (23).
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