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Appalachian books and picket lines: A conversation with George Brosi 


George Brosi staffs a table for Appalachian Mountain Books during the 2023 Appalachian Studies Association Conference at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. (Photo by Becky Fletcher.)

George Brosi retired last year from a lifetime of service to the Appalachian region. From 1982-2022, he and his late wife, Connie (until her passing in 2015), operated Appalachian Mountain Books, which arguably preserved and distributed more works on the region than any other bookseller. 

 

By Ron Roach


Next month, as the Appalachian Studies Association will hold its 47th Annual Conference at Western Carolina University, we pause to have a conversation with one of the longtime fixtures of the conference. George Brosi recently retired after four decades of operating Appalachian Mountain Books, which specialized exclusively in books and other materials about our region,  

 

Brosi also served the region as an educator, editor, and author. He taught English for the University of Kentucky, Eastern Kentucky University, and the Kentucky community college system. In addition, he taught Appalachian Studies for the University of Kentucky and Appalachian Literature at Eastern Kentucky University. From 2002 until 2013 he served as editor of the respected literary quarterly Appalachian Heritage at Berea College. 

 

Brosi is among several from Appalachia who traveled to Atlanta in March 1968 to hear Martin Luther King Jr. present his proposal for the Poor People’s Campaign. George also served many other worthy causes and organizations, including the Council of the Southern Mountains and Save Our Cumberland Mountains. In 2018, he was active in the launch of the modern version of the Poor People’s Campaign. 

 

Brosi co-edited three books on Appalachian writers and literature: Jesse Stuart, The Man and His Books, No Lonesome Road: The Prose and Poetry of Don West, and Appalachian Gateway: An Anthology of Contemporary Stories and Poetry. He was editor of the Images and Icons section of The Encyclopedia of Appalachia, and he wrote the article on “Appalachian Literature” for The Companion to Southern Literature. He received awards for his contributions to Appalachian Literature from the Appalachian Studies Association, The Appalachian Writers Association, Hindman Settlement School’s Appalachian Writers Workshop, and Lincoln Memorial University’s Mountain Heritage Literary Festival. 

 

George married Connie Fearington in 1971. She was his constant partner in Appalachian Mountain Books and other endeavors and together they raised seven children. In 2016, the Appalachian Studies Association posthumously awarded Conniethe Cratis D. Williams/James S. Brown Service Award. by 

 

Appalachian Places co-editor Dr. Ron Roach talked with Brosi about his and Connie’s  lifetime of service to the Appalachian region. We are glad to now share this interview with our readers. 

 

You grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, but you went to college in Minnesota. How did that come about? 

 

My mother was a teacher, who had started out teaching in a one-room school in her home county and went to the local teacher's college. My dad was a scientist who got his Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of Chicago and from there he went to developing synthetic rubber. Because of his Chicago connections he was able in July of 1943 to join the Manhattan project in Chicago. In October, he was sent to live in a dormitory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. When the Corps of Engineers finished our house, my mom and sister and I moved to our new house [in Oak Ridge] in January ‘44. My parents were first-generation intellectuals . . .  and they wanted me and my sister to go to selective liberal arts colleges. My sister went to Swarthmore, and I was a little more Tennessee and a little less midwestern, and I didn't want to go to the northeast. So I went to Carlton College, in Minnesota, and some students . . . gave me (trouble) for being from the South.  

 

So how did you begin working with the Civil Rights Movement and other activist causes in the ’60s? 

 

My parents were getting older and lived in a house with 14 steps to the street where we parked our car. They were moving to more of a retirement house . . . and they wanted me, after my freshman year, to stay in Oak Ridge and help them move. And that summer of 1961 was when CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) had a chapter in Oak Ridge, and my parents didn't want me to participate. But they also wanted me to climb up those 14 steps and carry boxes. So that was my first experience in the Civil Rights movement, my first picket line was at a segregated laundromat right there in Oak Ridge. The thing was that it made it crystal clear to me that change was happening, that things didn't have to be like they were in Oak Ridge and the surrounding area. And then at Carlton I got involved in civil rights, and women's issues, and the Vietnam War, and the New Left and all of that. So, when I arrived at Carlton I realized that change could happen, and when I left I realized that I could be an agent of social change. As soon as I graduated, I skipped my graduation and went to work for Students for a Democratic Society, and my parents told me, you know, that I was messing up my future. They were right, of course, as the only pension I have now is in double figures monthly.

 

After that summer I realized that I could be more effective, and I was needed more, in the South. So, I went down to Nashville where the Southern Student Organizing Committee Headquarters was. Then I decided I would not go to Vietnam, and I applied to be a CO (conscientious objector), and I thought I had no chance. But 10 days after I sent in my materials, my draft board sent me a new draft card, and it said CO. I had worked in the summer of ’62, while I was a Carlton student, for the Council of the Southern Mountains at Berea College, so my idea of a job was to organize against the (Vietnam) War in Appalachia. So I went to Loyal Jones,* and I said, “I want to work with y’all again and I want to be the staff person for the youth commission and work for youth around the region.” 

 

And he was very sweet, and said, “Oh, that’d be wonderful!” But then, of course, he said, “Well, we don't have a budget for anything like that.” And, of course, I looked him in the eye and said, “I’ll raise my own salary.” Nobody else that was the executive director of any organization . . . Everybody else would have said, “Oh, come on, George. I can’t do that, here's reason 1, 2, 3, 4, and 75 why I can’t let you do that.” But Loyal, as you know, was just the nicest gentleman in the whole world and he said OK.  

 

How did you come to meet Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to hear his proposal for the Poor People’s Campaign? 

 

That was in March of 1968 in Atlanta. And it was just an amazing meeting, and of course it was just about a month before Dr. King was assassinated. There were people — you can call them conspiracy theorists — but there were people that saw that as a really important new initiative in terms of the civil rights movement, that it had even greater potential for power than just working with Black people, to work with all people, of all races and backgrounds around the country. And some people felt that more or less necessitated that Dr. King be removed from the scene because there was so much potential there. I'm not saying I'm a believer in that theory but given the power that we saw in that March meeting, it is understandable that people came to that conclusion. Then, of course, when 50 years later the Poor People’s Campaign was revived by Dr. (William) Barber, I was involved in that, and have been ever since, from the beginning of that resurrection of the Poor People's Campaign, which has been arguably even more powerful. 

 

Dr. King, of course, had a history of working with the Highlander Center in Tennessee. How did his death affect you and other people in Appalachia? 

 

Well, you know there were kind of two dramatic dimensions to it. The first dimension to it was the whole reality of his no longer being able to have that charismatic presence and just the whole terrible reality of how vulnerable we all were, whether we were Appalachians, or Chicanos, or African Americans. And then, unfortunately, the second big impact was from the riots, and that created a media spectacle and affected a much larger segment of the Appalachian population in that it made it much more difficult for people in the mountains to be open about their connection to Black liberation and that's something that's been exploited by the right wing ever since. Like with their efforts to view Black Lives Matter, not in terms of the overwhelming reality of it — I went to four Black Lives Matter demonstrations within an hour’s drive of Berea (Kentucky) that were predominantly white. That’s amazing and that never happened in the ’60s or ’70s or ’80s or ’90s. And then what happened was that the right wingers and the media and everything, you know, characterized Black Lives Matter as being (violent) — which it wasn't at all. It was totally different from what happened in ’68, because in ’68 the peaceful demonstrations were overshadowed by the violent ones, whereas it was the exact opposite during the Black Lives Matter time. 

 

Your wife, Connie, was your steadfast partner in Appalachian Mountain Books and your other projects over the years, and together you raised seven children. How did you meet? 


George and Connie Brosi at the Hindman Settlement School in Hindman, Kentucky, during the 2008 Appalachian Writers’ Workshop. (Photo by Pat Arnow.)

When President Nixon came with Billy Graham to the Crusade in Knoxville (in 1970), people unfurled anti-war banners, and shouted slogans, and they arrested 22 of the leaders of that. And so there was a support protest in Nashville on the steps of the State capital to support the Knoxville 22. There was an after-protest party and Connie was teaching at an all-Black elementary school in north Nashville, and she was living at an apartment house that had a swimming pool. So that was the obvious place to have the party. And so I went there because it was kind of an open-invitation thing and Connie saw me. She asked her friend, Kathy Hudson, “Who's that tall guy over there?” Kathy said, “You mean you don’t know George Brosi? He’s one of the 100 most-wanted revolutionaries in America!” Which is a gross exaggeration, but I couldn't have asked for anything more. And, of course, I noticed Connie, that attractive lady over there, and that’s how we met. 


(Photo courtesy of George Brosi.)

Connie’s paternal grandparents were from Laurel County (Kentucky) close to Rockcastle, but her father went up to Southern Illinois, where she was raised. Her father, when she was born, was a farmhand, a farm laborer, and then he became a sharecropper, and then he became a farm owner. She wore dresses that her mom made, including feed sack dresses and she sang out of shaped note hymnals and played piano in the local church. So, her Appalachian cred, even though she was in Illinois, and I was in Tennessee, you know, she had me beat. She graduated from a rural high school, the graduating class was about 30 people, and she was valedictorian. At that point there was a teacher shortage, and they had scholarships to the local teacher's college for the valedictorians. So she went to Eastern Illinois University and when she graduated, because of her connection with her grandfather — her dad and her grandfather farmed with horses when she was a kid and she didn't get plumbing or electricity until she was a teenager — but she saw this ad for a job at Pine Mountain Settlement School and because of the connection she felt with eastern Kentucky, she applied. And so, she got that job. Then after, I think three years, she decided that she wasn’t meeting any eligible bachelors at Pine Mountain, and she needed to get a master’s degree, and so she applied to Peabody College and moved to Nashville. 

 

You and Connie were married in 1971. What was the next chapter and how did you come to start Appalachian Mountain Books? 

 

Well, we were subsistence farmers in Marion County, Tennessee, the Tennessee county that joins both Alabama and Georgia, for about seven years. There I got a job with the Episcopal Church’s General Convention Youth program, and then I got a job with Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SCOM), and then SCOM laid me off. So the next job, that summer, I worked for the Mountain Community Union, out of Morgantown, West Virginia, and then the next job I found was running the bookstore for the Council of the Southern Mountains. Connie loved reading, and she read every book in her school library, you know, and she loved the idea of working for books. At that point we had four kids, and it was great to be able to kind of step back from the barricades and yet still be working for an activist group. From 1979 to 1982 we worked for the Council and then in ’82 they fired me because I objected — they had this idea they were going to run a coal mine so they wouldn't have to fundraise, which I thought was a crazy idea, because a lot of our work was, you know, protesting the coal operators. And then the Council just deteriorated faster. 

 

In the six years we had been married, I had had about six jobs and about half of them I had been fired or laid off from, and the other half I'd quit. So, we decided  —well, what happened was I applied for unemployment and then it lasted a year and a half. So, we decided we’d live on the unemployment that we got — I was getting minimum wage, and of course unemployment was even less than that. But because of, you know, a big garden and cooking from scratch and just the way we had always lived, we were able to do that, with the help of the kids. And so, we started Appalachian Mountain Books with $100 capital. But we didn't need that for our subsistence, so for that year and a half, starting with $100, everything that we made on the business we put back into the business. After that year and a half, we were well enough established to where we could live. That was 1982 and last year was our 40th anniversary. 

 

It's true that Appalachia was “discovered” during the Civil War . . .  but in terms of an institutional, you know, not just The Spirit of the Mountains, in 1905, or Our Southern Highlanders, not just books, but actual institutional structure for the whole idea of the existence of Appalachia as an important geographical/ethnic group, that's when (in the 1970s) that was all happening, you know. When the activists took over the Council (of the Southern Mountains, 1970) and fired Loyal, he was hired by Berea College to start the first Appalachian center, and meanwhile Al Stewart was founding Appalachian Heritage magazine, which, until 2013, was devoted to Appalachia. 

 

Speaking of Appalachian Heritage magazine, you served as the editor from 2002 until 2013. During that time, you featured a leading regional author in each issue of the magazine (over 40) and hosted each of them at Berea for presentations, I think. Tell us about that work. 

 

Well, in 1985 I started doing New Book Notes for the magazine, so I had been associated with Appalachian Heritage since 1985. As editor, my first issue was the Ron Rash issue. The fact that Berea College fired me is so sad, because I had so many things I wanted to do with that, you know. I wanted to do another Cherokee issue, and I wanted to have two magazines, one completely in the Cherokee syllabary, and another with opposite pages in English and in the syllabary. So, they could use that to teach the syllabary to people of all ages, you know. And I wanted to do a bell hooks issue that was just bell hooks, nothing else, so that it could be then taken over by a New York publisher. And it would introduce her work because her work was so wide ranging, from the media, to feminism, to Black liberation, and I think I could have done that kind of a book. I also wanted to do a Barber Kingsolver issue and a Dorothy Allison issue.  

 

Of all the issues of the magazine, I would have to put the Cherokee issue first. For that, the Principal Chief of the Eastern Band (of Cherokee Indians) was the master of ceremonies at an event at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, where the contributors to that magazine came. Western Carolina (University) had another event for the contributors of that issue. The only other issue that had an event beyond the one at Berea was the Don West issue, and Lincoln Memorial University had an event for Don West. The Cormac McCarthy issue was also really important because I worked closely with the Cormac McCarthy International Society, and after I did that issue they had their international annual meeting at Berea College. 

 

Don West was an amazing person who had a terrific impact on so many different issues . . . You know, when our family was living in Marion County (Tennessee), we took some of our neighbors to his music festival, which they were so comfortable with, even though they weren’t on the left. And, of course, Jim Comstock, who was right wing, he venerated Don, even though their politics weren’t the same. Don understood that institutional change was more important than social service work, but he realized that to have a positive impact at Pipestem that he needed to do social service work as well as institutional change work. 

 

You mentioned your book reviews with Appalachian Heritage, starting in 1985, which you continued with Appalachian Mountain Books even after you left the magazine. Through this work and through the bookstore, you have introduced so many people to the region. How many book reviews have you written? 

 

Over a thousand. Maybe much more than a thousand. Some quarters for Appalachian Heritage, I did over 40, and that was from 1985 to 2013. Then every month since 2016. The thing about our book business is that it was complementary to African American bookstores, to other kinds of bookstores, gay bookstores, and I think that's — in some respects that's kind of the most important dimension of it. That when people are stereotyped and are dealing with poverty it's difficult to have the self-assurance that makes it possible, among other things, to participate in a protest movement, right? And when we first started Appalachian Mountain Books people would come to the display and say, “Oh my God, I had no idea there were that many books about us.” And like I said those other things that happened in the ’70s and ’80s to create an institutional framework for Appalachian identity, our bookstore was a part of that. Now there's over 100 Facebook pages that deal with Appalachian identity. Some of them are right wing, some of them are working class, some of them are African American, some of them are gay, some of them are progressives. But, you know, having an Appalachian bookstore was one of the elements in making Appalachian identity mainstream. There is now an institutional presence for Appalachian identity, and it does counteract the stereotypes, it does result in people having self-assurance and self-confidence. My daughter Sky has a restaurant in Harlan (Kentucky) and she is going to take my books to that building and offer them for sale, so Appalachian Mountain Books will have another life. 

 

George, I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to you and Connie and your family for all that you have done over the years for the Appalachian region and for the Appalachian Studies Association. You were one of the first to welcome me to the field nearly 20 years ago, and it has been a pleasure working with you over the years. 

 

*Loyal Jones, the founding director of the Appalachian Center at Berea College, which was later named for him, passed away in October 2023. 



Ron Roach, is chair and professor of the Department of Appalachian Studies and director of the Center of Excellence for Appalachian Studies and Services at East Tennessee State University. He serves as co-editor of Appalachian Places.

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