From the Vault: Now & Then is an appropriate play on words and the title for our occasional dive into the archives of the popular magazine Now & Then, the print forerunner to Appalachian Places. The long-running Now & Then ceased publication in 2017 after more than three decades of compiling a treasure trove of Appalachian stories and experiences that will remain interesting and relevant for generations to come.
This first From the Vault entry highlights a story from the Volume 3, Issue 1, Winter 1986 issue of Now & Then themed Black Appalachians and guest edited by the late Appalachian Studies scholar Ed Cabbell. Cabbell graduated from Appalachian State and was the first African American to earn a master’s degree in Appalachian Studies. Together with William Turner, Cabbell edited the seminal 1985 book Blacks in Appalachia, recognized as the first comprehensive study of the Black experience in Appalachia. Cabbell was born on June 26, 1946, and died on May 13, 2018, at the age of 71.
Cabbell and his work celebrating the heritage and contributions of Blacks in Appalachia is the focus of today’s story from the archives, titled "A Part and Apart," written by Pat Arnow, who was art and interview editor for Now & Then at the time, and later served as editor of the magazine.
By Pat Arnow
Originally published in Now & Then Volume 3, Number 1, 1986
When John Henry raced a machine to tunnel through a mountain in West Virginia in 1870, railroad work and coal mining were drawing many Blacks to the region. They've been in Appalachia ever since. But the rich mountain culture and heritage they have developed over the years has remained almost as submerged as an unmined vein of coal.
Ed Cabbell grew up and still lives not far from the mountain where John Henry won his race. An energetic man of 40, Cabbell bubbles with projects and plans. All of the work has to do with unearthing the unique heritage of Appalachia's largest minority–some one and a half million Blacks, nine percent of the region's population. The quest is both personal and professional. Cabbell's family has lived in the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia for 150 years. His forebears were some of the first blacks to teach in the mountains, and his stock includes coal miners, preachers and farmers.
Just 40 miles from his present home in Princeton, West Virginia are the coal fields where Ed Cabbel spent his childhood. "I was born and raised up in McDowell County in the Southern part of West Virginia, which in the 40's had a high percentage of Black people due to the coal mining industry. Maybe 25 percent of the people in that county were Black. It was extremely unusual. So I was lucky enough to grow up in a mountain area, and fortunately I grew up in an area where there were a lot of Black people." He says he has no urge to leave the mountains, though he is always willing to travel to talk about Blacks in Appalachia. While he does not want to romanticize, he says, "There's something good about the mountains. There's solace here, and there's freedom here like nowhere else. I feel complete here."
Speaking quickly, almost without pause, he gives a rundown of the organizations he founded and heads. He created the John Henry Memorial Foundation, which has produced projects including a blues record and photography exhibition. That show, "We Be a Proud People," is on tour this year, being shown in Washington for the Appalachian Regional Commission's 20th anniversary. There's the annual John Henry Music Festival that he stages every Labor Day. He publishes Black Diamonds magazine whenever he can, and he co-edited a book published in 1985, Blacks in Appalachia. He teaches the Black Appalachian experience. He founded a neighborhood improvement group. He sits on the board of directors of the Highlander Center and the Council of the Southern Mountains. Besides all that he teaches in the local Princeton, West Virginia public schools. It all seems like more than one person can do. But Ed Cabbell is a man with a mission.
In 1969, when he was the advisor for Black student groups at Concord College in Athens, West Virginia, Cabbell began focusing on the work to which he has become committed. As a recent Concord graduate himself then, he was not much older than the students. Together, they delved into the issues of the time. "Black people were dealing with identity as Blacks. White people in the mountains were dealing with identity as Appalachians."
Yet Appalachian folk arts and ways of life were being called a white cultural phenomenon. Being Appalachian came to mean being part of a white minority during those War on Poverty days of the 1960's. As a Black, Cabbell began to see himself as "a double minority," a part of both cultures.
While he embraced both identities, he saw that as a Black Appalachian, he was apart too, with a unique heritage. That was Ed Cabbell's watershed, in 1969, when he became committed to exploring the Black Appalachian culture. "I'm very serious about this. I've left jobs before to do this. We're talking about my people. and not in a romantic way, but I see my true family, my blood. We've been in these mountains all these years and no one knows that we've existed. I am very dedicated. It's the only thing I've been interested in doing, particularly since 1969. It's not a thing that's nice to do, it's a thing I've dedicated myself to doing regardless of the cost."
The cost included leaving his job at Concord to go to graduate school at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. There he began compiling every mention of Blacks in Appalachia that he could find. This project became his master's thesis, 700 annotated references. Still, "The literature is very limited," says Cabbell.
With a Master's degree earned from Appalachian State in 1983, Cabbell became the first Black to earn an advanced degree in Appalachian studies. He also taught the first classes offered on the Black Appalachian experience, as a teaching assistant in Boone, and at Concord College where he is currently an adjunct professor of Appalachian studies.
Blacks in Appalachia, co-edited by William H. Turner and Cabbell, (published by the University of Kentucky Press) came out of the master's thesis. Even though the book has a sociological focus, Cabbell is most interested in the culture of Blacks in Appalachia. None of the problems with a sociological essay–the plight of the Black man in Appalachia–sometimes 11 seems like the only thing you can think about with black people is all of our problems and what we don't have. There are lots of things that we do have." He points out that, "In spite of all the lacks there is something that has made us stay here all those years."
To gain appreciation for that something, Cabbell founded his John Henry Memorial Foundation and John Henry Folk Festival in 1973. The tribute to the famous steel-driving man seemed a perfect symbol to Cabbell-a strong, tenacious, Black Appalachian, building the region and building a legend. "John Henry conjured up an image of being Black and had all those mythical elements that deal with Black culture."
As the guest editor of this special Blacks in Appalachia issue of Now and Then, Ed Cabbell hopes "to do what I've always tried to do, and that is to make people aware of the fact that we, as Blacks, exist in the mountains and that we have a culture, and we have a heritage."
He does feel there's a danger in making too much of the primitive folkways of mountain life. He wants to encompass all of what is going on with Blacks in Appalachia, not just the quaint and picturesque folk arts, what he lumps together as "the quilts and blankets stuff." While he says it's good to know that part of the heritage, "I’d like to get rid of the stereotypes instead of accepting them."
To work on all these projects, Cabbell has an office in Princeton, West Virginia. the lower floor of a building that was renovated through the Neighborhood Improvement Association, which he also founded. A few steps above is his home, where he lives with his wife Madeline and daughters Melissa and Winnia (when she is home on vacations from the West Virginia School for the Deaf in Romney). Madeline Cabbell also teaches in the local public schools.
Propped next to the door of Ed Cabbell's office is a larger-than-life size painted wooden cutout of John Henry. The steel-driving man of the last century and Ed Cabbell have a few things in common: the Black Appalachian heritage, certainly, and also an enormous drive and determination. Between them, they may be able to dig out the display of the culture of the Blacks in Appalachia. It's a rich vein that has remained mostly unmined. Ed Cabbell has tapped the resource and is bringing it up where it is starting to be seen and appreciated for its richness.
To read this article in a digital copy of the original issue of Now & Then, please access the link here: https://dc.etsu.edu/now-then/4