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‘Being Black in Appalachia’: Appalachian Heritage Festival awards, lecture presented

By Staff | Oct 4, 2019

From left, West Virginia Center for the Book representative Karen Goff stands by second prize winner Jordan Carter, of Morgantown, Appalachian Heritage Writer-in-Residence Crystal Wilkinson, first prize winner Jessica Salfia, of Martinsburg, and third prize winner Sean Duffy, of Wheeling, during the Scarborough Society lecture in Erma Ora Byrd Hall on Sept. 26. Tabitha Johnston

SHEPHERDSTOWN – 2019 Appalachian Heritage Writer-in-Residence Crystal Wilkinson gave her keynote speech on Sept. 26 in Erma Ora Byrd Hall, during the Appalachian Heritage Festival awards ceremony.

The first prize winner, for her short story “Fear,” was Jessica Salfia, of Martinsburg, the second prize winner for her short story “Nymphs,” was Jordan Carter, of Morgantown, the third prize winner for his short story “The Photograph,” was Sean Duffy, of Wheeling, and the Committee’s Choice Award winner for his short story “Address Happiness,” was Noland Nelson, a student at Calhoun County High School in Orma.

The lecture and ceremony were sponsored by Shepherd University Appalachian Studies, West Virginia’s Center for the Book, the Shepherd University Foundation and the Scarborough Society.

“The Scarborough Society is very proud to once again be asked to help sponsor this wonderful event,” said Scarborough Society President Ramon Alvarez. “The Scarborough Society is a membership society, and we now have in our 18 years of existence given $860,000 to Shepherd University.

“Our board feels that this program that Sylvia and her team have put on for the last 20 years, enhance the opportunities for our students, our faculty and our community. It gives us an opportunity to highlight Shepherd’s role as a leader in Appalachian studies,” Alvarez said about Appalachia Studies and Communication Director Sylvia Shurbutt. “We’ve been delighted for the last 18 years, for Sylvia to introduce us to many outstanding authors and ideas – this year’s writer-in-residence exceeds that standard of excellence.”

2019 Appalachian Heritage Writer-in-Residence Crystal Wilkinson presents her Scarborough Society lecture, "Being Black in Appalachia," in Erma Ora Byrd Hall on Sept. 26. Tabitha Johnston

SU President Mary J.C. Hendrix agreed with Alvarez, commending the work behind this year’s festival.

“This year, Shepherd University has created one of the most ambitious Appalachian Heritage Festivals, with the award-winning writer Crystal Wilkinson, who is also the West Virginia Common Read author. . . It is truly an honor to have her here,” Hendrix said. “Our goal is to help the country understand our Appalachian story – it’s a story we’re proud to share.”

According to Shurbutt, one of the reasons the Appalachian Heritage Festival is so important, is it highlights authors who are making a difference in how the world views Appalachia.

“These stories tell the real stories of Appalachia. Not the stories that you pick up anywhere,” Shurbutt said, before commenting on Wilkinson’s history. “This was a place – Appalachia – that told her she was always home. [It] drives her to tell the Appalachian story – a story that very few tell. Yes, there are African Americans in Appalachia!”

Wilkinson, who is a founding member of the Affrilachian Poets organization, closed the event with thoughts on what it is like, “Being Black in Appalachia.”

“Traditionally, when people are talking about Appalachians, they have been poorly portrayed. I’m not saying we don’t have rotten-teethed individuals in Appalachia. But we have to get the word out to people that we are also teachers, musicians and artists,” Wilkinson said, mentioning people are often unaware of the 1.9 million Appalachian African Americans. “That’s a lot of people to be invisible! The presence of African Americans is well-documented in this country. Slavery was alive and well in the mountains, though it wasn’t the same as it was on the plantations.

“They worked in the mines and stores and farms. That’s where my family is from,” Wilkinson said, mentioning her family has been farming on the same plot of land for three generations. “The African American presence in Appalachia is sort of eking along. But the presence of blacks in Appalachia has give us the banjo, Nina Simone, Booker T. Washington, Steve Harvey and Katherine Johnson.