Courtesy of East Riverside Photographs, D.H. Ramsey Library, Special Collections, UNC-Asheville, Asheville, N.C.
Poet Frank X. Walker coined the term “Afrilachian,” to refer to a unique part of the Appalachian and African American experience. Enslaved Africans and free people of color and their descendants were sparsely located in the cultural region known as Appalachia, but don’t let the seeming invisibility fool you. The African cultural heritage is alive and well in Appalachia, you just need to know where to look. The story of Afrilachia is not just told in coal mines, small farms, and small African American hillside hamlets, it’s also told in food, music, spirituality, and many other forms of Appalachian culture that bear the influence of West and Central Africa.
Go to Western Maryland and Virginia and you will find places like “Negro Mountain,” and “Mulatto Run.” Place markers like these speak to the earliest American frontier—the Southern backcountry. Much of that Backcountry was owned by Virginia until the late 18th century and settled by people looking for more tobacco lands from across the Chesapeake and Tidewater. Although we know well that Appalachia was settled by Ulster Scots, Germans and others who did not depend on racial slavery as part of their economy, Tidewater plantation owners used their human capital in the slave trade to expand and increase their influence across the mountains. Enslaved Africans, like a group of 18 men brought from what is now Ghana to the area around Roanoke and Blacksburg, were brought explicitly to mine, given their experience in West Africa where deep mining for gold and other minerals went into the medieval past.
Those early Afrilachians mined for gold and coal, and grew tobacco, corn and truck crops, and served as soldiers, guards, and construction workers, forging new paths into the new frontier. Appalachia became a haven for some early Southerners of mixed origins like the Melungeons, whom recent DNA studies have shown mostly descend from West and Central African men and European women who met and married early in the days before anti-miscegenation laws came to the Virginia and Maryland colonies. The word Melungeon in fact is a corruption of the Mbundu (a people from Angola) word “Mulungu,” which means “shipmate,” as in the Middle Passage that brought millions of Africans across the Atlantic to slavery in the Americas. Mbundu and Kongo Africans were well represented in 17th century Virginia, where other words from their languages became established including “tota,” to carry (tote), “nkuda,” a turtle (cooter), “nguba,” for peanut (goober) and “mbanza,” the original form of the word banjo.
Other Afrilachian people came west by way of Edenton, Wilmington and Charleston, major slave ports of the lower South. Much like the Virginians and Marylanders both, North and South Carolinian planters set their sights on expanding west. It was not uncommon to find early Afrilachians who “spoke the Scots Irish dialect,” or Scot Gaelic or even German since they lived in close proximity to slaveholders and neighbors who gave them work orders in their own native languages. Africans coming to Appalachia had very complex identities. Some were the descendants of Central African and Northern European unions in the 17th century before the entrenchment of slavery. During the 18th century, others were from the wave of West Africans coming from what are now the countries of Senegal, Gambia, Ghana, and Nigeria, eventually mixing culturally and genetically with Europeans and Native Americans.
The Southern backcountry held a lot of promise for freedom seekers. In some cases, Native Americans harbored enslaved blacks, and they married into indigenous communities. In other cases they lived side by side with marooned or runaway communities in small bands in the mountains. In others, Native Americans actively returned enslaved people for bounties or enslaved them themselves. What we do know is that African and Native American witnessed cultural trade-offs early on in the Southern highlands—black eyed peas, sweet potatoes, watermelon came to be grown in Native American communities as a result of African dietary influences. It is likely that gourd craft, the uses for river cane, basketry, standing wooden mortars and pestles and spoken folklore and language were also exchanged along with food crops.
Although most enslaved blacks would leave their cultural mark, cross the mountains and come to settle Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri and Arkansas, some would remain in Appalachia. Slavery was not absent in Appalachia. Mining companies owned enslaved miners, woodsmen, construction workers and craftsmen. Some Blacks came by way of the crews that brought trade items up the rivers into the highlands. Others worked on small farms; according to Wilma Dunaway, one out of every three Appalachian whites with substantial farms held enslaved people, and one in ten of the region’s antebellum workforce was enslaved.
Slavery in Appalachia was colloquial and discretionary. That is to say, it was as anywhere else, a mixed bag. Living in smaller communities meant greater isolation and yet tighter-knit family units. There was a great fear of being sold into the flood of enslaved blacks leaving the Upper South for the cotton plantations of the Black Belt and lower Mississippi Delta. Those fears were not unfounded as many Afrilachian families were permanently split apart by slavery. For those that remained, they imparted a lasting rich cultural influence.
Food remains one of the more powerful emblems of this exchange of culture. Whites in the Upper South were well known for being drawn to the cornshucking gatherings where the banjo and bones, fiddle and gumbo boxes—early substitutes for drums—would play late into the night as enslaved communities gathered to bring in shuck the corn crop. Along with the fascination surrounding music and dance, inevitably new foods found a role as well. Sorghum cane, introduced early from Africa, graced many a biscuit baked for those gatherings. “Cane” has been mistakenly identified as a Native American contribution to Appalachian cookery—instead it is another marker of the Afrilachian influence.
The Foxfire and other Appalachian foodlore works reveal that the African influenced food presence goes beyond sorghum. Sweet potatoes of various varieties and textures were introduced from the West Indies as food for enslaved people shipped to the South from Africa via the Caribbean. Even the name “yam” speaks to the African influence in spreading this essential staple crop. Red peppers, popularized by the African taste for spice also came into the mountains after first being grown in the Chesapeake and Low Country by enslaved gardeners. Okra, from the word “okwuru,” of Igbo origin (a Nigerian group that dominated captives brought to Virginia), was another cross over crop originally domesticated in Africa, as were field peas, watermelons, muskmelons and sorghum. Although not originally African, peanuts grown in Africa would cross as food for enslaved captives on slave ships and would arrive in early Virginia; those original goobers marched with enslaved people into the mountains where goober patches can still be found even in heavy clay soils.
For every guinea hen on an Appalachian farm or guinea hog that ever rooted among ancient chestnut groves, for every banjo that was ever played and every sorghum mill that crushed cane in early autumn, the Afrilachian heritage moved well beyond the coal mines, cornfields and tobacco patches. There are still Afrilachian communities to this day, although many long ago moved north to Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Detroit or relocated to Nashville, Louisville, Charleston and Roanoke. Whether at home or “off,” their cultural influence endures. In chickens fried and possums served with sweet potatoes, to red pepper dressed barbecue to gourd birdhouses and words with origins only now showing roots in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the movement of culture in Appalachia can be seen as a rich and interesting moment in Southern and American history when a minority had a powerful impact on the majority.