Cabbell gave voice, history, activism to black Appalachians

Edward J. Cabbell
Edward J. Cabbell

When I arrived in Kentucky in the spring of 2016, “Blacks in Appalachia” was the first book I found on the African-American experience in Appalachia.

As a black person and a librarian, it was natural for me to look for books that might reveal something about the way black people experienced this part of the country.

What was life like for black people in Appalachia? Had my great-grandmother, Annie Mae Hurt, stayed in Franklin County, Va., instead of moving to Detroit as part of the Great Migration, what would my life be like?

Thanks to the work of Edward J. Cabbell, I began to answer these questions. Now, as a graduate student at the University of Kentucky studying the political and cultural history of black Appalachians, I stand on the shoulders of Cabbell. He pioneered a new field of inquiry: Black Appalachian Studies.

Cabbell, who passed away May 13, was a scholar, a poet, an activist, a community organizer, a singer and a folklorist. He was born in McDowell County, W.Va., in 1946. He graduated from Concord College (now Concord University), mentored students in Upward Bound, earned a master’s degree from Appalachian State University, founded the John Henry Memorial Foundation, published extensively in academic and literary journals and organized folk festivals to amplify black contributions to Appalachian culture.

This is only a partial list of his accomplishments.

I spoke with him twice by phone. His words and the work he shared with me were more than enough for me to realize how much my own research was dependent on the careful work he did over so many years. When I heard that there would be a celebration of his life, it was imperative that I travel to Princeton, W.Va., to say as much to his family.

I wanted them to know that someone was working to continue the work he started. It was also important to me to go beyond the academy to connect with them and pay my respects. The ability to write their history begins with respecting their lives in the present.

The service was a celebration of Cabbell’s love for song and his dedication to his family. Held at the Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, where Cabbell had been a member and deacon for decades, friends and family sang his favorite gospel songs, reminisced about his searing intellect, envisioned him reunited with his good friend Uncle Homer Walker, and praised God for his care of Cabbell throughout his life. People traveled from Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio and West Virginia to attend.

The warmth and solidarity of this black community in Appalachia cannot be overstated. In the midst of great loss, there was also an assurance that Ed Cabbell’s legacy would live on through his great-grandchildren, through his scholarship and through the memories he left with everyone in attendance. It was an honor to be in attendance.

I hope that more people will seek out Cabbell’s work and cherish his contributions to what we know about black people in the Mountain South. He was a true mountaineer.

Reach Jillean McCommons, a Lexington librarian and doctoral student in history, at jilleanmc@gmail.com.