Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Mary Robertson, August 13, 1979. Interview H-0288. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

White Appalachians learn racism over time

Robertson, who is white, did not have any trouble relating to black union leaders. She explains that Appalachian people have a progressive background when it comes to race, and perhaps she inherited some of those beliefs despite the fact that she is a Texan. White Appalachian residents were not immune to the lure of racism, though; Robertson explains that as they grew less isolated, they also grew less welcoming to African Americans.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Mary Robertson, August 13, 1979. Interview H-0288. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JACQUELYN HALL:
What kind of relationships did you have with the black leaders of the union?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Oh, fine. I was doing splendid with that. There was no problem there. You've got to give several weeks to these interviews, because it covers so much ground. [Laughter] In the first place, the whole historical background of the Appalachian people was Abolitionist. They, to a large extent, were Abolitionists in the Civil War. They didn't have plantations. The slave system was not economical; they couldn't afford it. It was meaningless to them from an economic standpoint, and therefore they had very negative feelings from a social and moral standpoint. And for that reason, western North Carolina sent more volunteers into the Union Army than were ever conscripted into the Confederate Army. So it's only in modern times that we have carefully taught our children to think of themselves as superior to blacks. The traditions of these mountain counties, these mountain people, were not anti-black. So it's not peculiar that I didn't have any anti-black feelings, because I was never in touch with blacks. There were then and there still are very few blacks in the mountains. The black population is concentrated in the Piedmont and on the coast. So I didn't have any problems in that direction, or at least my problems were not nearly as severe as [those of] white people my age and of my background in the Piedmont.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Has that given the labor movement in the mountains a different shape than the labor movement in the Piedmont?
MARY ROBERTSON:
It's undoubtedly had an effect on it. But I don't want to confuse you, because in the last thirty years since World War II, since the people left the mountains… They left the mountains for the first time in World War II. They went either to get jobs in the munitions factories, the shipyards, and they went into the services. Before that, they'd been very isolated. When they came back, they brought back this idea of white superiority, that is, of an overt response to the feeling of white superiority. And all of a sudden there were people who learned and taught other people what the Confederate flag looked like, so that only in recent times do the kids want to bring it in on the football field. And "Dixie" was not a song that anybody in the mountains knew; they knew "On Top of Old Smokey." So it's a newly imposed… I don't mean to imply that there were never any people in the mountains who believed in slavery--there were--but it was not a pervading philosophy of life like it was in the rest of the South. West Virginia came into being just over that issue. If the War had lasted another year, there would have been a state of Franklin that would have been western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, for the same reason, which was the reasons for the Civil War and the reasons for slavery did not affect the mountains.