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Historian Williams reflects on half-century of W.Va. history

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- John Alexander Williams was living in New England in 1963, during the centennial celebration of West Virginia's statehood. Even so, he says, the event resonated with him.

Then-President John F. Kennedy gave a memorable speech on the state Capitol steps 50 years ago, during West Virginia's celebration of its 100th birthday. Five months before his assassination, Kennedy closed his speech with the words, "The sun does not always shine in West Virginia but the people always do."

"The West Virginia Centennial, in an odd way, got me to be interested in West Virginia history," said Williams, who grew up in White Sulphur Springs.

Williams, 74, a leading scholar of West Virginia and Appalachian history, will speak at the West Virginia Humanities Council's Little Lecture series on Sunday at the historic MacFarland-Hubbard House in Charleston. The event is sold out, but organizers said Wednesday they might add a second session on Sunday if people show enough interest.

During a telephone interview with the Gazette, Williams said his Sunday talk will have "a homecoming theme. There will be a lot of celebrations at the Statehouse over the weekend. I am looking forward to it.

"I am going to talk about the reasons for celebrating the Centennial and Sesquicentennial and my reaction to it. I am also going to talk about my hometown, White Sulphur Springs, and how it shaped my view of West Virginia history," Williams said.

He said he plans to close his talk on Sunday with a discussion about the evolution of West Virginia's political affiliations with Southern states.

"Throughout its history, most people in West Virginia rejected an alliance with the Deep South. Now that it has been in existence for 150 years, it is pulling into an alliance with the Deep South for the first time," Williams said.

Williams' seminal history of the Mountain State was originally published as "West Virginia: A Bicentennial History" in 1976, as part of a national series of state histories from publisher W.W. Norton. Subsequent editions took the "Bicentennial" out of the title.

At the time, Williams -- who studied at the University of Michigan and the London School of Economics before getting his doctorate in history at Yale University -- was a West Virginia University history professor.

Chapters in the book focus on, among other events:

* John Brown's 1859 raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry to protest slavery, one of the pivotal events in the years leading up to the Civil War.

* The 1913 coal miners' strike on Paint Creek, led in part by famed labor leader Mother Jones.

* The Hawks Nest tragedy, when at least 764 workers died within five years from silicosis contracted while digging a tunnel for Union Carbide in 1931 to divert the New River to generate electric power for the company's plant near Alloy.

* The 1972 Buffalo Creek flood that killed 125 after three Pittston Coal dams at the head of the hollow collapsed.

Williams ends the chapter on Paint Creek writing about The Greenbrier resort, which was completed in 1913 in his home county.

"Though the walls of the new hotel glistened white and pristine amid its alpine surroundings, the social foundations on which it rose were as black as the coal-laden trains that chugged past its gate," he wrote.

In the book's final chapter, Williams begins by writing, "If West Virginia history has a central theme, it was sounded at the very beginning by the explorers who described it as a 'pleasing tho dreadful' land."

Williams also wrote "West Virginia; A History for Beginners," published in 1997.

"We wanted to revolutionize education in the public schools. We were dealing with West Virginia," Williams said, remembering efforts to have the new book assigned in state public schools.

"I wrote the book when I was living in Morgantown and my children were in West Virginia schools. I was horrified with what they were getting from their history classes in school."

Williams said he worked with Topper Sherwood, who helped edit the book, in trying to convince county school boards to assign the book in their schools.

"Our book was used in some Catholic schools in West Virginia," Williams said. "I taught a class with Davitt McAteer [former head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration] at a Catholic school in Martinsburg. And I have gotten good feedback from teachers who have used it."

Williams' other books include: "West Virginia and the Captains of Industry," originally published in 1975, and "Appalachia: A History," published in 2002.

Besides WVU, he also taught at Yale, the University of Notre Dame, the University of Illinois and, most recently, Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., where he was also director of the Center for Appalachian Studies.

Williams said he left Morgantown because he became impatient.

"I felt like it was dropping a stone down a well and didn't hear the splash. I was still young. Not that many people in Morgantown read my book. When the president of the university asked people, 'Have you read Williams's book?,' they resented it."

Now retired after 18 years at Appalachian State, he lives in Washington, D.C.

"North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains are West Virginia without tears," Williams said. "I really did like Boone and Appalachian State a lot.

He said he's thinking about doing another edition of his "West Virginia: A History," but doesn't know if he will.

"I like to write. But I have also become lazy," he said. "And I don't have my library. I have kept four shelves of books, but gave everything else away to the Appalachian State library and to WVU.

More likely, perhaps, is a history of the town where he grew up.

"At my 50th high school reunion, my classmates thought it would be great if I wrote a history of White Sulphur Springs -- not the [Greenbrier] resort, but the town," he said. "It is taking a while. But I will finish it if I am around for a while."

Admission to Sunday's program at the MacFarland-Hubbard House, located at 1310 Kanawha Blvd. E., is $10, which includes a reception.

 Mark Payne, who heads the Little Lecture program for the West Virginia Humanities Council, said all seats for the lecture scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. have already been reserved.

Payne urged anyone interested in hearing Williams speak to contact the Humanities Council.

"If we get enough interest, we will have Williams make a second presentation, beginning at 4 p.m. If there is a second presentation, people attending that may also come to the reception that begins at 3 p.m.," Payne said.

Those interested in attending should contact the Humanities Council by noon on Friday, by calling 304-346-8500 or emailing payne@wvhumanities.org.

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.

 

 

 


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