In a time of turbulent change in Appalachia, John C. Campbell helped define America’s understanding of this great mountain region. Campbell was born in Indiana in 1867 and studied theology at Union Theological Seminary. In 1908, he and his wife Olive Dame come to Appalachia to survey social and economic conditions in a rural region being remade by mining, logging and railroads. His book The Southern Highlander and his Homeland, published in 1921, two years after his death, deeply influenced the nation’s understanding of the distinctive problems of the region. Campbell also founded the Council of the Southern Mountains which would coordinate the work of philanthropic groups for over half a century.
Below is the Digital Heritage Moment as broadcast on the radio:
John C. Campbell Essay
Essay by Timothy N. Osment, History M.A., WCU 2008
Campbell was born in Indiana in 1867. He graduated from Williams College in 1892. After receiving a bachelor of divinity degree, Campbell accepted a position as an administrator of an academy in North Alabama. This was his first introduction to mountain culture. The passions for the region Campbell developed that first year remained with him for the rest of his life.
In 1901 Campbell was appointed to a superintendent’s post at Piedmont College in Demorest, Georgia. He soon was elevated to
In 1908 Campbell was selected to conduct a survey to determine social needs and their remedies within the Appalachian region. He and Olive set out in a covered wagon trekking the wilderness and back roads from Georgia to West Virginia. On occasion they were able to travel by rail; at other times the remoteness of their destinations required they walk into deep hollows and isolated coves to make contact with their inhabitants.
Along the way, Campbell interviewed rural farmers about the culture and practical matters of Appalachian life while his wife collected and learned the traditional handiwork and folklore of the region. They shared the same idealism found in many young professionals of the era and were determined to provide aid through a combination of education and humanitarian
In 1912, the survey’s efforts were given a more formal existence when the Russell Sage Foundation created a Southern Highland Division. It establishing an office in Asheville, with Campbell as its director. From that time on, Campbell and the Southern Highland Division became virtually synonymous, working tirelessly to facilitate social cooperation and improve the quality of mountain life.
For the Campbells, the years after 1912 were busy. One of their greatest dilemmas was identifying a way to modernize life in the Southern mountains. Campbell realized that the “Americanizing
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States was a country of
The Campbells’ efforts were religious as well as instructional. They championed the spirit of the emerging Social Gospel, a movement that insisted spiritual benevolence be accompanied by social aid. They were not overly zealous in their personal beliefs but believed in the creed of service and charitable sacrifice as a part of the individual’s connection with both a heavenly God and an earthly community. They encouraged the establishment of a Synod of Appalachia within the Presbyterian Church in order to focus the denomination’s national attention on the peculiar problems of the mountain region.
With the financial support of the Russell Sage Foundation, John C. Campbell was instrumental in organizing the annual Conference of Southern Mountain Workers. The Conference brought together regional agencies in order to facilitate cooperation, bridge differences, and create opportunities. With Campbell as director, the group was successful in developing and implementing social service techniques appropriate for rural mountain conditions. After Campbell’s death in 1919, his wife chaired the conference for almost ten years.
John C. Campbell died before the founding of the folk school in Brasstown, North Carolina, that bears his name. However, his wife was determined to expand on the outreach she had shared with him during their marriage. For many years after her husband’s death, Olive tirelessly collaborated with others to create and administer the John C. Campbell Folk School. The school represents both Olive’s efforts and John’s philosophy and inspiration.
The work accomplished by John C. Campbell during his life encouraged the people of Appalachia to become involved in their future by embracing the traditions of their past. Because of Campbell and many others like him, the unique culture and proud heritage of the Southern Appalachians
for more information
- “Campbell, John C. and Olive Dame” in Encyclopedia of Appalachia
, editedby Rudy Abramson and Jean Haskell, 2006
- The Southern Highlander and his Homeland by John C. Campbell, 1921