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Evelyn Williams, a great role model for us all

February 11, 2017 in 1920s-30s, 1940s-1950s, 1950s-1960s, 1960s-1970s, Oral history

Appalshop In 1995 the great Appalshop filmmaker Anne Lewis featured Mrs. Evelyn Williams (October 31, 1915 – December 13, 2002), a Kentucky woman whose wisdom and heroism continues to teach us great lessons in patriotism, love of land and community, and for equal rights. The film (available for viewing free online at the Appalshop website) is worth watching again if you’ve seen it before – and certainly worth sharing with others if you are seeing it for the first time.

Evelyn Williams

Evelyn Williams on her farm near Redfox, in Knott County KY

Born in the mountains of Tennessee, Mrs. Williams remembers her family moving back to eastern Kentucky to coalmining camps near where her ancestors had lived and extended family owned land together in Perry County. She tells of how the actions of white supremacists in the 1920s affected her even later in life, and she warns us to pay attention how racist violence today touch and change our youth today. You will be fascinated by her stories of motherhood in the mountains, working as a domestic servant in West Virginia, going for a college degree at age 50 and what it meant to her as she learned what it takes to create a positive community spirit in the midst of despair and powerlessness. The death of her son and the inhumane way the military establishment treated his remains led her to a new appreciation for those around her who were struggling. Unlike so many other histories, the narrative kept its focus on this woman’s life — keeping true to Mrs. Williams’ own assertion that the long history of Blacks in Appalachia is mostly the story of women and children who far outnumbered the men. We need to remember this as so much more is learned and understood when we see our work in the world from the eyes of women and children.

This short film (about 25 minutes long) is powerful in drawing in its audience. I appreciated the loving and respectful way that Lewis shows us how Mrs. Williams holds herself, her home furnishings while she is being interviewed about her family, and her interactions with old friends in New York or with KFTC activists on her land as they negotiate with the mining company.

Thank you, Anne Lewis. Thank you, Appalshop. And even heartier thanks to Mrs. Evelyn Williams for sharing her powerful and important story.

Women’s reproductive health in Appalachia

October 1, 2011 in 1920s-30s, 1940s-1950s, Social history

Peggy McDowell CurlinWhile Mary Breckinridge, the nurse-midwife who reformed maternal-child and family health by founding the Frontier Nursing Service, is more famous, we should also celebrate Peggy McDowell Curlin from Harlan, Kentucky. President of the Centre for Development and Population Activities (CEDPA), a non-governmental agency that continues to provide leadership and management training to women involved in reproductive health throughout the world. Her grandmother was the state president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and a member of the women’s wing of the Masons called the Eastern Star. A transcript of her oral history interviews is available online from the Population and Reproductive Health Oral History Project in the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College.

In the spirit of a great many powerful women who have fought against prejudice and ignorance in eastern Kentucky, Our Bodies, Ourselves: East Kentucky Women Speak Out is a storytelling forum of the East Kentucky Reproductive Health Project. The project is led by young women from southeastern Kentucky who are producing and distributing media that explores the reproductive health experiences, concerns and needs of young women in the region. They have created a website that invites story sharing about the many topics surrounding reproductive health. Women from central Appalachia can visit to add their story to the collection. Those whose experiences are not from the Central Appalachian region can visit

Share your story and become part of this important effort. Contact EKRHP and you will be paired with a trained, female filmmaker through AMI, the Appalachian Media Institute. Your story will be documented in a respectful and caring manner for use by the project. You may also choose to document your story anonymously.

By sharing stories and comprehensive, factual information EKRHP works to build a foundation for individual and collective action for reproductive justice in Kentucky, including access and availability of reproductive health care in the eastern region.


Curlin, Peggy. Interview by Deborah McFarlane. Transcript of audio recording, May 13 and 15, 2003. Population and Reproductive Health Oral History Project, Sophia Smith Collection.

Goan, Melanie Beals. Mary Breckinridge: the Frontier Nursing Service and Rural Health in Appalachia. University of North Carolina Press Books, 2008.

“Peggy McDowell Curlin,” Wikipedia article,

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