By George W. Loveland
Ferrum College

Reprinted with permission from Journal of Research in Rural Education, vol. 17 (Fall 2001), pp. 102-11. This paper was originally presented at the Appalachian Studies Association Conference, March 2000, in one of two sessions surveying Appalachian children's literature, sponsored by the project Teaching Appalachian Literature (see About AppLit page). This project was sponsored by a Cheatham Fellowship from Ferrum College (where George Loveland is Public Services Librarian) and an Education Focus Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Susan V. Mead's work for this project also examines social justice issues in Appalachian literature for children and young adults. See AppLit's Study Guide Celebrating Diversity in Appalachia!  Exploring Social Issues Through Appalachian Children's Literature.

Several picture books by May Justus are discussed in another AppLit essay developed for this project, "Miz Jackson was just talking outta her head, girl": A Survey of Realism in Appalachian Picture Books, by Judy A. Teaford.

See also AppLit's annotated bibliography Books by May Justus.

Overview: May Justus started teaching in rural Appalachian schools in the 1930s. These schools were often the center of community life and drew subject matter from the needs of the students rather than imposing a curriculum designed by professional educators. Her techniques fit the modern definition of "popular education," even though this phrase was not commonly used for another forty years. She left the formal teaching profession and began publishing children's books that held up Appalachian values of commitment to family and community as models. She volunteered extensively at the Highlander Folk School, which focused on adult education, labor organizing, and the civil rights movement. Her work at Highlander led to a deep commitment to racial equality. After local schools were bombed and Highlander was attacked by segregationists she wrote two children's books that showed how Appalachian folks might live in a peaceful community when their schools were integrated. In her books, the children recognize that black and white people already agree on the important things—strong families, loving parents, and strong communities that pull together in difficulty times. May Justus was a true radical educator, an "inside agitator" who drew on the region's best values to promote social change. (References are given at the end of Part 2 and in Links and References on May Justus.)

Part 1

Elementary school children filing off a bus, their backpacks and tee-shirts emblazoned with Disney characters, kept in line by a teacher’s stern glare, seem more prepared for indoctrination than education. These kids are learning to obey rules, and that being a “good citizen” often means molding oneself to the system. Questioning the fairness of that system may earn them a low “conduct” grade or a phone call to their parents from a school administrator.

Yet the renowned Brazilian author and educator Paulo Freire (1970) argued that true education is revolutionary. Through his work with illiterate peasants, he found that when the politically and economically oppressed read and think critically about social forces they begin to seek ways to challenge the status quo. As Richard Shaull (1970) has said, when this happens, “Education is once again a subversive force” (p. 9).

This concept of education, with its focus on actions that create a more just society, is widely referred to as “popular education.” It is rooted in the belief that the voiceless and powerless already possess within themselves the knowledge they need to gain voice and power. The popular educator takes whatever steps are necessary to elicit this latent knowledge. Freire taught literacy to the Brazilian masses because it had become clear to him that they needed this skill to fight for political and economic power. In another situation, the popular educator might teach computer literacy, or public speaking skills, or knowledge of how local government operates. But the skills are only tools that the people themselves use to seek creative solutions to their own problems. In this way, popular education is antithetical to traditional models of education, in which the “experts” possess the valuable knowledge, which they then transmit to the ignorant masses in the form of lectures or books.

While Freire (1970) was a “radical” by his own definition, he disdained all forms of dogma and sectarianism, whether from the left or right. In the preface to his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he writes:

Sectarianism, fed by fanaticism, is always castrating. Radicalization, nourished by a critical spirit, is always creative. Sectarianism mythicizes and thereby alienates; radicalization criticizes and thereby liberates (p. 21).

In this sense, neither a dogmatic Marxist nor a religious fundamentalist are radicals. Both are sectarians and make the same mistake, “…treating history in an equally proprietary fashion, [and] end up without the people--which is another way of being against them” (p. 23). But the radical is of the people, questioning the authority and actions of those in power with an eye toward the common good.

The history of this radically democratic methodology illustrates that it is indeed a threat to the status quo. Repressive regimes and oligarchies have feared it and have taken swift action against its proponents. Freire himself was arrested and lived in exile for almost twenty years after a 1964 military coup in Brazil. Anne Hope, a South African nun, and organizer of a mass literacy campaign was arrested and exiled from apartheid South Africa in the mid 1970s (Hurst, 1995). And in the mountains of east Tennessee a popular educator named May Justus, a native Appalachian woman, defied the threats of the KKK and the FBI and stood up to an inquisition led by the state of Tennessee, inspiring a new generation of Southerners to topple the walls of segregation and dare to work for a peaceful, racially integrated society.

In the early 1930s, May Justus and her companion Vera McCampbell were working at a mission school in Lee County, Kentucky. Such rural areas were slow to adopt state-mandated concepts of universal education. Formal schooling was only one strand in the fabric of community, and the task of teaching children was dispersed throughout the community. Lee County schools were generally open for only three or four months a year, leaving most children free to learn how to operate a farm, mine coal, or manage a household, skills that most parents would have insisted were essential to survival. Some parents, though, wanted their children to have more formal schooling, and the mission school attempted to provide it. As educators, this left Justus and McCampbell in a unique and extremely challenging position. They would hold formal classes for those children whose parents wanted it and would educate the others through direct participation in all aspects of community life (Wigginton interview).

Justus later described conditions in Lee County as “pretty primitive,” with the mail being delivered by a mule drawn covered wagon. There were no doctors living in the county, so Justus and McCampbell delivered medicine to the sick and administered first aid to injured coal miners. Sometimes they trudged through creeks far up into isolated hollows to tend to the sick or injured. When a doctor came once a year to perform operations, they turned their school into a hospital. When someone died they held funeral services that would be formalized later when the circuit preacher came through. While the pay was only fifty dollars a month, the two young teachers received so many vegetables, chickens and support from their neighbors that Miss Justus could describe it as “good work” (Wigginton interview, pp. 16-18).

Justus and McCampbell had not been in Lee County long when McCampbell’s mother, who had come to live with them, developed cancer. The two teachers wanted to move the elder McCampbell closer to a hospital, and Miss Justus remembered a letter she had received from Dr. Lillian Johnson a couple of years earlier (Wigginton interview, pp. 18-19). Dr. Johnson, a former college president with a history of support for progressive causes, had opened a school to help educate the people of Tennessee’s Grundy County. The school was traditional in many ways, with outside experts coming in to lecture the local people in areas where they seemed to need help. But unlike many educational theorists of her day, who sought a curricular template that would work in both urban and rural settings, Johnson believed that strong rural community ties contained the seeds of a unique and innovative kind of education. She felt that a mountain school should be the center of life in the community, and wanted to recruit teachers who would take an active part in all aspects of community life. One of the people she contacted was May Justus (Adams, 1975, pp. 26-27). Justus was familiar with Dr. Johnson’s ideas about education and must have felt comfortable with them after her experience in Lee County. Dr. Johnson welcomed both May and Vera to the Summerfield School’s staff. The two young teachers had committed to a path that they would follow for the rest of their lives (Wigginton interview, p. 19).

May Justus, Vera McCampbell and Mary B. Thompson, from Memphis Tennessee, taught the entire curriculum from first through eighth grades. Under their leadership the Summerfield School drew its subject matter from the needs of the students rather than imposing a curriculum designed by “professional educators,” a principle characteristic of popular education. May Justus describes the curriculum:

One of the things we taught in school was arts and crafts. The girls made rag and hook rugs and honeysuckle baskets, and the boys made toys, bookends, book racks, anything they could make with a coping saw. We sold our crafts, some locally, and some of them we sold through my publishers.

And the school’s “soup pot” met a real need as well as helping to develop a sense of collective support and community.

[W]e had markets in five different cities. With half of the money we made from the sales of the handcrafts, we bought food for our soup pot. We were running our soup pot before there was anything like lunchrooms in this part of the state. The mothers would send me canned tomatoes and green beans, anything like that. And the children brought all sorts of vegetables from home. We had a seven-gallon lard bucket and a great old big pot-bellied stove to cook on. I would buy rice, and the various things they couldn’t bring from home. And later on, another teacher would bring meat down from Tracy City where she lived. We’d peel our own vegetables and prepare everything for the soup. So many of the children have said, “We were just like a family.” And school ought to be an extended family (Wigginton interview, pp. 20-21).

This was several decades before the term “popular education” began showing up in educational theory. Yet it sounds very much like one modern definition of popular education as, “…democratically structured cooperative study …” (Hurst, 1995).

It is difficult to trace the beginning of May Justus’s literary career. She grew up in a house of storytellers, whose tales made up her earliest memories as well as the plots for her books.

…Mother told us so many stories she remembered from her childhood which sounded like made-up stories to us, going back to the days when their clothes were woven and everything was so primitive. She told how Grandmother knitted the socks and stockings they used, and how they made coverlets and quilts and did all those things. That was vastly interesting to us because we had graduated to store-bought goods. It was all like a storybook. And when the neighbors would come to visit, they would talk about old times, too. So you see, I was brought up in a storytelling atmosphere from the beginning. And, unknown to the little girl who listened at that time, it was all stored away in her mind! (Wigginton interview, p. 3).

As she grew older, she and her nine siblings, along with their parents, read aloud to each other sitting in the yard or at night around the fireplace. They read the Bible, Pilgrims’ Progress, and assorted works by Hawthorne, George Eliot, and Dickens. She credited Uncle Tom’s Cabin as causing her, “…first sympathy with the Negro people.” She and her brother once estimated that they had read a hundred and fifty books aloud between the ages of twelve and fifteen alone. Their literary exposure was so broad that the same brother once claimed that when he got to college he had already read nearly every book that was required in his English classes (Wigginton interview, pp. 7-10).

Somewhere around the age of twelve Miss Justus was inspired by the character Jo March in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women to become an author herself. She described her first efforts:

The letters that people would write Mother sometimes were written on one side leaving the other side blank. Instead of throwing these away, my mother would give them to me, and I wrote on the blank sides. I remembered in our Tennessee history how people in pioneer days made pens out of goose quills and made their ink out of pokeberries. Well, pokeberries grew in abundance around our house, and I thought what the pioneer girls could do, I could do too. So I made the pokeberry ink. We didn’t have geese but a neighbor did, so they told me how to make a goose quill pen. I took a sharp knife, pointed the quill and made a little split from the point back so that it would hold the ink…. And I wrote my stories that way! (Wigginton interview, p. 11).

Soon after she came to Summerfield, at age twenty-nine, Justus published her first children’s book, Peter Pocket. Over the next twelve years she published at the rate of about one book per year, and by 1939 had at least five different publishers. She received a Julius Rosenthal fellowship, which gave her a year away from the classroom to focus on her writing, and the book she produced that year was her first to deal directly with a serious social problem, alcoholism and its effect on a family. One publisher balked at this topic, considering it inappropriate for children, or “far out,” as Miss Justus described it, but Random House did publish it (Wigginton interview, pp. 23-27).

In 1939, Miss Justus developed a heart ailment. This, combined with a desire to devote more time to writing, led her to give up full-time teaching. She ran a private tutoring service in which she worked with children who were having particular problems, holding “class” outside whenever possible (Wigginton interview, pp. 26-27). The books she wrote are didactic; a primary purpose was certainly to teach children proper ways to behave. But her characters do not simply learn rules of polite society as they might in a finishing school. The behaviors they learn are connected to a collective sense of community; they illustrate the security and comfort that come to the individual when she or he puts aside personal desires for the benefit of others.

Jerry Jake Carries On (1943) and Use Your Head, Hildy (1956) are coming of age stories. Growing children mature through recognizing their interdependence with the larger society. Jerry Jake, who lives with his grandparents, is left in charge of the homestead when his “Grandpappy” leaves to take a job in a sawmill. Jerry Jake is very successful at carrying out the “man-sized work” around the cabin and at the end of the summer finds he will not be able to start school on time because there is a field of potatoes to be dug up. He decides to sacrifice his new pocket knife by offering it to his friend Tommy Tyler as pay to help him dig the potatoes, placing the family’s needs above his “prized possession.”

In Use Your Head, Hildy, a young girl takes over the role of mother and woman of the house to an infant, two younger siblings and her father while her mother goes away for a month to care for her sick sister. She sells a rug that she has woven, delighted that she finally has the five dollars she will need for a “floweredy dress” she has wanted for a long time. She then mistakenly cooks her father’s seed corn for dinner, all the seed he had saved for next year’s crop. She uses her five dollars to buy a feast for the family and new seed corn for her father, sacrificing her dress, but leaving the family stronger.

May Justus's early work elevates and preserves southern mountain culture. The characters speak an Appalachian dialect which flows like poetry through the narrative. “Look-a-there, now, will you! …Stumbling about like a lack-wit, certain-sure,” says Lizzie, in the book by the same name (p. 10). And her Grampy later reassures her, “You’ll soon have enough …to buy that flock o’ wish book clothes. You’ll be fancy-fine for certain” (p. 16). Entire folk songs are printed, along with the music. Recipes are reproduced with mnemonic memory devices. Traditional stories are retold as stories within the story, always entertaining and reaffirming a strong sense of communal responsibility and joy among the listeners. Herbal remedies are outlined, and the herb women who administer them held up as priests or shamans with a special knowledge and power respected by the entire community.

These books teach children to read beyond the words, to respect and live by the values of their southern Appalachian heritage. Independence and individual integrity are primary, and yet the individual is also interdependent with the collective society. Her characters become adults when they make decisions to suppress their personal wants for the family or the community. Popular education uses the experience and knowledge of the students as its subject matter and this is precisely what May Justus’s books do. While it may be difficult to think of these early books as “radical,” their author does seem to fit Paulo Freire’s (1970) use of the term as one who:

…enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he can better transform it. He is not afraid to confront, to listen, to the world unveiled. He is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into dialogue with them. He does not consider himself the proprietor of history or of men, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he does commit himself, within history, to fight at their side (p. 24).

While May Justus’s early educational work as teacher and children’s author focused on the needs and experiences of the students and made them active participants in their own education, it still lacked one crucial element of popular education. She was not yet encouraging her students to directly address oppressive social forces, such as economic inequality or racism, and challenging them to seek their own liberation from these forces. Some dramatic changes at the Summerfield School after 1932 moved Miss Justus to pay much closer attention to these social forces.

Some time around 1930, Dr. Johnson, the school’s founder and principle administrator, began thinking about retiring. She hoped to find someone to turn her property over to who would carry on the educational work. Don West, an activist and minister and Myles Horton, a native of east Tennessee who had studied at Union Theological Seminary, heard about Dr. Johnson’s plans and showed up with an offer. West and Horton had been influenced by the radical socialist movements of the 1920s, by the social gospel that Reinhold Niebuhr was teaching at Union, and by the Danish folk school tradition. They dreamed of transferring this folk school model to southern Appalachia, to help prepare the region for a coming egalitarian, socialist society (Adams, 1975, pp. 11-12. Glen, 1996, pp. 13-22). A fund-raising letter dated May 27, 1932 and signed by Niebuhr explains the dream:

We believe that neither A. F. of L. nor Communist leadership is adequate to [the southern mountaineers’] needs. Our hope is to train radical labor leaders who will understand the need of both political and union strategy. Without local leadership a labor movement in the South is impossible. …A small group of workers, above 18 years of age will live with the teachers on a small farm where all will work, study and discuss together. Personal relations will play an important part. There will be a limited number of regular classes, but the smallness of the group will allow ample time for individual work based on the needs of individual students….We are proposing to use education as one of the instruments for bringing about a new social order (Horton, 1998, pp. 61-62).

According to Myles Horton, when Dr. Johnson first heard these ideas she was shocked. But Horton was persuasive and Johnson was always interested in innovative education. Over the objections of her family, she gave Horton and West a year’s probationary lease (Adams, 1975, p. 27). Gradually, the Summerfield School’s focus shifted from children, handicrafts and cooperative community living to adults, labor organizing and the civil rights movement. The new school was named the Highlander Folk School. It operated in Grundy County until 1959, just over a hill from the house where May Justus and Vera McCampbell lived. During these years, Highlander functioned as a labor school and as a center of civil rights activities in the South. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Stokely Carmichael, Andrew Young and John Lewis all participated in Highlander workshops. Its cutting edge social agenda was praised and supported by Eleanor Roosevelt and condemned by the Ku Klux Klan, the state of Tennessee, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (Adams, 1990, pp. 26-27).

Soon after Highlander replaced the Summerfield School, May Justus began teaching at a nearby public school. But she worked as a volunteer for Highlander from the day in 1932 when Don West walked out to meet her on a baseball field where she was playing with children until the state of Tennessee forced the school to relocate in 1959. While she was never a paid staff member, she volunteered as Highlander’s secretary-treasurer for many years (Wigginton interview, pp. 24-26).

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s May Justus had plenty of opportunities to hitch her wagon to sectarians on both the left and the right. Through her close contact with Highlander, which was attracting some noted American social radicals, she was well acquainted with the political left. Yet she joined no radical parties and her work shows no political line. She belonged to a traditional, country Presbyterian church, yet she never allowed her social opinions to be straight-jacketed by biblical literalism. In fact, she loved talking about ideas with people who had read widely and critically (S. Bates, personal interview, February 19, 2000). But she did become politicized. At a time when most native-born Southern white “progressives” were waffling on the race issue, urging gradualism and moderation, May Justus took a firm stand for the full integration of Blacks into white society. And once she took this step, she never looked back, but only became firmer and more determined to help the cause of racial equality in the South.

Miss Justus was quick to point out that her commitment to racial equality was the result of direct contact with black people. In fact, she had not known any black people personally until she began meeting them at Highlander. “Highlander’s racial policy certainly did influence me,” she said:

If people who are prejudiced were exposed more to those they are prejudiced against, that might change them. I know people who have been prejudiced but they’ve changed. I’ve had people tell me that. They didn’t get it by listening to sermons and they didn’t get it by reading pamphlets on toleration. They got it by meeting somebody, as I met the people over there at Highlander. They met somebody like Septima Clark or Ralph Abernathy or Dr. Brazeal of Morehouse College. That’s how. They met them and they talked to them. They recognized quality. Only the blindest, most prejudiced person could refute evidence as strong as that. There’s nothing in the world like personal contact. Nothing. Nothing. And the people who influence you most in your life are not the people who preach to you, but the people who live with you and the people you see in their daily lives. “What you are speaks so loud I cannot hear what you say.” That’s an old axiom and it’s just as true now as it was when the first person uttered it [emphasis mine] (Wigginton interview, p. 38).

In the late 1950s this was a courageous and eloquent argument for integration. The only way that racial intolerance could be overcome, she believed, was for black people and white people to get to know each other personally.

One of the first black people that May Justus ever had close contact with was Septima Clark, a teacher from Charleston, South Carolina who had been fired for being a member of the NAACP. Clark had come to Highlander for a workshop and was deeply moved by this group of Southern white people who were eating, sleeping, and working with blacks for the cause of integration. She eventually coordinated Highlander’s Citizenship School program on John’s Island, South Carolina, which taught illiterate black citizens to read so they could pass voter registration tests. With texts such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the students were inspired to struggle for equality while developing their reading skills. The Citizenship Schools became the foundation of the voter registration drives throughout the South that registered tens of thousands of blacks to vote (Glen, 1996, 158-165. Wigginton interview, p. 29).

May Justus felt an instant bond with Septima Clark. They were both teachers from rural areas. They were both raised in fundamentalist religious traditions, remained within that tradition, and yet were open-minded enough to listen to and embrace new and creative ideas. They were voracious readers, eager to talk with others about the books they read, and they were both teetotalers (S. Bates, personal interview, February 19, 2000). When she was visiting Nashville to meet a group of French students Miss Justus took it as a personal insult when her new friend was confronted with Jim Crow:

Septima and I, and I don’t remember who else took them [the French students] down to Nashville to meet there at the Andrew Jackson Hotel. Somebody from one of the television stations was going to meet with them, so we met in the room there and they had this interchange. After it was over and we started to leave, Septima and I started down the hall and we came to an elevator. The elevator boy stopped us, and looking at her said, “You’ll have to go down to the other end of the hall. The colored people do not go down on this elevator.” “Well,” I said to Septima, “we’ll both go down on the other elevator.” So we went to the other elevator. She couldn’t go down on what we’d call “my” elevator, so I went down on “hers.” I may have to suffer fools gladly sometimes, for politeness sake, but I’m not going to suffer wrongdoing gladly.

She wrote the manager to complain about the policy and express her hope that it would change one day. “Well, I never did hear from him,” she said. “Never did hear from him and I don’t know whether that did him a bit of good in the world or not, or changed the policy at all, but it did me good to express my feeling and I just thought in time that manager might consider that” [emphasis mine] (Wigginton interview, pp. 29–30). The good that it did her to express her feeling would motivate her many more times, both in her public life and in her books.


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