Appalachia’s Earliest Philanthropic Organization

Fellowships  •  Folklife  •  History

Kathleen Curtis Wilson
Kathleen Curtis Wilson

More than a hundred years ago, the long-forgotten Southern Industrial Educational Association (SIEA) began as the first philanthropic organization aimed at improving life in rural Appalachia. Inspired to introduce their efforts to a larger audience, historian Kathleen Curtis Wilson has returned to Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (VFH) for her third Fellowship.

A long-time scholar of Appalachian culture and craft, especially among women of the region, Wilson has published three books on Appalachia: Uplifting the South, Encyclopedia of Appalachia, and Textile Art from Southern Appalachia: The Quiet Work of Women. In 2014 she completed a VFH grant-funded project that visually documented the life and work of Elizabeth Morris (1872-1948), an African-American quilt and dress maker of Bath County, VA.

Recently, Kathleen sat down with UVA Anthropology student Katie Lebert to talk about her fellowship and share some of what she’s discovered about SIEA’s role in the craft revival movement.

KL: What are you working on during your Fellowship at VFH?
KW: I am digitizing fifty-one quarterly magazines of the Southern Industrial Educational Association. This organization was the earliest philanthropic organization started to raise the profile of the under-served population of white children in the Appalachian Mountains. The collection will be permanently hosted by Virginia Tech.

Photo/postcard printed and sold in 1914 to promote the work of SIEA.
Photo/postcard printed and sold in 1914 to promote the work of SIEA.

KL: How did you become interested in SIEA?
About 16 years ago, I discovered that in 1913 First Lady Ellen Axson Wilson, an Honorary President of SIEA, decorated the President’s room in the White House with blue and white Appalachian homespun fabrics that she and the Vice-President’s wife purchased at SIEA’s Bazaar of Mountain Crafts. It was the room that held the Lincoln bed and was thereafter known as the Blue Mountain Room. She had the bedroom photographed and created postcards, which were sold in a hope to increase public interest in the impoverished region.

KL: What has been your most exciting research discovery so far?
KW: I have discovered in reading basically a thousand pages of these small magazines that SIEA became an early marketplace for selling Appalachian craft, and it was, I believe, the beginning of the craft revival movement. They recognized that they could sell Appalachian crafts to Northerners, and in doing so, they helped improve the quality of the things that were being made. It started with weaving and basketry, and moved on to feather fans, wooden toys, rag rugs and a lot of things.

KL: What do you think is the lasting legacy of SIEA?
In 1926 they disbanded the organization believing that enough new organizations had come in to help Appalachia. By bringing national awareness to the problems, they started the ball rolling, and that has never ended.

There continue to be issues now. Coal mining has been a big problem in many ways. Factories have come in and gone out. But researchers and people in the field have continued to try and bring opportunities to Appalachia. I think that is the legacy; they started it.

KL: What drew you to VFH for your Fellowship?
It’s a wonderful quiet place to step away from real life, to concentrate on work. I am a big supporter of the work VFH does, and the Fellowship Program specifically. I think one of the important aspects of this Fellowship Program is the value placed on independent scholars; you do not have to be affiliated with a particular institution; VFH values experience, whether it’s a PhD or fieldwork.

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About the Author

Katie Lebert studies Anthropology and History as a fourth-year at the University of Virginia. She is currently interning at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities through the University Internship Program.