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  • Marcus J. Hopkins

Black Appalachians and Adult Literacy

Updated: May 3, 2023

By: Marcus J. Hopkins February 1st, 2023

This Black History Month, APPLI will be featuring works by and about Black Appalachians. These important books, poems, and histories help to give voice to the experiences and lives of Black Americans living in the 13-state Appalachian Region—a region that is, in the minds of many Americans, synonymous with "Whiteness."

With this focus on the literary works and history of Black Appalachians, we would be remiss if we failed to address the issue of adult literacy.

One of the unfortunate truths about life in America is that Black Americans are disproportionately impacted by negative health and educational outcomes. It is undeniable that one of the primary causes of these disparities is that, for the majority of America's history, Black Americans—especially those living in the Appalachian South—have faced well-documented and systemic discrimination and racism, including horrific enslavement, segregation, redlining, and the purposeful failure and refusal of state and federal legislatures and government agencies to equally and equitably fund Black districts, cities, and school systems compared to majority White areas.

The truth is that Black Appalachians have neither historically nor currently been afforded the same educational opportunities as their White peers. Despite the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1945 finding that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional and that "Separate But Equal" wasn't actually equal, Black students and majority Black school districts have consistently faced systemic underfunding and a lack of resources to adequately address and improve educational outcomes.

When we examine the consequences of those failures of governments to live up to their obligations to Black Appalachians, we see a troubling pattern: In virtually every Appalachian county in the Deep South where Black Americans make up the majority or near-majority of the population, adult literacy rates are astonishingly low.

In her 2022 article in The Washington Informer, Boosting Adult Literacy Rates in the Black Community, Maya Pottiger laid out the problem both Black Americans and researchers face:

"Up-to-date adult literacy data, especially broken down into race and ethnicity demographics, is hard to come by. A 2019 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, which cited data from 2012 and 2014, found that 23% of Black adults in the country were considered to be low literacy, compared to 35% of white adults and 34% of Hispanic adults" (Pottiger, 2022).

This holds true in Appalachia. While the data we have about adult literacy and numeracy rates are county-specific, they are not specific enough about how those rates break down by race.

We know, for example, that Black Appalachians make up the majority of the population (82.2%) in Macon County, Alabama, and that more than three out of every four adults in Macon County reads at or below an 8th Grade level. Of that 76.5%, a staggering 37.6% of adults in Macon County read below a 3rd Grade level.

While we can make the logical assumption that Black Appalachians in Macon County, Alabama, are disproportionately impacted by adult illiteracy, we don't have race-specific data to drive more effective educational interventions.

Similar statistics and literacy rates exist across Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina: with rare exceptions, the Blacker a county is, the worse the educational outcomes are for Black Appalachians.

This doesn't mean, however, that there aren't dedicated advocates, activists, and educators working to remedy this issue. It's true that the number and accessibility of organizations and institutions that work to improve adult literacy are fewer and farther between in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina, but they do exist, and those working for those organizations work tirelessly to help adults improve their reading skills. They are, however, heavily under-resourced.

But this doesn't have to be the case. With dedicated—and sufficient—local, state, and federal financial resources to support and expand their services throughout southern Appalachia, we can successfully address these issues in a meaningful, community-centered, culturally competent, and equitable way.

Throughout 2023, APPLI will be working to create a series of 13 state-level advocacy toolkits that will contain information about national, state, and local administrative and legislative systems, dynamic contact information for elected officials that will be updated after each election, state- and county-level adult education and health statistics for each Appalachian jurisdiction, and talking point to help guide advocacy efforts so that Appalachians can begin to positively impact the state of adult education funding in our region.

In the meantime, we invite you to learn more about the Black experience and history in Appalachia by checking out our Black History Month 2023 reading list on our website:


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