POMEROY — Just as James Edwin Campbell seemed poised as a strong voice for African Americans in Appalachia, his life was cut short in 1896 by typhoid pneumonia.
A session highlighting Campbell at the Appalachian Studies Association Conference in 2015 described him as “a teacher, a poet, and an early advocate for the advancement of African Americans in the late 19th century.”
Campbell grew up in an area of Pomeroy known as Kerr’s Run along the Ohio River where his parents James and Letha Campbell settled after arriving from Virginia. Many “fugitive” slaves had taken refuge in Ohio because of the state’s status as a “free state,” a state that had banned slavery before the Civil War.
Although slavery had never existed in Ohio, the state was not fully integrated, and most schools and churches were segregated. Such was the case of the “Kerr’s Run Colored School” Campbell attended through eighth grade. The all white Pomeroy Academy however, did accept African American students, including Campbell, who graduated in 1884.
One of Campbell’s early companions, J.S. Durst, who became West Virginia state auditor in the early 1900’s, referred to Kerr’s Run as Pomeroy’s “Bloody First” ward and described it as “tough.” He cited Campbell as “a person who rose to prominence in spite of his early unfavorable environment.”
Campbell’s contributions as an educator were presented in an earlier article. Along with teaching, Campbell was writing and publishing essays and poetry. He was editor of “The Pioneer” and the “West Virginia Enterprise,” and a staff writer for the “Chicago Times-Herald.”
Campbell was also becoming known as a gifted public speaker. An example is a report in The “Wheeling Daily Intelligencer,” May 1889, of a lecture he delivered entitled “Race Antagonism” at the Simpson Methodist Episcopal Church in Wheeling, West Virginia. In the article it was said that he possessed “a natural gift of oratory, and his address was brimfull of eloquence, besides being instructive and worthy of attention.”
But for many, Campbell is remembered as an Appalachian poet who gave voice to the experiences of African Americans of the river towns of Pomeroy and Gallipolis, Ohio and Point Pleasant, West Virginia, and the first poet to write in what some scholars define as African American vernacular dialect.
Campbell has gained respect and praise for his book Echoes from the Cabin and Elsewhere (1895) from numerous sources.
The Appalachian Studies Association emphasizes the importance of Campbell’s ability to ”sing the praises of the ‘aunties and uncles’ who spent their days in the salt works and coal mines and who retained the language forms, traditional songs and dances, and cultural mores of African Americans who were, at the same time, Appalachian.”
In her book entitled Black Poets of the United States, historian Jean Wagner stated that Campbell “reveals the upsurge, among Blacks, of a racial consciousness that chafes under every yoke.”
According to the Poetry Foundation, Campbell’s book “Echoes from the Cabin and Elsewhere” (1895), mixes realism and folk wisdom with authentic, rhythmic dialect,” and credits it with being one of the finest collections of dialect poems of the 19th century.
On Sept. 28, Campbell’s birthday, Shannon Scott stood beside Campbell’s graveside in the Hemlock Grove Cemetery in Pomeroy, reading his final poem, “Homesick” which appears below:
I want to, O I want to I want to get back Home,
I’m sick of all the cit’s roar, its sky’s greatsmoky done.
I want to feel the quiet of the home place round me sweet
And mother’s arm around me while as one our two hearts beat,
I want to see the hills at home, the hollow and the creek;
The same old sky above me where the stars play “Hide and Seek”
I want to see the same old church where they sing “Sweet Hour of Prayer,”
Tili a fellow’s throat seem choking and well, he doesn’t care!
I went to hear John Wilson pray as only Old John can,
Till heaven settles on the earth and God is near to man!
For Faith and Hope are but two wings on which his prayer upflies,
From “transitory things of earth” to “mansions in the skies.”
I want to hear “Old Uncle” laugh till all the town just roars,
Till wond’ring what the fracas is, the folks run out of doors,
I want to see the “boys” come up with “Glad to see you, Jim!”
And How’s the world a using you!” it’s sweeter than a hymn;
And father’s short but shaky words, “Well how are you, my boy?”
A saying of it crusty like to smother down his joy
What! tears? Why yes, the tears will come Ashamed? No! let ‘em some
I want to, O, I want to, O, I want to get back home!
December 7, 1895
James Edwin Campbell
Sources for this article include the Appalachian Education Association, West Virginia State University Archives, the Poetry Foundation, and Meigs County Historical Society Trustee Shannon Scott.
Poem “Homesick” transcribed from the Bucyrus Evening Telegraph publication 01, August 1896, originally published before Campbell’s death in the Chicago Conservator, the first African-American newspaper in Chicago.
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