Documenting the oral tradition of Dark Corner

Published 10:00 pm Tuesday, October 11, 2016

During the summer of 1983, Dr. Bernard Zaidman, then professor of English at Limestone College, received a humanities grant to conduct a new project entitled Tales from the Dark Corner: Documenting the Oral Tradition.

Sponsored by Limestone College and the South Carolina Committee for the Humanities—and funded in part by this state-based agent of the National Endowment for the Humanities—the project was an effort to preserve the rich folklore of the Dark Corner.

“The region is known for its moonshine stills and scenic mountains, and its people are characterized by a mountaineer’s independence and by their reverence for family, land and God,” read the introduction to the strategic plan for the project.

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The tales from the area were to be presented in lectures to audiences across the state and in Washington, D.C., and physical results of the project—including transcripts of interviews with 39 residents and connected outsiders, copies of slides and black-and-white photographs—were to be retained by a number of institutions, including the National Archives, Washington, D.C., Duke University’s Folklore Library, and nine South Carolina libraries and archives.

Unfortunately, the grant did not include funds for publication of any of the researched materials. They have to be viewed, or listened to, in those county and university libraries, which still maintain the materials in their archives.

Dr. Zaidman gathered the research during the summer, with the assistance of six project staff members, which included: Dean Campbell, ombudsman, who arranged and effected scheduling of the interviews; David Green, who took photos and slides; Dr. Ann Sharpe, Furman University dialectologist; Lisa Kline, storyteller; Janet DuBois, Limestone College, transcriptionist; and Norman Belk, Greenville County librarian.

The project was completed in early 1984 and the first public lecture and presentation of sights and sounds of the Corner was made on January 26 in Fullerton Auditorium at Limestone College, followed by a presentation to the Gaffney High School Library on February 3, and a showing of project photographs at the Cherokee County Library.

On February 9, the first presentation inside the Dark Corner itself was made in the Education and Fellowship Hall of Gowensville Baptist Church (now First Baptist of Gowensville) to a packed audience.

In the following months, lectures were conducted in major Upstate county libraries, at Converse College, Furman University, University of South Carolina and Francis Marion College, and at the Charleston Museum.

On April 20, a formal presentation of project materials was made in the Archivist Reception Room of the National Archives in Washington, DC.

Dr. Bernard Zaidman is owed an enormous debt of gratitude for having applied for the humanities grant that resulted in the preservation of these momentous aspects of our Dark Corner heritage.

That debt of gratitude, however, must be shared with Norman Belk of Greenville County Library. Dr. Zaidman originally had in mind to apply for a grant to do research on Gullah heritage on the coast of South Carolina. It was Norman Belk who pointed out to him that a number of research projects had already been done on Gullah heritage.

“There is a very unique mountainous area in upper Greenville County, an area known as Dark Corner, which needs its rich heritage researched and documented,” Belk told Zaidman. “It is an Appalachian area where people revere three things: God, the family, and the land.”

Zaidman took the recommendation to heart and discovered that Belk was right.

In meeting to conduct the 39 interviews, Zaidman discovered a couple of other things that pleased him enormously.

I wondered why he insisted on meeting at my mother and dad’s home on the scenic highway in Gowensville to go to several of the interviews. I thought, perhaps, it was because he was unfamiliar with the territory and felt comfortable meeting at a known spot.

At the fifth such meeting, however, I discovered that he had fallen in love with my mother’s delicious heritage pound cake!