Piedmont Photography Exhibit Highlights Black Communities in Appalachia

Chris Aluka Berry is a native of South Carolina and an Atlanta-based photojournalist who enjoys telling stories. Berry took on a new project six years ago, documenting black culture and history in the Appalachian region. Today his work is exhibited at the Mason-Scharfenstein Art Museum of the University of Piedmont.

“Affrilachia: The Remnant that Remains,” follows the lives of Black Americans living in the Appalachian region and documents the moments that define their communities. His hope is to immortalize these moments in a fading and often undocumented history.

In another of Berry’s photos, he captures 77-year-old William “Tank” Coward walking near Keener Cemetery in Sylva, North Carolina Fifty years ago, there was a thriving African-American community around the cemetery. Now Coward is the last African American to live in the area. (Photo by Chris Aluka Berry)

“When most people think of Appalachia, they kind of think of it as a homogenous society where it’s mostly white people,” Berry told Now Habersham. “The more I delved into this story, the more I discovered how very far from the truth it is. There is a lot of diversity in the mountains.

He says there is a rich black history in the Appalachian region, with many of the region’s buildings and railroads, as well as silver and gold mining industries built by slaves, to hillside black communities. mountains that have disappeared from Appalachian history.

Chris Aluka Berry started his career as a photojournalist 20 years ago, his current project “Affrilachia: The Remnant that Remains”, could be the one he will work on for the rest of his career. (Hadley Cottingham/Now Habersham)

“I’ve read stories of people buying their freedom with the gold they find,” Berry said. “There were even, here in White County, entire mountainsides that were black owned at one time and entire communities, where there was a school and there was a church…and stores, and now you walk past and you just see the forest, and you have no idea [it was there].”

He says that during his travels where he worked on photojournalism projects for news outlets and hiked the Appalachian Mountains, he found his passion for documenting Appalachian black history.

“I’ve been camping, hiking in the mountains for years, and I never knew there were people of color in the mountains,” he says. “It seemed like a story that had never really been documented and would be forgotten if someone didn’t like to make it a visual document.”

Now it’s Berry’s ongoing project, one he says he could work on for the rest of his career.

Discovering Afrilachie

In her 2021 exhibit which highlighted Afrilachian culture in the COVID-19 pandemic, Cochran dedicated the exhibit to her uncle who was killed by a teenage driver in 2020. (Photo by Marie Cochran)

While in northeast Georgia, he heard of “Afrilachia”, a term coined by Kentucky’s Frank X Walker, artist and activist Toccoa Marie Cochran. The term recognizes the culture of the African American people living in the Appalachian region and its impact on building communities more than 25 million people live today.

He says that as a biracial man and from the south, being able to not only see parts of his community that he was unaware of, but to feel like part of a family that he doesn’t didn’t know he had was essential to the project.

“Now I’m kind of like a family with lots of people [in the project]”, says Berry. “I have people who call me and invite me to photograph birthday parties, funerals and graduations, and people know what I’m doing, and some people realize that it’s It is as much a documentary project as it is a preservation project.

Berry’s photos capture the everyday moments of Afrilachian culture, finding the striking cultural beauty in moments. (Hadley Cottingham/Now Habersham)

Annie Sutton and Tim Jenkins both featured in Berry’s photograph of the Appalachian region of northeastern Georgia and attended the MSMA reception for his exhibit.

“It’s really great that someone is preserving history because I’m a history buff and I think every young person should know their roots,” Sutton said.

She recalled her childhood at camp meetings that Berry photographed, as Jenkins spoke of Berry’s dedication to helping her rediscover parts of her own history, such as lost photos of her uncle.

“Chris and I have become really, really good friends,” Jenkins said. “He slept on my couch a few nights too, and he helped me research a lot of things…any old history and stuff like that to me is just exciting to me.”

Berry donated three photographs from the collection to become part of the MSMA’s permanent art collection, which museum director Rebecca Brantley hopes will be the start of bringing in more art that resonated with the community in northeast Georgia.

“[These] will help us build work that is a little bit more reflective of our community and region,” Brantley said. “This is the start of an exciting new chapter for us.”

Berry’s exhibit will be on display at MSMA until March 24; Museum hours are noon to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.

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Stewart C. Hartline