My Memories of a Mountain Writer

Appalachian children’s writer May Justus

When I was growing up, my family were good friends with a remarkable Appalachian writer named May Justus. Miss Justus (as we always called her) lived simply in a tiny house not far from Sewanee (in Tracy City actually) and wrote children’s books and poetry. One of her poems came to me as I was bicycling through a stiff October breeze last week. I share it with you here:

Winds A’Blowing

By May Justus

The North Wind is a beggar
Who shudders at the cold.
The South Wind is a sailor
With pockets full of gold.
The East Wind is a gypsy
With saucy cap and feather.
The West Wind is a wizard
Who conjures wicked weather.

The Winter Wind’s a giant
As grumpy as a bear.
The Summer Wind’s a lady
With flowers in her hair.
The Autumn Wind’s an old man
As touchy as a thistle.
The Spring Wind’s a gay lad
Who blows a silver whisle.

When I was a reporter  for the Winchester Herald Chronicle in 1975, I wrote a feature article on Miss Justus, who was 77 at the time, and learned more facts about her life. Born a mountain kid herself, she had come to the area in the 1920’s to work in a John Dewey-inspired school for mountain children.

She didn’t live far from Highlander Folk School, a hub of the southern Civil Rights fight against segregation, and was one of the few local whites who supported it until the state of Tennessee closed it down. You can read more about how she testified for Highlander in court here.  Because Miss Justus was an independent writer, the county couldn’t punish her, but they fired her housemate Vera McCampbell, who taught at the local elementary school, and denied her her pension, even though she was a year from retiring. Miss McCampbell also supported Highlander.

Miss Justus’s book New Boy in School, about an African American child’s first day in a newly integrated school, was important at the time and won a national award.   It has  particular significance for me since it was dedicated to me and my brothers. As the children of liberals, we too faced tensions in our newly integrated school although, of course, nothing like that faced by black children. The book helped me put a frame around my experience.

Miss Justus was one of the most soulful people that I have ever known. She didn’t want to be possessed by things and would give away anything anyone gave her. I remember talking to her once shortly after she had just finished rereading all of Shakespeare’s plays (this when she was in her 70’s). She was struck by how many of Shakespeare’s passages have practically taken on the status of folk wisdom.

She lived the life of one who was grounded in what really mattered. As you can tell from her poem, she also had a wonderful imagination. It’s fun to recall my memories of her.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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