Effie Waller Smith was one of the first Black female poets to be published in a prestigious national literary magazine. She’s also a native central Appalachian whose poetry was inspired by the natural beauty of what’s now known as Breaks Interstate Park.
University of Virginia’s College at Wise alumna Jessica Mullins Fullen, a community performance artist, will bring her story to life March 29 at 7 p.m. at the college’s Gilliam Center for the Arts. The event is free and open to the public.
“It was really astounding to me that I had never heard of Effie Waller Smith — another Black Appalachian and native of central Appalachia, who grew up 35 minutes down the road from where I grew up,” Mullins Fullen said in a statement distributed by the school. “There’s this idea, even from the people here, that Appalachia is just one thing or it just looks one way, and that could not be further from the truth. That’s never been the truth. The truth is that people like Effie Waller Smith have lived here and have flourished here.”
The event is part of the Community, Documentary and Performance class taught and created by UVa Wise associate theater professor Michael Hunt. Mullins Fullen visited the class in mid-March to share her passion for theater, her experience at UVa Wise and excitement for the new performance project.
It is co-sponsored by UVa Wise’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion office and the Appalachian Center for the Arts in Pikeville, Kentucky.
“Becoming a published poet for anyone is a feat, but for Effie Waller Smith to reach this goal as an African American woman in Appalachian Kentucky during the early 1900s is a milestone,” said Tabitha Smith, associate vice chancellor for diversity, equity and inclusion in a statement. “This performance is an opportunity for us to continue to learn from the past and reflect on our local history while boosting one of our own graduates, Jessica Mullins Fullen. What could be more stimulating?”
The “Effie Waller Smith Monologue” is a half-hour performance written by Robin Irwin and Erick Buckley who are the Appalachian Center for the Arts executive director and education director, respectively. The show was first performed at the center.
The monologue is steeped in research by Pike County, Kentucky, historian David Deskins, who became interested in Smith as a college student when his professor introduced him to her work because she was from the same area. Since then he has become the foremost expert on Waller Smith’s life and works.
“He really made it his life’s research. He’s dug through census records, everything he could find,” Mullins Fullen said.
Effie Waller Smith’s poem, a sonnet, “Autumn Winds” was published in 1917 by Harper’s Magazine. She wrote short stories and poetry, published books of poetry and several works were published in major American literary magazines.
The daughter of formerly enslaved parents, Waller Smith was born in Pike County in 1879 and died in 1960. Her father became a successful blacksmith, investor and land owner. Waller Smith obtained her teaching credential from the State Normal School for Colored Persons, now Kentucky State University, in Frankfort, Kentucky. She taught in schools in Tennessee and Kentucky, including non-segregated schools.
“The monologue is about her life — where she grew up, how she grew up and how she got into writing,” Mullins Fullen said. “Most of her writing revolves around nature and the beauty of central Appalachia. She would take her students out to what is now Breaks Interstate Park quite a bit. They spent a lot of time outside and the Breaks was really what started to inspire her to write so heavily about the natural lushness of that area.”
Hunt made the piece a part of his class because he believes in the power of community theater to entertain and “make meaning out of the past in the present.”
“It’s history,” Hunt said. “And by performing this for other people, it allows them to actively make meaning as opposed to being told what the meaning is. It’s what I think theater can do and it’s part of a needed and ongoing conversation about race in central Appalachia.”
After Mullins Fullen performs the monologue, she will hold a curtain talk with special guests to discuss Waller Smith, her work and the performance.
Originally from Jenkins, Kentucky, and now a Big Stone Gap resident, Mullins Fullen graduated UVa Wise in 2017 with a bachelor of arts degree in theater and a double minor in communications studies and Spanish. She is a recruiter for Sitel Group and in May she will graduate with a master’s degree in organizational management from the University of Arizona.