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Women in Appalachia: Elizabeth Ellis shares how she ‘swims’ in stories everyday

Elizabeth Ellis poses in a classroom at John C. Campbell Folk School.
Lilly Knoepp
Elizabeth Ellis poses in a classroom at John C. Campbell Folk School.

Storyteller Elizabeth Ellis says that sharing stories isn't a job - it’s a calling. Now 80-years-old, Ellis lives in Dallas, Texas. She grew up in Milligan College, Tennessee, and in Booneville, Kentucky.

Ellis shared stories about her life with volunteer Kanute Rarey at John C. Campbell Folk School as part of BPR’s Appalachian Women’s Oral History Tour in partnership with Foxfire Museum.

Kanute Rarey: What does it mean to be a storyteller? 

Elizabeth Ellis: Storytelling isn’t something I do for a living. It's who I am. We swim every day in an ocean of story, and I'm always shocked when other people don't see them or think of them as story. I've been making my living as a storyteller since 1979. Before that, I worked for 10 years at the Dallas Public Library, and in those 10 years, I spent a lot of my time telling stories at the library.

BPR's Lilly Knoepp poses with volunteers Kanute Rarey and Meredith Jones in Elizabeth Ellis' classroom at John C. Campbell Folk School.
Courtesy of Kanute Rarey
BPR's Lilly Knoepp poses with volunteers Kanute Rarey and Meredith Jones in Elizabeth Ellis' classroom at John C. Campbell Folk School.

For me, storytelling is a calling, not a job. I think the most important gift we were given as people is imagination. That imagination is vital to everything that happens. But we're living in a world that does not encourage people to use their imagination. In fact, most of the things that people experience actually discourage it: When you watch TV, when you go to the movies, when you play video games. Somebody else has made all the pictures so you don't have to bother doing that. It's kind of passive entertainment. When I tell you a story, you have to come up with your part because you're the co-creator of the story. You have to visualize and imagine everything that's happening in it. All ethical behavior is based on the imagination. All ethical behavior is based on the ability to imagine the effect of my behavior on your life.

Rarey: What does it mean to you to be from Appalachia?

Ellis: It means having a firm foundation and a solid grip on what reality looks like.

Rarey: What was your childhood like in the mountains?

Ellis: Let's say my Kentucky childhood because that was the most mountainous. I was my grandfather's little sidekick. It was my job to go with him everywhere that was dangerous. I was his fishing buddy and his blackberry picking buddy, and anything else he was supposed to do because my job was to run home and tell them if something happened to Grandpa and he needed help.

It was church four times on Sunday, because he was a circuit riding preacher, and so we went with him to preach in four different communities. Every Sunday morning, we would get up and there'd be two big picnic baskets on the kitchen table. One of them would be filled with food and the other would be filled with very stiffly starched white dress shirts.

He would preach himself through one white shirt at the first church and then we'd go to the second church and he'd preach himself through the second white shirt…

When all the food in the picnic basket had been eaten and all the shirts were dripping wet with sweat, it was time to go home.

Rarey: Is there a childhood story that comes to mind about yourself and your life growing up in the mountains?

Ellis: As soon as my mother realized that my father was not coming home from World War II, she packed us up bag and baggage to move us from her parents’ house, where we would always have been welcome, to Milligan College, Tennessee, to grow up in the house he'd been born in, because she wanted us to grow up knowing as much about him as we possibly could. For me, one of the things I would say about Appalachia is that it is very, very strong on the sense of family. Family is very important, and love lasts. My mother gave up a great deal of comfort and security because she loved my father, and when she died in her 90s, she was still as much in love with him as she was the day that she had learned that he was dead.

That sense of connection that doesn't break with death. I think a lot of people in Appalachia have a much more current relationship with the dead than people in other places do.

Rarey: You've been involved as a woman in the world for so long. How has [being a woman] changed, and how do you feel about it and see it today?

Ellis: Fifty years ago, when I moved to Dallas, I put $500 dollars in the credit union and asked to borrow $200 dollars to begin establishing credit and was refused because I couldn't produce a husband or a father who would co-sign the note. Even though I had more money in their account than what I was asking for. Women have made a good bit of progress and it's really true that federal law has made it harder to discriminate against women. But it still happens all the time.

Any time you make some progress forward, there's always going to be a backlash, and we're living in a time right now where there's backlash against any kind of progress that people try to make, whether or not you are a woman or if you're a person of color or if you are a person who’s, let's say, different in any kind of way.

Young women today need to be very, very careful, not taking for granted any of the progress that was made on their behalf and the past. A lot of it could be lost easily and stay lost for a long time.

On the day that Roe v. Wade was overturned, I called my grandson whom I raised and I said, “Your little boy's daughters will ask us what we did. Did you stand up for us? Did you try to help us? Did you try to make sure that our rights weren’t taken away from us?”
So, as a family, we've been trying to do everything we can to make sure that people's rights are restored. That the line gets held. That we are not going back, and if we're going backward in any area, it's only temporary. Because in the long run, love always conquers, love always wins out. You can love your enemies until you drive them crazy.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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