My Memories of a Mountain 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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8 Comments

  1. Barbara
    Posted October 17, 2011 at 5:32 am | Permalink

    Robin,
    Thank you for this. I’ve been sitting out with the dogs all weekend (enjoying no rain and the wind). This is going in my collection!

  2. Posted October 17, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    Children’s literature is so playful, so easy on our minds and yet can bring such joy. Who doesn’t love to be transported back to the time when imagination was so easily come by?

    I enjoyed your reflections on Miss Justus, and sharing a bit of her story on the blog. It’s a glimpse into the life of a beautiful soul. Remembering can bring a lot of joy. I’m glad you bring it up, as it was slipping by me that today was my dad’s birthday. He would have liked this poem. Remembering his life brings me a similar joy.

  3. Posted October 18, 2011 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    Mr. Bates,
    thank you, I really enjoyed this poem and post… Good day.

  4. Jennifer
    Posted January 29, 2012 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    Is this the same May Justus who wrote “The Wonderful School” Little Golden Book? If so , I had never heard her story until now. This was absolutely my most favorite book as a child. Now that I read about how she stood for the rights of others, is it any coincidence that I chose social work advocacy as a profession??

  5. Robin Bates
    Posted January 29, 2012 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    Miss Justus (I could never bring myself to call her May) would be thrilled at hearing what you’re doing. Yes, “The Wonderful School of Miss Tillie O’Toole” was hers and it comes from a deep place. She set up a school in the Appalachians based on John Dewey principles in (I think) the 1920′s. The students ran the school (chopped wood for the wood stove, made lunch, etc) as well as learned their lessons, breaking down the divide between the practical and the theoretical. I didn’t ever talk to her about it (I now wish I had) but I’m sure that math got taught through the recipes they made and other activities. In other words, the kind of teaching that goes on in “The Wonderful School.”

    While I’m on the subject, let me mention one other May Justus story. When Highlander Folk School was up for trial by Tennessee racists (who managed to close it down), Miss Justus testified on its behalf. Director Miles Horton had been imprisoned at one point (for his union activities) and she was asked by the prosecuting attorney about associating with a man who had been in jail. Miss Justus replied something to the effect of “Well, Jesus and Paul were imprisoned and I follow them too.” They backed off and stopped examining her at that point.

  6. Paul McCoy
    Posted March 16, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    Hi.
    Stumbled across this entry and wanted to let you know, in case you didn’t, the Tennessee Folklore Society and Jubilee Community Arts produced a recording of May Justus in late 2011. The recording is available on tennesseefolklore.org

    Thanks,
    paul

  7. Jane Maclin Moore
    Posted April 23, 2013 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

    May Justus was a good friend of my favorite aunt. Mary Thompson Feemster, when Mary taught at Monteagle many years ago. A painting of her and Miss Justus hung in Mary’s living room.

  8. Robin Bates
    Posted April 24, 2013 at 5:28 am | Permalink

    Thanks for telling me this, Jane. May was a luminescent soul in every way.

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