By Gina Malone
With her first book, The French Broad, in 1955, author and Asheville native Wilma Dykeman (1920- 2006), broke ground in environmental awareness and established herself as one of the foremost writers of Western North Carolina and beyond. In 2012, her son Jim Stokely founded the Wilma Dykeman Legacy, a nonprofit initiative to further the core values she expressed in her lifetime, both personally and in her writing.
Those values include environmental integrity, social justice and the power of the written and spoken word. “We feel that the work of the Legacy is of utmost importance today,” Stokely says, “because of our urgent needs for environmental sensitivity, civil debate and racial and ethnic justice with an emphasis on African-Americans, Latinos and poor white southern mountaineers.”
The group partners with other nonprofits to bring programs, presentations and workshops to the public. Recent partnerships resulted in a five-part program on “Water Troubles and Water Solutions” in WNC, a short story discussion series at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial and community debates at Asheville High School between local community leaders on such relevant issues as African-American disenfranchisement and the legalization of marijuana.
The current program, which began in August and wraps up next month, is Female Authors: Writing America Between the World Wars. The series, says Dr. Mimi Fenton, who is its project director and a professor of English at Western Carolina University, “presents three films and five lectures by regional scholar-experts on the writings of overlooked and forgotten women novelists writing in the 1920s and 1930s. The goal,” she adds, “is to celebrate and bring recognition to these important women writers who offer meaningful insights and perspectives about culture, race, gender and place.” The program, supported in part by a grant from the North Carolina Humanities Council, explores the writings of Ellen Glasgow, Zora Neale Hurston, Julia Peterkin, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Olive Tilford Dargan, for whom a historical marker stands in West Asheville.
Nearly all of the programs presented by the Legacy are free and open to the general public. “Our programs focusing on the power of the written and spoken word tend to attract older white people,” Stokely says. “Our programs focusing on environmental integrity attract young and old alike, and our programs on social justice draw more diverse audiences.”
In March, the Dykeman Legacy Press published its fi rst book, Confronting the Silence: A Holocaust Survivor’s Search for God, a memoir by Weaverville resident Walter Ziffer. The book was chosen as a finalist for the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award presented annually by the Western North Carolina Historical Association.
The first Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award in 1955 went to The French Broad. Despite the success of that book and its effect still today on efforts to keep the French Broad River clean and protected, Dykeman’s favorite of her books was Return the Innocent Earth (1973), her third published novel.
The quote of his mother’s that he loves best, Stokely says, “comes from Neither Black Nor White and illustrates her groundbreaking 1957 call to justice for the land, water and marginalized people (in this case, African-Americans): ‘As we have misused our richest land, we have misused ourselves; as we have wasted our bountiful water, we have wasted ourselves; as we have diminished the lives of one whole segment of our people, we have diminished ourselves.’”
Today we see Dykeman’s legacy not only in the enlightening programs of this organization that bears her name, but in a French Broad River clean enough for recreational use, in strong grassroots movements towards social justice in her native Asheville and in the thriving literature of our southern Appalachian mountains.
To learn more about programs of the Wilma Dykeman Legacy or about becoming a member, visit wilmadykemanlegacy.org.