Cynthia McCowan was born and raised in a tiny, rural town in Northwest Mississippi and is an HBCU-proud alum of Alcorn State University. She has two adult daughters, four grandcritters, ranging from 6 to 19 years old, and has lived in Athens, Tennessee, for the last 27 years. After retiring from a 22-year career as an environmental scientist with the Tennessee Valley Authority, she stumbled upon the Athens Area Council for the Arts and the rest is history in the making.

With a life-long passion for the arts, she has been able to immerse herself in all things art through the Arts Center’s diverse array of artistic offerings. She currently serves on the Arts Council’s board and is an active member of Athens City Council’s Council Advisory Committee. 

McCowan talks with Everywhere Radio about her work to lift up the history of Free Hill, a black community that was established in Athens in 1854 by a group of free Blacks, and was then razed to the ground in the 1960s as urban renewal efforts took hold.

Episode Transcript 

Cynthia McCowan:

You don’t ever leave with a broken relationship. That relationship, even when there’s that thing between you, is going to bind you. You let the thing between you bind you, not break you.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

That’s Cynthia McCowan, this week’s guest on Everywhere Radio. Everywhere Radio is a production of The Rural Assembly, and I’m your host, Whitney Kimball Coe. Each episode, I spotlight the good, scrappy, and joyful ways rural people and their allies are building a more inclusive nation. Before we get to Cynthia, I’d like to talk about the Rural Assembly Everywhere virtual event that will be held May 10th and 11th. It’s for rural advocates and the rural curious, listeners and leaders, neighbors and admirers. We’ll enjoy two days of virtual programming featuring artists and poets, civic leaders and experts. You can register for free at ruralassembly.org.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

Cynthia McCowan wants Black lives to become more visible in Athens, Tennessee. That’s what she told her local newspaper when describing why she took the lead to create a new online video series called The Conversations of Black Folk. The video series was launched during Black History Month in collaboration with the local arts center, Athens Area Council for the Arts, and it features local Black voices and their allies in conversation, sometimes painful conversation, about how we reckon with historic and ongoing harm to BIPOC communities in rural Tennessee. You can watch the Conversations of Black Folks series on YouTube. There are four episodes, and you’ll hear local elders and youth, Black and white, reflecting on the history of race in Athens, challenging softer community narratives about race relations, and remembering Free Hill, the Black community that was established in Athens in 1854 by a group of free Blacks, and was then razed to the ground in the 1960s as urban renewal efforts took hold.

Cynthia McCowan’s belief in open and honest dialogue is something that she’s known for in Athens. And I can attest to that because Athens, Tennessee is my hometown too. We’re a small rural city situated near the foothills of The Great Smoky Mountains. Of the nearly 15,000 souls in our town, about 9% identify as Black or African American. In all my life, I’ve understood that there is a silent but palpable disconnect between the white community and our Black neighbors. And not doubt that’s why the Conversations of Black Folk series captivated me and so many others in our community. I’m really grateful to Cynthia for saying yes to this conversation with me today. There’s much we could cover, and I’m really going to try to pack it in because when I’m in conversation with Cynthia McCowan, I feel like everything she shares is important. So Cynthia, thank you so much for being here today.

Cynthia McCowan:

Thank you so much for having me.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

So I just think you’re kind of all the things. You’re everywhere in Athens. I see you all the time. And I want our listeners to know that you’re a mother, you’re a grandmother, you’re a community participant and activist. You’re in community theater a lot. And you’re a member of the board of Athens Area Council for the Arts. You’re just so rooted in our community, and I want to know from you where that drive comes from.

Cynthia McCowan:

I think it’s being settled. I had not been settled and didn’t have a real goal. And I finally settled here with my children in a place where there were no Black people hardly, and the ones I met seemed to be without a connection. It broke my heart, so I was driven and I am still driven to connect the people here together as one, Black and white, because the disconnect is like you say. It is palpable, but it’s almost as if they don’t even realize that it exists. It is a culture here that’s totally different. And the culture, it’s not a bad one, but it’s missing some elements. And this is a beautiful, beautiful place. I’ve met beautiful people, but I need them to be cohesive and to connect. And I don’t know, I can’t explain it, but there’s something in me that feels like it could be complete. And we need to work at it and not be afraid to do it.

So that drives me, and I have three grandchildren here. I don’t want them to feel like they’re disconnected. I don’t want them to defer to whites. I don’t want whites to ignore them. And I do believe it is not intentional. It’s just cultural. They don’t know that this is not the way it should be, or that it could be any better, so we’re here to do better. So every day when I wake up, or at night when I lie down, I ask God to show me the next day, I’m sorry, what my love labor will be.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

What your love labor will be.

Cynthia McCowan:

Yeah, because to love is not easy all the time. It is difficult. The intention is to always do it no matter what. And I’ve been introduced to being softer and kinder than I would normally be when I met people like you. You’re brave. You’re bold. But it’s a whole different recipe for doing that, and I admire that in you. And I’ve learned from it. It’s like God brought me here to learn all those things because there’s something for us to do, and we just need to be open to doing that. And so I am appreciative of being used to do it. And I don’t want to make God unhappy, and I certainly don’t want to … . So yeah, so thank you for participating in my growth. And I have always meant to tell you that, but we don’t see each other very often.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

Thank you. Well, certainly not since the pandemic began, we have not been gathering in the ways that we did before. Although, I’ve been really impressed at how our local arts center has found alternative ways to keep people coming together in community, whether it’s virtual, or sometimes in person, sometimes outside. And I think the video series that you spearheaded, the Conversations of Black Folk, fits in that storyline of pandemic. This is how we can still continue conversation because it’s online.

But going back to what you were saying about your granddaughters and your family, and this palpable disconnect that we feel in our community. Do you feel like the Conversations of Black Folk are getting to that desire you have to make sure that Black people are more visible in Athens, Tennessee? Has it been doing that?

Cynthia McCowan:

It has. The feedback we’ve gotten from the people that have watched it here, actually, I was so thankful when Lauren asked me just one day in the office like, “Hey, we want to try to do something different. We don’t want to keep doing the same things. And we don’t want to not do anything just because we’re in a pandemic.” We need to reach out. We need to keep … And we want to involve the whole community.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

And that’s Lauren Brown, the executive director of the arts center.

Cynthia McCowan:

We talked about something near and dear to my heart is storytelling because we’re storytellers in my family. And stories to me are easier to do than acting because they’re true, they’re authentic. And if you can tell a story, you can engage people and they’ll remember that. And I’ve mentioned it to her a couple of times, and so this time, when we were trying to, I call it whirlwind, whirlwind some ideas about what to do for Black History Month. And having a whole different set of people in the room just made me happy because that was the beginning of connecting with people that don’t normally come out of the shadows or out of their shells to participate, and they did.

So I started thinking about it like, “How do we do it?” I don’t want to have just people sit on stage and talk because they’re not comfortable with that. A lot of people aren’t. So what is the easiest way to get people together and have them feel comfortable enough to talk? And I thought, “Well, we can have conversations.” Black people are good at just sitting around the kitchen table, eating and drinking and talking. And I was in the grocery store one day, and saw Linda Long, a community activist civically engaged up to here, she says, “Sis,” and that’s the way we talk, “You know we going to talk about some stuff. Let’s talk about Free Hill.” And I said, “Okay. What about Free Hill?” And she said, “Well, nobody talks about Free Hill. They don’t even really know what happened to it.” And I have to apologize because I did not know the end either. I’ve been here 27 years. My ex-husband, we’d pass there and he’d tell me that used to be a place where the Black people lived. And I’m like, “Oh, OK, Free Hill.”

So I made the connection, they had to be free to be there. But then he never went in depth about it. He never expounded on it or said that he knew a whole lot about it. But she said, “Let’s do Free Hill.” I said, “Okay, let me look into it. Do we have people here that lived on Free Hill?” And she was like, “Yeah.” I’m like, “Really? I thought they were all gone.” And she said, “I lived on Free Hill.” I’m like “You did?” And she was like, “Yes.” And so Free Hill came from Linda Long. That was her idea. The second conversation, I Was Raised Black: Remembrance and Reflection, came from me because I think it’s interesting to take note of other cultures too, and their stories. I like listening to the Appalachia stories, and I think that’s amazing, or people that are from other countries. But being Black is almost like being from whole little place yourself.

And you want people to connect to that because then you find it doesn’t matter. We’re all going to have the same stories almost. And a lot of people think that we’re so different because they don’t hear or listen to the other groups, or ethnic group, or races. They don’t listen to their stories. But it was Linda Long, myself, and Bonita Montgomery. And she’s originally from Mississippi also. She and her husband, Andre Montgomery, he works over at TWU, they’ve been here 18 years. And she feels a lot like I do, and I think that’s why we work well together. She could love to see us be more visible, more viable, and more valuable to this community, to this community, and that’s what we’re working toward. That’s where all that came from. It wasn’t just … It wasn’t me. It was us three ladies.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

Yeah. Thank you for describing how it came to be. I think that is really important, and the many voices that actually came to the table to collaborate to put this together. I know that a library participated a little bit too. The museum I think came to the first planning meeting. So I mean, it really did feel like a community endeavor in a lot of ways. I also want to know if there, throughout these conversations, if there were any surprises or kind of unintended conversations that began to happen that you feel like we could keep pursuing as a community.

Cynthia McCowan:

When we had the Conversations of Black Folk, the Free Hill series, what I learned at the end of that was how much pain they had embodied because of urban renewal. I’ve been looking for the origin of it. How did these Black people end up on this hill, free Black people?

Whitney Kimball Coe:

Yeah. It’s a hill in our town right next to the YMCA, go up and down over it, yep.

Cynthia McCowan:

How did they end up on this hill? Who would’ve bequeathed them this land? For right now, all we know is they ended up there and there were a few white families, really poor white families that ended up there. And it was a proud place to be. They were proud of it. They all owned their property and they owned their land. It was a source of pride for them, even though most people would look at it and go, “Oh, my gosh. Why would you live in such a place?” They loved it. And I’m passionate about Free Hill because I lived in a little tiny community, where it was all Black on my side of town, just like they were sequestered in a safe haven of no segregation to fight, to deal with, when they were home. It was all Black, all family, all love.

They had to venture out of Free Hill to learn what racism was really about when they kind of grew up to see it on a regular basis. They knew it existed, but they loved that little place. And we’re going to try to find out how it started. We know how it ended. But that’s the conversation that is going to always keep going, is the conversation we felt like needed followup, as you say.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

Because you talked about the pain that you heard in people’s voices and in the conversation itself. And that pain stems from the razing of Free Hill to the ground because of urban renewal. And all those families losing their land and their home in that community, that secure community that they felt they had. Is that right?

Cynthia McCowan:

Yes. Because even when … And I can relate to them, have the same feelings, because even when you venture out of your community and you face racism, you had a place to go back to that was safe. And that was not ever taken from me. I don’t know how I would’ve survived. But it was actually just taken from them. And they still have trauma, and they hold … Leslie Arnold was talking to me and the program director at the arts center. And she watched the videos, and she said she could tell they are still holding their traumas. They still live in a place where they defer to whites. They’re not sure they can share this. They don’t want to upset the white people, so they’re holding their traumas close to them. But they’re just beginning. It was the beginning for them to share it.

They didn’t want to. And I can feel it because I’m used to them after 30 years. They are very wary of what they say. They’re very specific. And they don’t know how to … It’s like they’re afraid to share, but they don’t even know that’s a fear that they have. It’s just a habit.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

And it’s so indicative of where we are as a country in general, as we stumble and falter and try to figure out how to have these conversations that are uncomfortable. And they’re poking at things that are so woven into our identities and our histories and our traumas. I’m just interested in how it does feel like we are stumbling through this, but we are stumbling in the right direction. We’ll be right back after this from The Daily Yonder.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

And now back to Everywhere Radio. I wanted to ask you about in 2020, we had a day where we honored, remembered, and raged about George Floyd’s murder. And it was a coming together of the community. It was about 200 people. We met in Cook Park, which is a traditionally Black neighborhood and park that Linda Long stewards.

Cynthia McCowan:

Is the mayor of.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

Is the mayor of, yeah. So 200 I think people showed up to really acknowledge the harm, the hurt, the pain, and the growing pains that this country was going through. You were there, I think. And I wonder if you sense that we are stumbling in the right direction, or if that was a catalyst in any way, that coming together in 2020 was a catalyst in any way for being able to have the Conversations of Black Folk. Is it all pointing in the same kind of direction?

Cynthia McCowan:

I don’t know that was the catalyst. I think that was almost felt like a knee jerk reaction to me, but it was better than nothing. You know what I’m saying? Because I listened, I’m always listening. And nothing new was said. Nothing definitive was said. There was no action defined that we will take. So I thought, “This looks good, but this, I don’t know that this will actually do good.” I think it appeased some people, and not the people that put it together. I know they had the best of intentions. But I think most of the other people there had the same mentality or the same thoughts they’d always had. They’re just talking. Nothing’s going to happen. And that made me sad because then nothing did happen.

Well, and it’s easier to accept that because nothing really bad is happening here. We don’t have a bunch of police brutality, or killings, or anything. We live in a pretty safe place. And there are not open … There’s not incidents of open racism to deal with. We don’t have a reference point for that. So you don’t really know where your race relations are. It’s not been challenged, so you don’t know if they’re good or bad. So I said, “Wait until the Civil War comes here,” then we’ll find out where everybody stands. Yeah, the beginning of it, there was a lot of disappointment from Black people when George Floyd was killed because all over Facebook at the time, they were expressing that they were in shock that their white friends, coworkers, acquaintances didn’t seem to really care about it.

And they were like, “Oh, I always thought so and so was a good friend of mine. Or I always thought that they were not racist.” I always thought this, that, or the other great thing about them, only to find out that there was no empathy, and some of them were actually apathetic and wondering. What is the big deal? There’s a lot of pain that was revealed in that time, and what I told them that June was, “Look at you people. You just found out you’re Black.” You just found out in 2020 that you are actually Black. And we need to go from there, not from a place of hate. You can be angry about it, but let your anger fuel your fostering of better relationships. Don’t go into it, don’t be angry when you’re working at it. Let your anger just fuel it, but you got to work at it peacefully with love and understanding of why you’re angry about it. It was not a great thing, but it wasn’t a bad thing. It was a thing that I’m glad they did it.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

It was in-

Cynthia McCowan:

Yeah. It was in the right direction.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

You said knee jerk.

Cynthia McCowan:

Yeah. And it was with the best of intentions. We needed to do something. So I don’t like to do knee jerk things, even though I didn’t see it do much right there. I was glad they made the effort. One of the speakers said when Blinks talked about, she asked everybody to come up that held a position or an office and is a public servant here, and they were all white. And she said, “Just see, they’re all white. There is no color in our government here, and we need to change that.” Well, there were people that challenged her about saying that. They didn’t like it. Black and white didn’t like that because they’re not used to the Black folk here actually having those hard conversations, saying those things that might make people uncomfortable.

And when she did it, I told her about it. I said, “I was so proud of you because that was not something I expected you to do.” And she’s been doing it ever since, and I’m happy about it.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

So Blink, Frances Witt-McMahan, is now a city council members, one of the, I think maybe the first African American woman city council member we’ve ever had in Athens.

Cynthia McCowan:

She’s the first, so yeah.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

Well, something that I’ve always admired about you, continue to admire about you, is how you lean into the discomfort, as opposed to pulling back from it. And I’ve learned a lot from you on that. Something else I’ve learned a lot from you is how to stay in relationship as you educate, push, challenge, and engage with your neighbors. And I wonder: Are there ever moments where you’ve thought, “I just can’t, I can’t stay. I’ve got to pull back for myself, for my community”?

Cynthia McCowan:

No. I’m going to tell you something interesting. Yesterday, right now, I’m doing a lot of research about Free Hill because the Free Hill community wants a new marker. There is a marker that’s already there. It’s in the wrong place, and they were very unhappy about that. So we’ve been having conversations about a new marker. Leave the marker there that’s already there, and they don’t like that, but I said, “We can’t worry about that right now.” The marker’s not inaccurate, it’s inadequate. The text is weak. It is in the wrong place, but it’s okay. If we can get a marker that is actually on Free Hill property, we’ll be fine. And this marker will not talk about when Free Hill was started, and it was a great community. It’s going to be not so nice. It’s going to be titled “Free Hill and urban renewal.”

Why did they raze this little community? What was it for? And it was to give to the college. And so I found the information in the newspapers. I’ve been flipping newspapers and doing microfiche, film, or whatever you want to call it, for several weeks. We had a meeting yesterday with the vice president at the university. The vice president there, he had no idea what that was about, none whatsoever. He was like, “What?” And so we had to have the difficult conversation, and I explained what urban renewal was, and exactly what it did and what it failed to do. They made promises to those people that they did not follow through with. And when you remove a 60 or 70 year old person from a piece of land that they own, a house that is theirs, and you put them in public housing, that is where they will die without ever owning anything.

They were stripped of their pride, their community, their family. And he was like, “Oh, my God. We like to talk about the pretty things. Don’t we?” And this is him. And I’m like, “Yes, Grant, we do.” He said, “But we need to have these hard conversations. We need to acknowledge it. And I’m going to see that we do that.” And I’m like, “Thank you very much.” Don’t know where that’ll go because he’s not the boss of everybody. But it’s an effort. And when I got home, Linda Long called me.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

I just want to take a moment to tell you that Linda Long grew up on Free Hill and is part of the effort to honor its history. She’s a community servant in the truest sense, and watches over Cook Park, the center of a historically Black neighborhood in Athens. But most importantly, she makes good trouble.

Cynthia McCowan:

And she said kind of what you said. She asked the same question, Whit. How do you stay in relationship with people? And her words is, “You’re not afraid to talk Black.” Do you ever think that … Are you ever afraid that you’ve said too much, that they’re going to be upset with you, or you’re going to get angry with them? She said, “You know how to stay in a relationship even when you’re telling them things they may not want to hear.” I said, “Because it’s not about them. It’s not about me. It’s about whatever is between us.” And we can work that out.

I said, “Sis, no matter what, you have to love all the people, even when you disagree. And the thing between us should not be the thing that breaks us.” So it’s not difficult for me to stay in a relationship and be totally honest. The arts center has helped shaped me even though I was 60 years old when I met them. They have shaped my narrative now, and my perspective and my view, and my approach. And with that approach, you don’t ever leave with a broken relationship. That relationship, even when there’s that thing between you, is going to bind you. You let the thing between you bind you, not break you.

And she asked me that. Do you ever think that you would fall out of relationship with them? I said, “I would hope not.” How do you do that? How do you tell them difficult things? How do you talk about being Black, and what we deserve? And you’re adamant. You just say it. She said, “You sat in there and you told them, hey, we are not seeking vengeance, but we are damn sure seeking justice.” And they were okay with it. I say, “Why wouldn’t they be? They understand the truth of it too.” That is where learning to address your fears when there really shouldn’t be fears, no white person is forcing you to defer to them. You are choosing to do it. They are willing … I told them they mostly are willing to work with you because there is love in this community, and I want to get to the core of it. It’s just buried in a box. We’ve just got to break the lock.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

Yeah, we’ve got to break the silence, that silence. Well, Cynthia, gosh, we could keep talking all day, also about the arts and the importance of the arts and staying in relationship, and tending to the things that rest between us. Gosh, there’s just so much. But I want to honor your time. And also, I hope, I’d love to have you back on, and others from Free Hill, to talk about how this is coming to some sort of either resolution or justice, as you said. I think there’s a ways to go and we can keep following that and working for it.

So one last question I always asks my guests before we sign off is: Are there any books, or any shows, or audio that you’re listening to right now that is inspiring you, giving you hope? Is there anything you want to share with the audience on Everywhere Radio?

Cynthia McCowan:

I’m rereading Outlander, believe it or not.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

I love Outlander.

Cynthia McCowan:

And so I’m reading the last one, Tell the Bees that I am Gone. And I’m reading that because it came out November 23rd. Now this is going to be weird. I know you think this is weird, and it’s okay. I’m good with weird. It’s my normal. When I am feeling disconnected from what is good, I watch Star Trek Next Generation and Andy Griffith every day.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

Oh, my gosh, Cynthia.

Cynthia McCowan:

When you watch Andy Griffith, the morals of the stories are just … They’re things we need to be holding onto now. And the Next Generation, Star Trek Next Generation, is so inclusive. It is just amazing to see the power of women on that show, the power of other races. It covers … It is DEI at its best. So I am inspired by Jean-Luc Picard and them. I want to watch it every night.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

Oh, Next Generation, Star Trek Next Generation. Y’all heard it here. Go watch it. Re-watch it. Love it. Thank you so much, Cynthia. We’ll talk to you soon.

Cynthia McCowan:

Thank you for having me. You’re a joy.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

Thank you. That’s all for this week’s show. I want to remind you to register for the Rural Assembly Everywhere virtual gathering that will be held May 10th and 11th. It’s for rural advocates and the rural curious, listeners and leaders, neighbors and admirers. We’ll enjoy two days of virtual programming featuring artists and poets, civic leaders and experts. You can register for free at ruralassembly.org. If you enjoyed Everywhere Radio, we’d love for you to consider subscribing to the General Rural Assembly Newsletter. That’s where we promote new offerings from The Assembly, and we amplify the good work of our many partners across the country.

We’ve also launched a new policy advocacy newsletter that comes to inboxes on Mondays to help you start each week with a quick take on the top issues that we’re tracking across the nation, everything from broadband policy to rural vaccinations. Just head over to ruralassembly.org to sign up. If you’re a true fan of Everywhere Radio, please let us know by rating us wherever you get your podcasts. If this isn’t your cup of tea, that’s no biggie. It’s fine. And we’d like to thank our media partner, The Daily Yonder. Everywhere Radio is a production of The Rural Assembly. Our senior producer is Joel Cohen and our associate producers are Xandr Brown and Theresa Collins. And we’re grateful for the love and support of the whole team at The Center for Rural Strategies. Love you, mean it. You can be anywhere. We’ll be everywhere.

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.