Ronnie Pepper loves to hear stories as much as he loves to tell them. He grew up in the small Appalachian town of Hendersonville during the era of the civil rights movement in a house with no plumbing and only four rooms.
He shared a bed with his mom and siblings. Still, his childhood is full of mostly fond memories of helping his uncles split wood and hearing his mother’s stories. When he got older, Pepper assumed responsibility at the local YMCA in exchange for a free membership. He was a counselor for their summer camps, and he told the kids wild tales to keep them entertained.
That pastime translated to a passion for taking care of children, and he spent most of his career as a Head Start teacher, helping low-income families access early-childhood education. Now, in quasi-retirement, Pepper is a librarian and professional storyteller. He visits classrooms, conventions and storytelling events to share stories and history that might otherwise be lost. In particular, he tells the story of the Kingdom of the Happy Land, an autonomous community formed in remote Appalachia by former slaves in the years after emancipation. What little record of it that exists comes from the white perspective, Pepper says, so it is important to him to retell the story from the perspective of those who lived there. Host Frank Stasio talks with Ronnie Pepper about the importance of storytelling in preserving the history of those whose history is otherwise erased.
On the significance of finally being allowed to help tote water:
I knew that I would become a man once I was able to tote water like my Uncle Joe. I could see his arms, his biceps just rippling, and he could carry two buckets at one time. And I said: Man, I can't wait until grandmother says: Ron, go up there and fetch water. I need some. And that way I knew I was growing up and becoming a man.
On his thoughts about his white friend Dean wanting to spend the night in elementary school:
That was just not something that I thought about. ‘Cause I'm black. He's white. He's coming to my house. And think about it, we had four rooms. Where was he gonna sleep? My bed was crowded enough. And then I was thinking: How's that gonna make him feel? And then I've never slept with anybody white before. So it was a difficult thing, but he was determined that he was gonna come. And he did come. And we walked home, and I remember us walking through the cemetery and we was talking, but I didn't tell my grandmother. My heart was just beating. What was I gonna say? But he got there, and we kind of played outside. And I was thinking all the time: Where is he gonna sleep? What's he gonna think about when he goes in to use the bathroom and whatnot? There's no running water. What are we gonna eat? You know, because you see things on TV, and on TV during those times you didn't see any black families. All you saw was white families and “Leave it to Beaver.”
On his struggles with depression and a suicide attempt after coming home from serving in the Army in Germany:
We used to believe … one thing that you don't have to worry about [is] black people getting depressed. You never see black people committing suicide, but that's not true. It happens, you just don't hear about it. And it was during that time that I was depressed. And so I tried to take my life. And it was worth a bottle of sleeping pills. The only thing that probably saved me is I wasn’t working and so I didn’t have a lot of money … Now, I think back, I say: Man, what would have happened if I really would have died? It would have been in my best friend's house. You know what pain that would cause him? What pain that would have caused his mother, who was just like my second mother? What pain would that have caused my mom and my grandmother?
On why it’s important to tell stories like who built the Kingdom of the Happy Land:
What [students] learn in books [is that] they were slaves. But these slaves had skills. They had abilities. They had a mind. And that's not what's talked about a lot of times. They don't hear it in school, or it's not written straight out. You got to read between the lines.
The “North Wind & the Sun” Aesop’s Fable he tells:
It was the competition between the sun and the wind, but I do it as “the first bully,” because in school we talked about bullying. And the first bully was the wind, and he's got power and strength. … [He] is strong and destructive. But he's also braggadocious and always boasting. And the sun finally says: Listen, you gotta stop this. And so they do a competition about the man that has the coat on. Who can take it off? The wind says: I'll snatch it out from the east to the west. I'll drag it through the ocean, flying it so far, he won't ever be able to find it. But it didn't happen that way. The sun ended up beating him, and the wind was so distraught, he says: I’m nothing. He says: I'm just weak. You're more powerful. No, wind, [the sun] says. You are still powerful. You are still destructive. You just have to have a little compassion. You don't have to brag about it. You the wind. You gotta be the wind. But you just don't have to push it in people's face.