Cratis D. Williams: Pioneering Scholar of Appalachian Studies

Portrait of Cratis D. Williams, who was considered to be the father of Appalachian Studies

Cratis Dearl Williams (April 5, 1911 — May 11, 1985) was an expert in Appalachian culture and as a scholar, he was considered the father of Appalachian Studies. He was a storyteller, cultural activist, linguist, ballad collector, folklorist, professor and college administrator. A native of Caines Creek in Lawrence County, Kentucky, Cratis’ parents, Curtis and Mona Whitt Williams, lived on a farm owned by Cratis’ grandfather, David Williams, who was one of the last legal distillers in Kentucky.

Folklorists Rogers Whitener and Cratis Williams, circa 1965

Williams graduated from Louisa High School in 1928. In 1928–1929, he attended Cumberland College. From 1929 until 1933, he taught in one-room schools on Caines Creek until 1933. During this time, he continued to work towards his Bachelor of Arts at the University of Kentucky, receiving it in 1933. In 1937, he earned his Master of Arts in English from the University of Kentucky and in 1942, Williams was hired as critic teacher at the Appalachian Demonstration High School, Appalachian State Teachers College in Boone, North Carolina. During his first year in Boone, Williams married his first wife, Sylvia Graham, who died in 1942 of Tuberculosis. Four years later, he joined the faculty of Appalachian State Teachers College as teacher of English, speech, folklore, and dramatics. The college provided Williams the right academic setting to share his knowledge and expertise on Appalachian culture and history.

English Professor Cratis Williams gives a lecture to a class, 1957

Until 1949, Williams continued to serve the Appalachian Demonstration High School as assistant principal, director of drama, critic teacher, and director of the first school-wide counseling program in North Carolina. On July 31st, 1949, Cratis Williams married Elizabeth Lingerfelt in Levittown, Long Island. Together they had two children, Sophie, who was born in 1953, and David Cratis, who was born in 1955.

Cratis D. Williams (left) sitting in on a performance with Arthel “Doc” and Merle Watson in the Plemmons Student Union, 1967

Having collected ballads from his family and neighbors in Kentucky, Williams was inspired to write about the history of ballads. In graduate school, his thesis “Ballads and Songs” presented the traditional music of eastern Kentucky. In 1961, Williams earned his Ph.D. at New York University, where he wrote the celebrated two-volume dissertation,“The Southern Mountaineer in Fact and Fiction,” an authoritative examination of Appalachian literature. The dissertation criticized how many writers used demeaning and inaccurate stereotypes to belittle the people of Appalachia. Unfortunately, many of his research notes burned in the 1966 Administration Building fire.

Cratis Williams (right)

By 1968, William Leonard Eury, a native North Carolinian played a major role in developing the college’s library. Eury worked with Cratis Williams to establish the Appalachian Room at the library. Williams and Eury collaborated to identify and acquire all of the relevant materials on the Appalachian region and its culture.

Williams also played a major role in the creation of the Appalachian Studies department. With the support of Chancellor Herbert Wey, the Center for Appalachian Studies was started in 1978 to promote regional education, research, and community outreach. Williams believed that a liberal education should offer people the chance to learn about their own regional or ethnic society, giving them the chance to critically examine their culture and history. The Master’s of Arts degree in Appalachian Studies was approved the following year.

Director of Summer Sessions and Extension James Stone, Chairman of the Music Department William Spencer, Dean of the Graduate School Cratis Williams, Trustee E. G. Lackey, and Vice-President and Comptroller David Barnard Dougherty at the President’s Luncheon, 1961

In 1950, Cratis Williams was named Professor of English at Appalachian State University. He served as Dean of the Graduate School from 1958–1975. Williams served as acting Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs in 1974. He served as acting chancellor in 1975. Following his retirement in 1976, Williams wrote a series of memoirs: William H. Vaughan: A Better Man Than I Ever wanted to Be (1983), I Become a Teacher (1995), and The Cratis Williams Chronicles: I Come to Boone (1999).

Dean of the Graduate School Cratis Williams, Dean of Learning Resources Al Corum, Curator of the Appalachian Collection Charlotte Ross, and University President William Howard Plemmons in the first Belk Library, 1970s

In his lifetime, Cratis Williams earned many awards and achievements: The Founders Day Certificate of Excellence, New York University (1962), North Carolina Historical Society’s Achievement Award (1972), O. Max Gardner Award, University of North Carolina (1973), Brown-Hudson Award, North Carolina Folklore Society (1975), Laurel Leaves Award, Appalachian Consortium (1976), and the W. D. Weatherford Award, Berea College (1979). Williams earned honorary degrees from Berea College (1977), Cumberland College, Morehead State University, College of Idaho (1984), Marshall University (1985) and from Appalachian State University (1985).

Director of Summer Sessions and Extension James E. Stone, Dean of Appalachian State Teachers College Daniel Jay Whitener, President of Appalachian State Teachers College William Howard Plemmons, Former Chair of the English Department William Abrams, and Dean of the Graduate School Cratis Williams, 1960s

Throughout his career, Williams spoke, wrote, and sang about the people and heritage of Appalachia. He collected materials and started laying the foundation for the Appalachian Studies program at ASU and helped found the multi-institution Appalachian Consortium with its education and publication relating to the Appalachian Region.

Dean of the Graduate School Cratis Williams handing a folded American flag to an ROTC officer at the Bicentennial celebration, July 4, 1976

Williams passed away in 1985, just the day before he was to receive an honorary degree from Appalachian State University. His ashes were returned for burial in the Williams family cemetery in his native Caines Creek community. Family and friends carried out his final request at the memorial service by sharing the “Cratis stories” in order to commemorate Appalachian culture, something Williams devoted his entire life and career to celebrate, preserve, and defend.

Cratis Williams, Dean of the Graduate School, stands with other faculty at the commencement ceremony in the Varsity Gymnasium, May 1979

AC.102 Cratis D. Williams Papers is housed in the Appalachian Collection located in Special Collections on the fourth floor of the Belk Library and Information Commons at Appalachian State University and can be requested from the closed stacks at the Cratis Williams Reading Room.

Professor of English, Cratis D. Williams, leaning on a tree at Appalachian State University, circa 1967