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Nikky Finney, a poet and teacher, has emerged as one of America’s most prominent and eloquent Black voices on issues of racial and social justice. A founding member of the Affrilachian Poets, her writing is remarkable for its visual, lyrical and powerful use of words. “The human heart,” she told an interviewer, “is at the center of what I write about.”

Lynn Carol Finney was one of three children, and the only daughter, born to Frances Davenport Finney and Ernest A. Finney Jr., a civil rights lawyer who later became a state legislator and the first Black elected chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court.  She grew up in Sumter, South Carolina, where she attended public and parochial schools. She acquired the nickname Nikky in college.

Finney earned a B.A. from Talladega College in 1979 and studied African American literature at Atlanta University. While working as a photographer, writer, and editor for the National Black Woman’s Health Project in Atlanta, she began focusing her creative energy on poetry.

Finney says she became a serious poet after her mentor, the short story writer Toni Cade Bamara, asked her a pointed question during a writing circle meeting at Bambara’s Atlanta home. “So — you can write pretty,” Bambara said. “But what else can your words do besides adorn?” Since then, Finney said, her writing has been rooted in “empathetic encouragement and human reciprocity.”

(1935 - 2013)

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Journalist John Egerton spent his career trying to understand the South by writing about its history, culture, and food. Egerton’s writing defied regional clichés and stereotypes and championed things close to his heart, such as racial understanding, social justice, and good country ham.

John Egerton was one of five children born to traveling salesman William G. Egerton and Rebecca White Egerton. Within a month or two of his birth, the family moved from Atlanta to Cadiz, Kentucky, where she had family. Egerton graduated from Trigg County High School in 1953, attended Western Kentucky University (1953-1954), and served in the U.S. Army (1954-1956). He earned a B.A. degree (1958) and an M.A. degree (1960) from the University of Kentucky.

Egerton worked in public relations for the University of Kentucky (1958-1960) and the University of South Florida (1960-1965). He was a Nashville-based staff writer (1965-1971) for the magazine Southern Education Report and its successor, Race Relations Reporter, before launching a freelance career. He contributed articles to several magazines, newspapers and the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Council.

His 1987 book, Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History, explored the history and culture of the region’s cuisine, with an emphasis on unsung contributions of Black cooks. Following the book’s success, Egerton wrote a syndicated food column for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other Southern newspapers (1989-1990). Egerton was one of the founders of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi in 1999. The alliance established the annual John Egerton Prize in 2009 for art, writing and scholarship that “addresses issues of race, class, gender, and social and environmental justice, through the lens of food.”

(1895 - 1981)

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Caroline Ferguson Gordon was a novelist and short story writer who explored themes of the history and evolution of Southern families. She also was a literary critic who became a mentor and friend to many of America’s best-known 20th Century writers.

Gordon was the daughter of James Morris Gordon, a teacher from Virginia who came to Todd County and married Nancy Meriwether, who was from a prominent local family. He established a school in nearby Clarksville, Tennessee, where the future novelist received her early education. An idealized version of Gordon’s father is a major character in her second novel, Alec Maury, Sportsman (1934) and her award-winning story, “Old Red” (1934).

Gordon earned a bachelor’s degree from Bethany College in West Virginia (1916). After working two years as a teacher at Clarksville High School, she became a reporter for The Chattanooga News in 1920. She wrote about and became involved with the Fugitive poets at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Robert Penn Warren, a Todd County neighbor, introduced her to the poet Allen Tate in 1924. A year later, they were married and living in New York, where she gave birth to their daughter, Nancy Meriwether Tate (Wood). The couple later lived in London, where Gordon was secretary to the British writer Ford Madox Ford, and Paris, where they became friends with many American expatriate writers.

Gordon and Tate returned to the United States in 1930 and settled in Clarksville, where she enjoyed a productive period of writing. She won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1932 and a second-place O. Henry Prize. Tate and Gordon were active correspondents and gracious hosts. Their house guests included Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and T.S. Eliot. Gordon became a mentor to several writers, most notably Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor. The legendary Max Perkins was her editor at Scribner’s, and William Faulkner was among her biggest fans.

(1929 - 2019)

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Robert Kinloch Massie III was a journalist, historian, and Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer who gained fame by writing popular, critically acclaimed books about the House of Romanov, Russia’s imperial family for two centuries. Nicholas and Alexandra became a movie, and Peter the Great was made into a network TV miniseries.

Massie spent his earliest years living in Woodford County in the Crittenden Cabin, birthplace of the early Kentucky statesman John. J. Crittenden. It was on the campus of the Massie school, a boys preparatory academy owned and operated from 1918 to 1929 by his father, Robert K. Massie Jr. Future Governor Albert B. “Happy” Chandler was the school’s basketball and football coach. Massie’s grandfather, Robert K. Massie, was dean of Christ Church Cathedral in Lexington, and his uncle, Dr. Francis Massie, was a founder of the Lexington Clinic.

When Massie was 15 months old, his father died of cancer. His mother, Molly Kimball Massie, a progressive activist who was instrumental in the founding of Lexington’s Planned Parenthood, remarried several years later to her husband’s best friend, James Todd, a department store executive. They lived on a small farm on Paris Pike near Lexington, where, in his attic bedroom, Massie charted the naval battles of World War II with push pins on a the slanted wall by his bed. When Massie was 10, the family moved to Nashville, Tennessee.

Massie earned degrees in American studies from Yale and Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. Interested in the sea, Massie enlisted in the Navy after Oxford and was an officer on an aircraft carrier. Next, he worked as a journalist for The Saturday Evening PostColliers’, and Newsweek magazines. He later taught journalism at Princeton and Tulane universities. He was president of The Authors Guild (1987-1991) and worked assiduously for the rights of authors.  He wrote pieces for numerous magazines, including Vanity Fair and The New Yorker.

(1929 - 2019)

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Albert F. Stewart, a poet, teacher, and editor, has been called the “patron saint” of two generations of Appalachian writers. He started what became the annual Appalachian Writers Workshop and founded and edited Appalachian Heritage magazine, which published many of the region’s emerging writers and poets.

“Albert Stewart worked all his life to cultivate the literary fields of Kentucky so that younger writers might find opportunity,” wrote Gurney Norman (a 2019 Hall of Fame inductee). “As poet, teacher, editor, publisher, and organizer of writers’ conferences, and as a personal mentor to young writers for 50 years, myself among them, Al Stewart designed his own literary career, a career equal in value to that of any post-war Kentucky writer.”

Stewart was born on Yellow Mountain, the son of William and Lucinda Sparkman Stewart. His mother died in childbirth when he was 2, and Stewart moved to Hindman Settlement School at age 5. Novelist Lucy Furman, a 2020 Hall of Fame inductee who taught at the school, “practically adopted me,” Stewart said. She also became his literary mentor. Stewart graduated from Hindman High School in 1932 and Berea College in 1936. He earned an M.A. from the University of Kentucky in 1943.

Following Navy service in the South Pacific during World War II, Stewart had a lifelong career in education. After teaching English and biology in several high schools in Northern Kentucky and Southern Ohio, he taught English at the University of Kentucky in the 1950s while working on a doctorate he never completed. He moved on to teaching jobs at Caney Junior College, Morehead State University, and Alice Lloyd College. While at Morehead, Stewart started a writing workshop and a literary magazine.

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