Appalachia identity more diverse than stereotypes suggest

By Sally Harris

Southern Appalachia runs from the coalfields of eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia to the highlands of Georgia and Alabama. It includes approximately 15 million people. As a result of its size, those who were born and raised there, those who have moved out, those who have moved in, and those who have read about the area (whether they are natives or folks who have never been there) all have varied views of the Appalachian Mountains and the people who inhabit them.

A region this large, with this many residents, faces many issues, ranging from economics to race relations to community identities to the need to entice young people to stay in the area. Students and professors at numerous schools and centers are looking at the way people from Appalachia see themselves, the way they see others, and the way others see them.

The way Appalachian residents see each other: Early ethnic groups almost lost

In one project the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) authorized a grant to East Tennessee State University’s Center for Appalachian Studies and Services (CASS) to support student research on issues related to community sustainability and social problems.

CASS then subcontracted with 12 colleges and universities in Appalachia to carry out the work. Among them was Virginia Tech’s Appalachian Studies Program. Students in the program looked at the lives of German settlers in northwest Montgomery County, Va., to document and promote community interest in the settlers’ 250 years of contributions before their stories, knowledge, and ways of doing things are lost.

The researchers’ goal was not only to acquire information, but also to construct community assets that would encourage young people and new residents to share and maintain the culturally rich community heritage that has been a source of pride and personal identity to past residents. “The students’ research contributed to our understanding of the way people from Appalachia see themselves,” says Anita Puckett, head of Appalachian studies at Virginia Tech and coordinator of the Virginia Tech ARC study.

“The issue this project took on is that historically much of the Appalachian studies’ scholarship on ethnicity has focused on a particular group, the Scots-Irish. But the region never was made up of just one white group, despite the imaginary view of it,” says Puckett.

“Diversity commonly caused conflict, so some groups were marginalized,” Puckett says. Those groups included the German settlers, whose contributions to much of the region’s cultural life are significant. From their first encounter with British settlers, the German immigrants of the New River Valley faced discrimination and pressure to conform and, as a result, lost their language and many, but not all, other cultural markers. This resulted in a sense of loss in many German-influenced communities, which, in turn, caused young people to see their communities as having “little value or relevance,” Puckett says.

“Many students encounter pressures to leave the area and not to learn more about the importance of their heritage,” she says. “The goal of the study is to encourage younger residents to invest in their communities, rather than moving away, and to think about the historical, cultural, and personal ramifications of selling family land that has been passed down for generations. Many of these properties contain architecture and artifacts that are historically and culturally significant, but what this significance is may be lost with development and the influx of new residents.”

One descendant of the German settlers who has stayed put is the Rev. Jimmie Price, minister at Fairview Community Church in northwest Montgomery County. “I’m seventh generation,” he says. “This is home. And it feels like sacred ground almost because there’s so much meaning out here.”

Price, a champion for the preservation of old landmarks, guided the students to sites of old battles, burials, and prayer meetings. “We have so much value for our heritage and for our ancestors and, today, for the land because the land is changing so rapidly,” he says. “If I live a normal life expectancy, it’s not going to be (here) at the end of my life, what you and I see today.”

Twenty Virginia Tech Appalachian studies students began the community-based project to document and interpret the impact of German settlers on the contemporary rural communities in northwest Montgomery County. “Students from Southern Appalachia sometimes find a ‘personal epiphany’ when they discover that being from Appalachia does not mean they must be Celtic or Scots-Irish,” says Puckett. “Students from all areas are getting a sense that their past is valid and that they have made a contribution to the area,” she says. “They want to know more about their own ethnicity and heritage, regardless of where they come from.”

Students studied the German heritage by talking with the elderly; by looking at the foods, grave markers, and architecture of German origin; by gathering GIS positioning data for such sites; and by learning about the religion of German settlers. Some of today’s prominent families in the county are descendants of the first settlers: the Price, Surface, Shell, Walls, and Linkous families are among those who share this legacy.

The way Appalachian residents see others: Ethnic groups moving in cause concern

The fact that the Appalachian region is seen mostly as a single shade of white by many also affects the way long-term residents see other ethnic groups that move in. In a study unrelated to the ARC project, Barbara Ellen Smith, former director of the University Memphis’ Center for Research on Women and now director of women’s studies in Virginia Tech’s Department of Interdisciplinary Studies, recently completed a collaborative research project on Latino immigrants from 1991 forward in three sites in the South, including Hamblen county in Appalachian East Tennessee. Smith and Susan Williams of the Highlander Research and Education Center wrote the report on Hamblen County, which looked at the ways immigrants are being received.

The project staff conducted their research through interviews with new immigrants and long-term white and African American residents in East Tennessee, as well as by observing meetings of such groups as social-services agencies, governmental bodies, and citizens’ groups. “The diversity of responses ranges from efforts to accommodate Latino needs and provide services, to a very frightening sense of economic competition as factories close and other jobs move to Mexico,” Smith says. “The arrival of new immigrants provides a ready target for volatile feelings of economic insecurity.”

In Hamblen County, as well as in many Southern towns, the economy has been dependent to a great extent on factories. Hamblen County’s mostly white population, low wages, and lack of unions drew diverse manufacturing companies, so its economy was based on a wider array of products, ranging from apparel to plastics to auto parts, than many “company towns,” Smith says.

Latino immigrants had been coming into the county as migrant workers for many years. “Latinos were first brought in to work on crops, then, more recently, in other labor-intensive industries, such as poultry,” Smith says. Even though the immigrants mostly worked jobs the long-term residents did not want, the local workers viewed jobs on the lower end of the ladder as places to turn to in hard times, she says.

Then factories started moving away, many of them to Mexico, and Latino immigrants, many from Mexico, started coming to the community in greater numbers and working more desirable jobs in factories, Smith says. Long-term residents started seeing them as a threat to their own jobs. That “worrisome development” brought up issues of community survival and exposed different levels of racism, she says.

Extremist groups held rallies protesting the inflow of immigrants, Smith says. Many long-time residents who lost their jobs blamed it on Latino immigrants. While the small population of African Americans also saw the potential loss of their jobs, “we found there was a lot of expression of sympathy from African Americans toward Latinos because they had experienced the same racism,” Smith says.

The concern of many social-justice organizations in the South, Smith says, “is understanding the implications of immigration and racial diversification for strategies and organizational approaches to social justice. Organizations are trying to address the tensions that arise and the potential for collaboration.”

One example of tension arose when the Migrant Head Start program in neighboring Cocke County tried to set up a program for the children of migrant farm workers. Objections and protests abounded, the researchers wrote. However, the center eventually opened and the controversy abated. Other problems included the attempt to prevent children born of Hispanic parents from getting Social Security numbers even though they legally were Americans, and raids to rout out undocumented Latinos, Smith and Williams wrote.

The reaction of the East Tennessee residents to the Hispanic population had a broader basis than anti-immigrant sentiment, researchers say. National themes played a part: the identification of America as white, the belief that “real” Americans were working people, and antipathy toward what was perceived as a lack of government action to protect Americans’ jobs from outsiders.

However, attempts to ease the entrance of Hispanics into the Hamblen County population are being carried out, as they are in many communities in Appalachia. Churches are conducting services in Spanish. Service organizations, police departments, governmental bodies, businesses, churches, and individuals are helping by providing English classes, financial services, prenatal care, and signs in Spanish. Social service and nonprofit organizations have formed the Alianza Hispano to address new immigrants’ needs. International festivals and worker-exchange programs between the United States and Mexico are helping the long-term residents and the newcomers learn about each other.

“Individuals and organizations are building cultural bridges, providing bilingual services, and defending the rights of Latino immigrants,” Williams and Smith wrote. “Much work remains to be done, however, as the potential for tension and conflict persists just under the surface.”

The way people view the Appalachian Region: Reading about Appalachia

The hysteria that often accompanies tensions brought about by immigration is one reason people want to read about an Appalachia depicted as a “homogeneously white space apart from global flows,” says Emily Scatterwhite, assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies and humanities at Virginia Tech, who conducted a separate study of Appalachian fiction. There have been two periods of popularity for fiction set in the region: the local-color movement of 1868-1910 and the local-color revival of the past couple of decades. Both periods, according to Satterwhite’s dissertation, were times of “preoccupations with ethnicity, immigration, nation, and empire.”

People imagine the Appalachian region as a place that is “rural, free of racial diversity or conflict, and isolated from mass culture,” Satterwhite says. To determine the ways in which people interpreted and used the literature at the turn of the last century, she read book reviews and archived fan letters related to Mary Noailles Murfree’s In the Tennessee Mountains (1884) and John Fox Jr.’s The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1908). For recent fiction, Satterwhite added online customer reviews in places such as Amazon.com and e-mail surveys concerning novels by Silas House, Adriana Trigiani, and Jan Karon, “whose success relied upon and helped promote the popularity of trade paperbacks and book clubs among status-conscious readers.”

Satterwhite looked at several constituent reader groups to see how their historical, social, and geographical traits affected their reading of fiction set in Appalachia. “Metropolitan readers engage in literary tourism in search of rural locales free of the perceived problems of urban heterogeneity, while readers of rural origin seek mass-media representations of their homes with which they can identify,” she wrote. “I argue that reactions to Appalachia are frequently informed by readers’ desire to view a fictionalized white ‘folk’ Appalachia as the root of ‘real’ America.”

Appalachian people who had left the area “talked in nostalgic terms about the lives their grandparents had lived,” Satterwhite says. “People from outside the region read the literature with a kind of patronization of mountain people,” but also in a way that allowed them to think of themselves as, like the characters, misunderstood and even victimized despite their privileged racial and socioeconomic status.

People who were born and bred in the area and still live there have one of two reactions to literature about Appalachia, Satterwhite says. “People from Appalachian cities share the patronization to explain the eccentric people ‘how quaint, how charming.’” Mountain working-class people recognize their own experiences in the characters and claim that experience with pride, Satterwhite says. “It’s positive in that it gives people a chance for affirmation when they recognize that their experiences, often denigrated by others, have value.”

Throughout the Appalachian South, the need for validity – validity of people’s ethnic origins, validity of their desire for economic security, validity of their contributions, and validity of their lives in general – is a driving force. Appalachian people are beginning to recognize the cultures that came before, to acclimate themselves to the roles of new people moving in, and to provide the world and themselves, through their writings, with new perceptions of the Appalachian South.

Sally Harris, a free-lance writer, is a sixth-generation resident of Southern Appalachia.



Thumbnail of an illustration by Ian Stanley. View the complete illustration at a larger size.

A region this large, with this many residents, faces many issues, ranging from economics to race relations to community identities to the need to entice young people to stay in the area. Students and professors at numerous schools and centers are looking at the way people from Appalachia see themselves, the way they see others, and the way others see them.


Detail of a photo of Catherine Surface of Montgomery County, Va., standing in front of her house, which was built by German settlers and has been continuously occupied since 1760. View the complete photo at a larger size.

Details of the foundation of Catherine Surface's circa 1760 German-built house.

Many headstones have been removed from an old German graveyard in Montgomery County, Virginia.

“I’m seventh generation. This is home. And it feels like sacred ground almost because there’s so much meaning out here.”
– The Rev. Jimmie Price


This hand-carved plaque of The Lord's Prayer, which hangs at Mt. Zion Lutheran Church in Montgomery County, Va., is an example of early German craft. Photo by Angela Fields.

The Rev. Jimmie Lee Price describes an encounter between German and Scots-Irish soldiers that took place during the Revolutionary War. The Scots-Irish patriots forced the Germans out of a fort with steam. The Germans ran to a cold spring, where they died because of the sudden temperature change. Price is trying to preserve the remnants of the fort.

“Students from Southern Appalachia sometimes find a ‘personal epiphany’ when they discover that being from Appalachia does not mean they must be Celtic or Scots-Irish. Students from all areas are getting a sense that their past is valid and that they have made a contribution to the area. They want to know more about their own ethnicity and heritage, regardless of where they come from.”
– Anita Puckett

Thumbnail of an illustration by Amanda Kubista. View the complete illustration at a larger size.

Throughout the Appalachian South, the need for validity – validity of people’s ethnic origins, validity of their desire for economic security, validity of their contributions, and validity of their lives in general – is a driving force.

 

 

 

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