September 2017

White Appalachian Poverty in the National Mind

Given this picture of the state as defined by poverty, it is little wonder that West Virginia became known for its support of Donald Trump and his promise to “make America great again.” But, here in West Virginia, there is also a sense that our collective longing for the good old days has been hanging around for quite some time.

by Lauren Angel

Whenever I hear a newscaster say the words “West Virginia,” I already know the story they will tell. They will explain that my state is longing for the return of the good old days. They will describe a place where white men were once able to rely on coal jobs but now struggle to put food on the table. They will tell me about a celebrity chef fighting severe West Virginian obesity, or our devastating opioid epidemic, or a CNBC study that labels West Virginia the worst state for business. Whatever the details, commentators consistently trace our problems back to a shrinking coal industry and the accompanying loss of blue-collar jobs. Given this picture of the state as defined by poverty, it is little wonder that West Virginia became known for its support of Donald Trump and his promise to “make America great again.” But, here in West Virginia, there is also a sense that our collective longing for the good old days has been hanging around for quite some time. My father, who moved to the state in the 1970s, noted that he can’t recall widespread prosperity ever having come to the region. “When were things good?” he asked. “Ever since I came here, people have been talking about how terrible things are.”

Because poverty in the United States has been historically coded as black, evidence of white West Virginian poverty has suggested a broader threat to our national strength.

Such images of West Virginia as a state fighting to overcome poverty have been powerful ones for a long time, and the enduring influence of these stories stemmed from depictions of isolated mountains that preserved white racial purity in the state.[1] Because poverty in the United States has been historically coded as black, evidence of white West Virginian poverty has suggested a broader threat to our national strength. Examining perceptions of West Virginian poverty thus shows some of the ways in which the state has acted as an American cultural touchstone—a coal miner’s canary warning of the decline of white American sovereignty.

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Political cartoon depicting a provincial West Virginia voter headed to the polls as the nation and the world watches. Courtesy of Charleston Gazette and West Virginia Division of Culture and History.

More than half a century before the Trump campaign gained widespread support in West Virginia, the state became known for its deep ties to Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. In the spring of 1960, Kennedy and his primary rival Hubert Humphrey brought national attention to West Virginia when they campaigned in the state. As the first Catholic presidential candidate in more than thirty years, Kennedy was struggling to demonstrate that he could win Protestant votes. As commentators wondered if he could appeal to a Protestant electorate, the largely Protestant residents of West Virginia appeared to hold the outcome of the Democratic primary in their hands. When the state voted solidly for Kennedy, the resulting momentum helped him win the Democratic nomination and later the presidency. At the same time, however, the white poverty exposed by election media coverage prompted national soul-searching regarding the life led by West Virginian families.[2]

As reporters arrived in West Virginia ahead of the primary election, they anticipated that they would find widespread evidence of anti-Kennedy religious prejudice. What they found instead was a population struggling with poverty and expressing a complicated mixture of thoughtfulness and intolerance, hopefulness and despondency. Interviewing residents in the southwestern city of Huntington, Joseph Alsop of the Washington Post wrote that “looking at the identical, shabby little houses, you might expect them to contain identical people. But ring the doorbells, and see what you find. Door one is opened by a grim harridan, with a face ravaged by rage, suspicion, pride and deprivation. On the political front, she is chiefly enraged by ‘this waste of all these billions to go to the moon, where the Almighty didn’t never mean us to go.’ . . . Door two reveals an idyll. The gloriously pretty young wife is briskly preparing supper. The handsome husband [is] just home from work . . . Both husband and wife are intelligent and informed.”[3]  The story of West Virginia quickly became one shaped by the thorny issues of poverty rather than simple bigotry. Journalists who had expected to find a state packed with stereotypical hillbillies struggled to understand the diverse attitudes of West Virginians who were profoundly worried about the state’s future.

Residents of Appalachia were defined as noble white pioneers whose fierce independence was made obsolete by the twentieth century world.

Media coverage that attempted to explain these seeming contradictions linked West Virginia to a multi-state territory defined by the Appalachian Mountains. Although the hilly landscape had provided coal, the basis for much of the region’s economy, commentators maintained that these hills had also isolated Appalachian communities and obstructed expansive industrial development. By 1960, the coal industry was rapidly losing jobs, and Appalachia was left without the widespread infrastructure necessary to diversify its economic system. As an anonymous Baltimore Sun article commented, these economic troubles could “best be summed up in the word ‘isolation.’ . . . The big roads stay away; the planes fly high, the flood control dams go lower down, and industry looks elsewhere.”[4] And Julius Duscha of the Washington Post spoke for many when he observed that lack of infrastructure had “left the mountain areas in the backwash of modern civilization.”[5] Such reports defined Appalachia as economically detached from the rest of the United States, a region in which coal production continued to fulfill national and international energy requirements but failed to provide for the needs of its people.[6]

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“The Appalachian Region (broken line) runs from northern Alabama to southern New York, taking in parts of 10 states plus most of West Virginia. Within its confines, poverty is more the rule than the exception.” Citation: Duscha, “A Long Trail of Misery Winds the Proud Hills.”

Yet media commentators also celebrated the social isolation that these hills had supposedly produced. According to these observers, the Appalachian Mountains had prevented interracial unions, consequently preserving a white pioneer heritage within the twentieth century Appalachian people. New York Times contributor Harrison Salisbury described West Virginia as “the land of American legend and history” and emphasized that “to a much greater extent than most states, West Virginia’s racial stock is the same white Protestant population that originally settled the state.” Salisbury further remarked that these mountaineers were the men George Washington had referred to during the Revolutionary War when he said, “leave me but a banner to plant upon the mountains of West Augusta and I will gather around me the men who will lift our bleeding country from the dust and set her free.”[7] Residents of Appalachia were defined as noble white pioneers whose fierce independence was made obsolete by the twentieth century world. Industrialization had abused the innate dignity of the Appalachian people, and their white settler heritage was proof that they had done nothing to deserve their current destitution. As Duscha explained, “these men, women and children of the Southern Appalachian Mountains—many of them descendants of pioneer American families—are the victims of a modern civilization that is often as heartless as it is efficient.”[8] In addition to its innate injustice, Appalachian poverty also appeared to threaten the United States as a whole. Because poverty in the United States was defined as a problem afflicting black Americans, evidence of white Appalachian impoverishment jeopardized assertions of American strength. In the words of West Virginia journalist Harry Ernst and Berea College professor Charles Drake, as published in the Nation, the mountaineer’s “stunted growth not only saps the vitality of the mid-South, but also weakens the nation.”[9] Racialized assumptions that black Americans were poor because they possessed lower intelligence or held inferior values could not justify the impoverishment of white Appalachians who carried the hallowed blood of the earliest American settlers.

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“Romance in a ghost town. Beyond rise the hills that isolate West Virginians from one another.” Citation: Farrell Grehan, photograph in Roul Tunley, “The Strange Case of West Virginia,” Saturday Evening Post, February 6, 1960, 21.

As waves of Appalachians joined black Southern migrants and moved to urban industrial centers in search of work, their migration prompted explicit comparisons between the two groups. J. Anthony Lukas of the Baltimore Sun celebrated the Appalachian “pride and independence” and quoted sociologist Dr. Olive Quinn, who remarked that the mountaineer’s “deep pride in standing on his own two feet” distinguished him from the “Southern Negro [who] comes from a paternalistic society in which he is accustomed to accepting hand-me-downs from whites.” Like Salisbury, Lukas also equated these contemporary Appalachians with their white settler heritage, lamenting that “after two centuries of isolation in the hills, these original Americans are forced into the cities where they find themselves scorned by relative newcomers to these shores” (emphasis added).[10]

Adam Yarmolinsky explained, “the war on poverty was in no sense a help-the-blacks program. . . . Color it Appalachian if you are going to color it anything at all.”

Despite expressions of sympathy for the impoverished mountaineers, increasing numbers of urban Appalachians generated anxiety among commentators who argued that their migration threatened to erode the differences between white and black poverty. Writing for Harper’s Magazine, Albert Votaw observed that urban life imperiled the traditional Appalachian family structure as “the patriarchal family disintegrates when jobs for women cut into the dominant role of the father.” Votaw further noted that urban mountaineers made a mockery of the American self-concept, remarking that Appalachians were, “in a sense, the prototype of what the ‘superior’ American should be, white Protestants of early American, Anglo-Saxon stock; but on the streets of Chicago they seem to be the American dream gone berserk.”[11] Appalachians in Appalachia were rustic and independent, possessing an isolated racial nobility that romanticized their poverty. Appalachians in cities, however, were crude and lazy. Having lost their racial isolation, and thus their nobility, they became a glaring example of white powerlessness.

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Johnson’s emphasis on Appalachian hardship made poverty personal to white middle-class America. Courtesy of WV Public Broadcasting.

Such apprehension regarding the fate of impoverished Appalachians increased the political relevance of poverty by whitening its image. Evidence of this increased concern came in 1964, when Lyndon B. Johnson used his own highly publicized tour of Appalachia to launch legislation aimed at alleviating economic hardship. Just as Ernst and Drake had contended that Appalachian suffering “weakens the nation,” New York Times coverage of the tour maintained that the impoverishment Johnson highlighted was a “potentially explosive force, posing both a reproach and a constant threat to the stability of our society.” The Times report further asserted that the people living under such conditions deserved government assistance, as they were “untrained rather than lazy, alienated rather than shiftless.”[12] Writing for the Baltimore Afro-American, civil rights activist Whitney Young Jr. observed that “the president’s meeting with battered southern white families dramatically illustrates that the poverty war cannot be ditched on the specious grounds that ‘only colored are poor.’”[13] Despite such hopes for a holistic approach to poverty alleviation, however, the resulting legislation explicitly privileged the needs of white Appalachians. As Johnson advisor Adam Yarmolinsky explained, “the war on poverty was in no sense a help-the-blacks program. . . . Color it Appalachian if you are going to color it anything at all.”[14] Although Johnson’s emphasis on Appalachian hardship demonstrated that the problem of poverty extended across racial lines, his attempted solution continued to treat poverty as racially distinct.

In the early 1960s, Appalachian poverty was used as an appeal and a warning, a manifestation of unjustifiable hardship and national misdirection. Because Appalachian poverty was coded as white, it had the power to appeal to the American conscience in ways that black poverty did not. Decades later, the 2016 election cycle also saw images of unemployed Appalachian coal miners used to reference the eroding strength of a white American working class. As Rob Byers, the son of a coal miner and the executive editor of the Charleston, West Virginia Gazette-Mail recently explained, Trump used images of struggling coal miners to gain political support, only to propose a budget that would gut the programs aiding the state.

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Donald J. Trump wears a coal miner’s hard hat as he speaks at a campaign rally in West Virginia. Courtesy of Daily Mail.

In a 2016 Vanity Fair article, correspondent John Saward wrote that “in West Virginia, no matter where you are, you never feel far from nowhere.” Such representations continue to portray Appalachia as “the backwash of modern civilization,” a region that is cut off from the rest of the country.[15] In 2016, as in the 1960s, depictions of struggling white Appalachians appealed to a broader American electorate worried about the loss of white sovereignty. Yet by 2016, the political potency of Appalachian poverty had outgrown the appeal of Appalachian aid. Today, conservative politicians benefit from Appalachian voting blocs but fail to provide the legislative support that Appalachian communities need. At the same time, many liberal commentators express indifference at the thought of Appalachians paying for their conservativism through the implementation of harmful legislative policies. Yet Appalachia cannot simply be written off as a bastion of Trumpism and deserving of leftist disdain, a discrete province whose problems and prejudices are unrelated to the broader United States.

When commentators sensationalize Appalachian poverty, they flatten understandings of the region and its people. All too often, these portrayals amount to little more than poverty porn, overly simplistic stories that use the most extreme examples of Appalachian poverty to shock viewers and boost readership. Rather than continuing to allow outside voices to shape the story of Appalachia, perhaps it is time for us to listen to the voices of Appalachians themselves. In doing so, we might find that that the region is populated with people rather than stereotypes and that the struggles of Appalachians are, in many ways, deeply connected to the struggles of other Americans battling poverty. Although it is tempting to dismiss Appalachia as an economic and cultural anomaly, the region and its problems are an inherent part of the United States. If we want to identify viable solutions to Appalachian poverty, then we must also do the difficult work of questioning the race-and-class-based assumptions that continue to feed our understandings of poverty in the nation as a whole.

Lauren HeadshotLauren Angel is a PhD candidate in twentieth-century American history at George Washington University. Her dissertation analyzes the representations of race, gender, and national identity in Cold War dance tours. Lauren also holds an MA in history from Marshall University and a BFA in ballet performance from the University of Oklahoma. She can be contacted here.

Notes

[1] In his seminal work on the concept of Appalachia, Henry Shapiro traces depictions of the region as being isolated and detached to the work of post-Civil War travel writers. Henry D. Shapiro, Appalachia on Our Mind: The Southern Mountains and Mountaineers in the American Consciousness, 1870-1920 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1978). Regarding the ideological uses of Appalachian stereotypes, see also Allen W. Batteau, The Invention of Appalachia (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1990). For a discussion of the politicization of Appalachian whiteness, see Tammy L. Werner “The War on Poverty and the Racialization of ‘Hillbilly’ Poverty: Implications for Poverty Research,” Journal of Poverty 19, no. 3 (July 2015): 305–23.

[2] For a thorough discussion of midcentury Appalachian development and national perceptions of Appalachia the region, see Ronald D. Eller, Uneven Ground: Appalachia since 1945 (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2008).

[3] Joseph Alsop, “The People Speak,” Washington Post, April 18, 1960.

[4] “Regional Approach,” Baltimore Sun, May 6, 1960.

[5] Julius Duscha, “A Long Trail of Misery Winds the Proud Hills,” Washington Post, August 7, 1960.

[6] Regarding ongoing perceptions of Appalachia as an internal colony, see Silas House, “The Road Back: Appalachia as Internal Colony,” Journal of Appalachian Studies 22, no. 1 (Spring 2016): 65–68.

[7] Harrison E. Salisbury, “West Virginia: Battleground for Democrats,” New York Times, May 2, 1960.

[8] Duscha, “A Long Trail of Misery Winds the Proud Hills.”

[9] Harry W. Ernst and Charles H. Drake, “The Lost Appalachians: Poor, Proud and Primitive,” Nation, May 30, 1959, 692.

[10] J. Anthony Lukas, “Them’s City Folks in There,” Baltimore Sun, June 6, 1960.

[11] Albert N. Votaw, “The Hillbillies Invade Chicago,” Harper’s Magazine, February 1958, 64.

[12] “War on Poverty,” New York Times, January 24, 1964.

[13] Whitney M. Young Jr., “To Be Equal,” Baltimore Afro-American, June 13, 1964.

[14] “Poverty and Urban Policy: Conference Transcript of 1973 Group Discussion of the Kennedy Administration Urban Poverty Programs and Policies,” 162-163, John F. Kennedy Library, Boston, as quoted in James T. Patterson, “Doors to Opportunity,” in America’s Struggle Against Poverty in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2000), 129-130. See also Eller, “The Politics of Poverty,” in Uneven Ground.

[15] Duscha, “A Long Trail of Misery Winds the Proud Hills.”

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1 comment on “White Appalachian Poverty in the National Mind

  1. Pingback: Understanding the Scourge of Severe Poverty – The Activist History Review

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