Front Porch Blog

New Appalachian Spring: Region’s History Finally Blooms

[ This will be the first in what we hope is a series of posts by nationally renowned Appalachian author Jeff Biggers. His latest book is “The United States of Appalachia: How Southern Mountaineers Brought Independence, Culture and Enlightenment to America.” Buy The United States of Appalachia from a local book store. And read reviews here, here, and here.]

After a long winter of bad news, it’s finally spring in Appalachia., by Jeff Biggers
There was the Sago mining tragedy in West Virginia, and the JT Leroy “hillbilly naif” hoax by a San Francisco writer. Saturday Night Live aired redneck satire with “Appalachian ER.” Then came New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s recent put-down: upstate rural counties had become like Appalachia, he said, “not the New York we dream of.” To many, Appalachia remains the poster child of America’s failure.

In truth, far from being a backwater of darkness, a diverse array of Appalachians has been in the vanguard of our country’s most pivotal historical events.

Consider these facts: Years before Thomas Jefferson completed the Declaration of Independence, a defiant backwoods settlement in Appalachia had already stunned the British Crown with their independence as a “dangerous example for the people of America.” Appalachian insurgents orchestrated attacks on British-led troops at the Battle of Kings Mountain and turned the tide of the American Revolution in the South when George Washington was on the brink of defeat. Mountain preachers and writers published the first abolitionist newspaper in the nation in 1820 and trained the famed Yankee abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Sequoyah, a Cherokee mountaineer, invented the first syllabary in modern times. A young woman in western Virginia, Rebecca Harding, astounded the Boston literary circles in 1861 with the first short story of working-class realism in The Atlantic Monthly, launching literary naturalism in the United States. In 1896, a young Chattanooga newspaperman rescued the New York Times, a paper considered “moribund.” Adolph Ochs had already transformed journalism in the Mountain South with “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”

[Read more Jeff Biggers…]

Eighty years ago in February, a former Appalachian coal miner launched Negro History Week, which has become Black History Month. Carter Woodson, the legendary historian, celebrated the critical role of his Appalachian background; he did a “six-year apprenticeship” in the mines in West Virginia. Shattering the stereotype of hair-brained, redneck and racist hillbillies, Woodson was not alone. Pioneering black nationalist Martin Delany, who grew up in West Virginia, launched Frederick Douglass’ first newspaper, The North Star. Booker T. Washington, the most prominent African-American spokesman around the turn of the 19th century, developed his “intense longing for education” while working in the coal and salt mines in Appalachia. Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, the most important African-American cultural critic today, grew up in West Virginia, as did the last literary figure of the Harlem Renaissance, novelist William Demby.

Beyond the inbred banjo cliché made famous by the “Deliverance” film, Nina Simone, the “high priestess of soul,” put a spell on audiences for decades with her blend of folk, jazz, gospel, country and Bach-motif riffs she had learned in her Appalachian hamlet in North Carolina. Her anthem, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” followed in the tradition of Appalachian blues icons Bessie Smith and W.C. Handy. The Carter family, America’s first family of country music that influenced generations of music innovators, relied heavily on black guitarist Lesley Riddle to collect ballads in the mountains.

It took Tennessee mountaineers like Myles Horton and the Highlander Folk School to link labor with the civil-rights movements. Four months before she launched the Montgomery bus boycott, Rosa Parks attended an anti-segregation training session at the Highlander Folk School; from the first sit-in students to the shock troops of the civil-rights movements, Highlander galvanized the movement and passed on “We Shall Overcome” as early as the 1940s.

When auto worker leader Walter Reuther, the most dangerous man in Detroit, spoke at the March on Washington in 1963, few knew he had come out of an old West Virginia labor union family.

Pearl Buck, the first American woman ever awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, shared Appalachian roots with Willa Cather, Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Wolfe, James Agee, James Still and Nikki Giovanni, one of the most important voices of the Black Arts Movement. Appalachian author Edward Abbey inspired a generation of environmentalists. In this tradition, novelist extraordinaire Ron Rash, from the western North Carolina mountains, released his new novel this spring, “World Made Straight,” to national acclaim.

In 1839, legendary author Washington Irving suggested that the United States needed to change its name; our country needed a national landmark. He declared our nation should become the United States of Appalachia.

The next time Saturday Night Live or Eliot Spitzer or anyone turns to pity or disparage Appalachia, they need to come up to the mountain to embrace Irving’s recognition of our great American mountain heritage.





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