FEATURE

A Mountain Legacy

Children of Appalachia gain pride in their heritage and history

Under the huge crafts tent at the annual Appalachian Festival on the banks of the Ohio River, students from all over Cincinnati mob the long work tables, loudly doing art. There are hundreds of them, brought in on buses for the festival's first morning, traditionally devoted to schoolchildren.

Down the sawdust paths, one group of children sits on bales of hay as a storyteller recounts a gruesome "Jack" tale; others watch as a furniture maker shapes table legs by hand; still others stand back from the flames as a blacksmith bends hot iron rods.

One tent contains school projects created during May, Appalachian Month in Ohio. Among them is a book of stories by 4th graders from Bond Hill Elementary School that includes Chanel Jackson's essay "Appalachia":

"The appalachia is a very bumpy land. They smell like roses and candy. They have a lot of snow on them. The people there have a lot of Traditions. They eat cornbread with butternut milk. If you don't know what they're all about, don't call them hillbillies."

Chanel's point is well-taken. For most of the last half-century, Appalachians have been a large but neglected minority in Cincinnati and other urban centers. After years of isolation, about a million people left their Appalachian mountain homes between 1940 and 1970 to seek work in the cities following the decline of the coal industry. By 1980, 75 percent of Appalachians were living in urban areas like Chattanooga, Cincinnati, Baltimore and Pittsburgh.

While historically the population of the mountain region has comprised various ethnic groups -- including Native Americans and African Americans -- today, the word "Appalachian" usually refers to a distinct cultural minority. Philip Obermiller and Michael Maloney in From Mountains to Metropolis describe Appalachians as "predominantly white, mostly Baptist or Pentecostal, and heavily blue-collar. They are mostly of Scots-Irish or Anglo-Saxon heritage, speak with a distinct accent, and enjoy country and western, bluegrass and old-time gospel music." Appalachians emphasize the importance of family and heritage, and many retain their connection to the mountains by making frequent visits back.

Like other minorities in the cities, Appalachians have faced stereotypes, discrimination and poverty. In Cincinnati, where they make up a quarter of the population, Appalachian residents are concentrated in several low-income neighborhoods. They survive on minimum wage jobs or unemployment benefits, and they have the highest school drop-out rate of any group in the city. Only three out of 10 finish high school, compared to five out of 10 African Americans and seven out of 10 non-Appalachian whites. (Black Appalachians have assimilated into the urban black community rather than the Appalachian white community.)

There is a growing effort to improve life for Appala- chian youth in the cities and in the mountains. In 1993, Cincinnati became the first city in the nation to include people of Appalachian descent in its anti-discrimination ordinance. The Appalachian Festival each May draws thousands to a celebration of mountain culture and crafts. An Appalachian Awards program honors academic achievement by urban Appalachian students.

And educators across Appalachia have found ways to connect Appalachian children with their heritage while combating the trends of school drop-out and poverty. Some of their efforts are profiled on these pages.

 

Gifts of Language

"We're not ignorant, we're just antique," Karen Morgan tells her Appalachian Studies class at Lincoln High School in Shinnston, W.Va. Altering young people's perceptions of themselves and their heritage is an important part of her work with the white Appalachian students of rural West Virginia.

"We have too many students with no sense of heritage and place. So many feel they have no opportunity. They feel trapped in a future of coal mining or welfare."

Morgan grew up in a mountain family of natural-born storytellers. She discovered that through literature and language, "I could vicariously pass that blessing of their background on to [my students] by showing them they have a heritage to be proud of."

She encourages her students to investigate the links between their own family lives and historical Appala- chia. They study the literature, folklore, crafts and customs of the region. They interview elders. They make home remedies and recipes. And, in the process, they break through the barriers of low self-esteem and cultural isolation.

Through storytelling, Morgan brings to life the colorful Appalachian dialect and begins to dispel the myth of ignorance that many of her students have grown up with. "The student who comes out of one of the hollers is often ungrammatical and repeats phrases that make him sound less educated. Yet when he gets in Appalachian class, he hears dialect that sounds just like he talks. He instantly recognizes that he can be accepted."

By reading passages of Shakespeare aloud in a thick mountain accent -- "What light through yonder window breaks?" -- and discussing the origins of common mountain words, Morgan shows her students "that their language is not born of ignorance but rather an old Elizabethan dialect that was preserved by the isolation of the mountains."

What sounds wrong today was often proper usage for the 17th-century British who first settled the Appalachians, she explains. Take a sentence like "I don't know nothing about that no way." As Wylene P. Dial, an authority on Appalachian dialect, writes: "All those multiple negatives were perfectly proper until some English mathematician in the eighteenth century decided that two negatives make a positive instead of simply intensifying the negative quality of some statement."

Morgan bombards the class with phrases and sayings and words that make up their dialect and shows how each one has a rich historical meaning that has remained unharmed by modern technology.

"If you found an old relic," she tells them, "you would cherish it. It's the same thing with the language. We need to cherish it and pass it on."

Discovering the history behind their own dialect helps students accept other ways of speaking. After discussing the harm of stereotyping others by the way they speak, her students "don't snicker at the next Chicano accent they hear or laugh at black English."

In the same way, the storytelling tradition of Appalachia has provided students with a sense of pride and opened them to the possibility of enjoying other literature.

"Some students have reading problems, but when we get into storytelling, they can tell marvelous tales and have wonderful comprehension. They learn to identify with the stories of their heritage, so when I take that same student to a story about Juan or José, they are more readily accepting because they have seen themselves as a cultural entity."

For an Appalachian Studies high school course syllabus and bibliography, send a SASE to: Karen Morgan; Lincoln High School; Rt. 1, Box 300; Shinnston, WV 26431.

 

Keeping Students Connected

Keith Blanton was the kind of student Wes Adamson had seen hundreds of times before. A quiet boy, he listened with his eyes downcast and mumbled his answers. His grades were good, but he showed little interest in school.

"I'd ask him something and he'd say, 'Uh-huh,'" says Adamson, "and I'd say, 'Keith, say "Yes." Look at me.' He didn't want to look at me."

An 8th grader whose parents moved to Cincinnati from the Kentucky mountains before he was born, Keith is one of many second- and third-generation urban Appalachian students that teachers at Paideia Middle School are struggling to reach. The dropout rate for Appalachians in the city is more than 70 percent, compared to an overall rate of 40 percent for Cincinnati public school students. For many Appalachians, 8th grade is the end of their school career.

Keith was at a critical point, Adamson says. "He was a good student, but he needed to be pushed. His parents were satisfied with what he was doing. But in some ways he was an underachiever. I knew he could do much better."

Adamson looked for ways to engage Keith in his own education. "The philosophy with Paideia [a national educational movement that balances didactic and interactive teaching methods] is that all students can learn, that everyone has their own learning technique, and that it's up to the teachers to make sure they are learning. We use seminars, we have students read literature above their grade level, we emphasize critical thinking.

"If you can hook Appalachian students, tie them into their own learning by using the methods that really interest them, then you're going to be successful."

With Keith, the hook was computers. "I asked him to come help me in the computer lab," Adamson remembers, "and now I can't get rid of him. He talks all the time about everything. And he's trying to convince his mom and dad to buy him a computer."

Involving parents is critical to keeping Appalachian kids in school, Adamson feels. He visits students' homes and invites parents in for open house in the computer lab. "I find I have to spend more time getting to know the parents of my students, because they want to get to know the person, not so much the son's teacher. And there are a lot of old stereotypes about Appalachians that they still have to deal with."

Those stereotypes have sometimes led teachers to expect less of Appalachian students, Adamson says. At Paideia, though, "We're trying to build an environment of education where we're not lowering our standards: We're adapting to our students."

Adamson has won a grant to begin The Appalachian Publishers Project, which will involve his students in a high-tech oral history project focusing on Appalachian history, arts and culture.

Keith will be in high school by the time the new project begins, but he's clear about his agenda for next year: "There's a computer studies program I'm interested in and an auto and aircraft technology program I'm interested in. Probably I'll have some career in the technology line."

His family now supports his interest in computers and has helped balance his love for technology with an appreciation for his rural roots. "We just took a trip down to my dad's home in Kentucky," Keith says. "It was isolated, quiet. Lots of trees. It was actually nice. I wouldn't mind moving there, to get away from the city. It could have been home."

 

Common Bonds

Revella Logan Love grew up in the mountains, daughter of "the fastest tobacco cutter in the state of Kentucky." Her experience as an African American and Appalachian has given her a unique perspective on both cultures.

"I have always felt that both groups have essentially been discriminated against and been treated differently and, because of that, have a common bond that connects them to each other."

A significant minority of Appalachians are black, Love says. "A lot of our history was people hiding in the mountains, not wanting to be taken into slavery. They embraced the spirit of the people, they stayed there, they married, had kids, and now you have descendants of those people scattered all over the 13 states and 300 counties of Appalachia."

But in Cincinnati and other urban areas where Appalachians have settled, whites and blacks live separately, and their Appalachian connection is sometimes hidden. Racial tensions have emerged over school busing, because many white Appalachians don't want their children sent out of their close-knit neighborhoods to integrated schools.

When Love began conducting interviews in Cincinnati for her doctoral research in social psychology, she discovered in the Appalachian heritage of both blacks and whites common values that transcend race.

"I'd go into a European American Appalachian home and see a basket of pine cones, an afghan thrown over the sofa, and a little starched doily on the table. I'd leave that house, go to the home of an African American Appalachian family, and see the same things. Even though the African American woman had a picture of Malcolm X on her wall, she still included her Appalachian culture. It was wonderful."

Underlying the visible connections between Appalachians of both races was a shared emphasis on family, religion and interpersonal relationships.

"Each person gave me something before I left their house. One lady gave me three bags of potatoes. A man gave me some candied yams. And all of them, white and black, said, 'Come back and see me.'"

Love hopes to translate her research into programs that address the needs of Appalachians of both races. The multicultural aspects of her own Appalachian heritage have helped broaden her understanding of other people, she says. "The Appalachian culture is a mixture of African American, Native American, Irish -- and that's all of my people. I have all of that in my blood. And having found that out, I think it is easy to accept and embrace the richness of all cultures."