When Mountaineers Were America’s Migration Crisis

“Housing and Back Porches in the Inner City of Uptown Chicago, Illinois, A Neighborhood of Poor White Southerners” by Danny Lyon. Many Appalachian migrants to Chicago started out in the Uptown neighborhood. Via Wikimedia Commons.

As the debate over Central American migration to the U.S. has intensified in recent years, immigration has become an unpopular topic in Appalachia. According to a 2018 Metro News Dominion Post poll, 61 percent of West Virginians agreed with the statement that “immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing, and healthcare,” compared to only 28 percent nationwide.

And as this video of a woman berating restaurant workers for speaking Spanish in West Virginia can attest, anti-immigration sentiment in the region can be quite visceral, based on fear of a changing cultural landscape.

From a historical perspective, however, this hostility is a bit ironic. For it was less than than 50 years ago that America was debating how another group of immigrants were destroying the nation—the approximately 7 million migrants of Appalachia moving from the countryside to the nation’s cities.

Historians generally date the beginning of a distinctive “Appalachian” migration to the turn of the 20th century. Cut off from cheap European migrant labor after World War I, industrial recruiters scoured Appalachia for workers who were rumored to possess a strong work ethic and, more importantly, a distinctive resistance to unionization. Mountain folk responded to promises of work, migrating to Midwestern industrial cities like Cleveland, Akron, and Dayton. The Great Depression intensified this migrant flow to the north and the hostility they faced in new cities. Migrants during this period were portrayed as freeloaders looking to steal local jobs or take advantage of northern states’ poor aid, with the Muncie Star deriding “the large number of Kentuckians moving across the border to collect Indiana’s higher welfare benefits.”

However, Appalachian outmigration only reached its peak after World War II as part of the larger Great Migration of black and white Southerners to other parts of America. Between 1940 and 1970, some 7 million mountaineers flooded into cities such as Cleveland, Detroit, Cincinnati, and Chicago, often clustering together in “hillbilly ghettoes” or “hillbilly heavens.”

Michael Maloney, a leading activist for Appalachian immigrants in Cincinnati whose family moved to the city from eastern Kentucky, remembers the early days of migration as tumultuous.

“People were arriving daily on greyhound buses. There was overcrowding. People in the inner cities didn’t have a chance to develop networks,” Maloney said. Arriving in such large numbers, “hillbillies” were often stereotyped as uneducated, violent hooligans who “degraded” existing communities. In one 1950s Detroit poll, 21 percent of respondents said that “poor southern whites; hillbillies” were undesirable in Detroit, ahead of drifters (18 percent), African Americans (13 percent), and foreigners (6 percent).

At first, local leaders viewed “southern Appalachian migrants” as they would any other white urban ethnic groups like the Germans, Italians, and Irish. Yes, mountaineers’ customs were a nuisance, the idea went, but they would assimilate into the American melting pot just like the groups before them.

However, that line of thinking soon changed. Some migrants failed to become middle class like the rest of mainstream America, and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty had “rediscovered” Appalachia’s low standard of living. As such, several studies were done to aid the “adjustment of southern mountaineers to urban life” in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Like most new arrivals, the majority of Appalachians went through growing pains learning to live in the cities, and there were places, like Cincinnati, where Appalachians faced trouble in obtaining services and resources from the local community. However, it’s important not to overgeneralize these difficulties to all Appalachians.

“For the most part, [white Appalachians] who moved north found the opportunity they were looking for, although they paid a price in feeling torn between two places,” said Chad Berry, a historian and former director of the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center at Berea College.

Nor were migrants passive subjects in discussions about their adjustment to urban life. Most notably in Cincinnati, where Maloney started working with migrants in the 1960s, Appalachians organized to advocate for their community and their heritage. “We wanted to say to the city and its institutions that ‘We are here. Our people need help. We need services,’” Maloney said.

Through lobbying the Cincinnati city government and other foundations, Maloney and others founded the Urban Appalachian Council in 1974. Starting out primarily as an advocacy organization and service provider, the UAC and its successor, the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition, have become a multifaceted organization that supports Appalachian research and cultural preservation.

Similarly, in Cleveland, a group of black Appalachian migrants from eastern Kentucky organized the Eastern Kentucky Social Club as a way to maintain a connection to their hometowns. The club’s annual reunion has attracted members from at least 16 states and it remains active to this day.

In addition to communal efforts, personal accounts show how individuals navigated their new homes and ways of living, especially on controversial topics like gender and race relations. For many women who had been tasked with raising children and doing housework in Appalachia, the chance to earn their own paycheck in the city was attractive. However, for many others, city life meant handling traditional responsibilities while adding new ones. “You had twice the work to do. You had to do your job [in the factory] and you had to come home and do the housework,” said one West Virginian woman based in Chicago.

Relaxed race relations were also a source of change for migrants who had grown up in the Jim Crow South. For many white migrants, African Americans’ relatively free position in the North increased racial animosity and a desire to reaffirm the traditional Southern racial order. However, for others, especially women, more liberal race relations produced a new outlook. In the words of one white woman migrant:

Chicago was the first place I saw blacks and whites together. Black men and white women or whatever…Back home they couldn’t do that. Before I got to Chicago I just thought that was the way it was, you know. I didn’t know what prejudice was.

By 1980, the massive outmigration Appalachia witnessed in the 1950s and 1960s subsided, although Appalachians have continued to leave the region and contemplate their relationship with home. Most obviously, expatalachians was founded to include migrant perspectives in discussions about Appalachia. However, we’re not the only ones thinking about the mountains. Some 15,000 people identified themselves as ethnically “Appalachian” on the 2000 census, according to an article by Chad Berry and co-author Trent Alexander. Of those who so identified, 80 percent lived outside of the region.

Although the article doesn’t offer a definitive explanation for why people claim an Appalachian ethnicity, the phenomenon suggests that, in some way, the very idea of being Appalachian is tied to the migrant story. As America debates the arrival of more newcomers, we would do well to remember that.

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Nicholas Brumfield is a native of Parkersburg, WV currently working in Arlington, VA. He is also a 2007 recipient of the West Virginia Golden Horseshoe for exceptional knowledge of West Virginia history. For more hot takes on Appalachia and Ohio politics, follow him on Twitter: @NickJBrumfield.