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COLUMN ONE : Bias Blights Life Outside Appalachia : Decades after they left the mountains for Cincinnati, families endure prejudice and social ills. The city bans discrimination against them, but stereotypes are hard to break.

March 29, 1994|JUDY PASTERNAK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CINCINNATI — For nearly 30 years after World War II, the mountain children of eastern Kentucky were said to learn three lessons early in life: reading, writing and Route 25, the old road to the factory jobs in this Ohio River city.

Newcomers here no more, the urban Appalachians are set apart, even in the second and third generations. "Turns out that old highway could lead to a world of misery," country-music star Dwight Yoakam sings in a plaintive lyric dedicated to his Appalachian-born family.

In neighborhoods of shabby row houses and cramped bungalows, where preachers sermonize in storefronts and laundry dries on lines, tens of thousands of coal miners' descendants make up a lasting white underclass plagued by high unemployment, horrendous dropout rates, and drug and alcohol addiction. About 44% of the area's residents of mountain stock are either poor or at serious risk of falling into poverty, sociologists have found; virtually all of them live within city limits.

A major reason for the troubles, community activists believe, is lingering prejudice and ignorance of mountain culture. "Did you ever see the Beverly Hillbillies?" asked Pauletta Hansel, an assistant director of the Urban Appalachian Council here. "Snuffy Smith. The Dukes of Hazzard. That's the stereotype."

The caricatures can make the basics--schooling, housing, jobs--hard to come by or to keep. A twang in the voice, a quirky expression like "I reckon," a taste for banjo music, all passed on to children and grandchildren raised here, can lead to many other assumptions: This person is not smart, this person won't show up on time, this person's temper is likely to be quick. "Hillbilly" jokes and quips are not uncommon.

Sixteen months ago, Cincinnati responded by adopting the nation's only human rights ordinance banning discrimination against Appalachians.

With an estimated 20% to 30% of the city's residents of Appalachian stock, the mountain folk are the second-largest distinct group in town, behind the 40% of the population that is black. The city schools have designated May as "Appalachian Month," and a political action committee, AppalPAC, supports sympathetic candidates, albeit with a mixed record of success. An advocacy group, the Urban Appalachian Council, provides social services and works to instill pride.

But problems persist. "The fair housing department has not been oriented to helping Appalachians," said City Councilwoman Bobbie Sterne. "We had to fight for youth jobs. They said Appalachians weren't applying." She sighed. "I don't know."

Appalachian activists say similar troubles have surfaced in Columbus, Dayton and Akron, Ohio, in Indianapolis, and in other cities that lured more than 3 million people from Appalachia over three decades. Many of them were forced to leave home as automation in the coal mines took away their work. During a second mountain emigration in the 1980s, 45,000 people headed mostly to boom towns in the Carolinas and Georgia.

"If the numbers continue, those areas (in the Southeast) are going to face many of the same problems down the road that the Midwest cities face today," said Ronald D. Eller, director of the University of Kentucky's Appalachian Center. His own memories as a child of Appalachian parents in Akron--the "capital of West Virginia" was its nickname at the time--are more than tinged with bitterness.

The diaspora has resulted in mountain people becoming "an invisible minority," in their new homes, said Phillip J. Obermiller, a sociologist who has written extensively about them. On paper, they couldn't be more mainstream: white, English-speaking, Protestant.

Though some blacks also live in the Appalachians, the majority of the residents trace their lineage to settlers from England, Ireland and Scotland who rejected the coastal cities of America in favor of frontier freedoms, beginning in the late 1700s. If a man heard a rifle shot, the adage went, he packed up and left to escape overcrowding.

Over the years, as farming and hunting gave way to coal mining, the isolated gaps and hollows nurtured a distinctive way of life, based on helping kin and neighbors while staying independent and wary of outsiders. The emphasis on clan traditions meant that the taking of sides during the Civil War could lead to feuds lasting well into this century. It also resulted in the custom of decorating family graveyards once a year while telling old tales, a practice that is still observed.

The culture has demonstrated remarkable staying power in the cities, in part because so many Appalachians moved together and in part because their old homes were so close by. The first generation of urban Appalachians could drive or take a bus back each weekend, carrying the children along. Now, that second generation brings the grandchildren back on special occasions.

At the same time, however, "it's hard to get ahead if you don't feel part of something," said Larry Redden, an organizer with the Urban Appalachian Council.

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